“Please. You need to do something. This is my life. This is my job.” Frantic and desperate, Alice begs policemen to track down whomever has stolen her camgirl account and online persona as “Lola”. After slyly expressing “it’s a shame” Alice does not engage in sexual activity with her clients in real-life, the officers tell her “if you don’t want to see stuff like this, then stay off the internet.”
This is just one relatable example of accusatory sex-shaming women, especially sex workers, face on a daily basis. Director Daniel Goldhaber and writer Isa Mazzei further explore the notion of agency and freedom of sexual expression through their sex-positive horror film, Cam. While many genre films utilize sex workers to drive the plot forward by killing them off in the first act, Cam enables audiences to empathize with Alice as she fights to take back her stigmatized, although chosen and loved, profession.
Goldhaber and Mazzei embed societal themes and allegory into a sharp and stylish thrill-ride. Their approach to the sex industry as a favored line of work alongside Alice’s resiliency is a monumental achievement in the cinematic realm of sex-positivity on screen. In contrast to the beloved Vivian in Pretty Woman, Alice does not rely on a man to save her, nor does she feel trapped in her work. Instead, her decisions are yielded by choice, skill, and passion. Despite Alice’s apprehension about her mother discovering her career choice, her mother eventually supports her and even compliments Alice for her elaborate shows and careful engagement. In the past few years, there has been an emergence of films exploring the sex-positive spectrum while providing inclusivity to the LGBTQ community and women of all ages and professions. While Cam is the newest addition to the paradigm, there is still a need for more sex-positive films in order to provide representation, normalization, acceptance, and education revolving around sexuality.
The sex-positive movement promotes and embraces sexuality and sexual expression with an emphasis on safe and consensual sex while also advocating for sexual health education. Despite advances in LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and conversations around gender and sexual identity, we still have a long way to go as a society in regards to acceptance, support, and accurate portrayal of the entire spectrum of sexuality. Many of us grew up with restricted and confined conversations that bred a lack of understanding about sex and sexual identity, causing pop culture and movies to become educators. Through film, societal constructs, expectations, and stigmas are reflective of the times. With that said, it is important to have inclusion and sex-positive narratives with characters in film because if we as a society are still struggling to discuss sex with all its risks, pleasures, and identities in a safe and respectful capacity, then it is up to art to become our refuge yet again. The evolution of sexual inclusion and conversations regarding intimacy can be clearly seen spanning all genres from rom-com to drama to horror, which causes audiences to look back on some films with problematic plots– as it is evident a market exists for more constructive portrayals of sex on screen.
Spanning the 1980s to early 2000s, the kinds of films that depict sex to young audiences set the stage for how teens should act among their peers. Social groups are segmented with the nerds, the jocks, the popular girls, the burnouts, and the drama kids. Each group is stereotyped into its own separate reality, and when they interact, there are usually selfish, manipulative, and deceptive actions involved. In The Breakfast Club, a group of kids from each clique spend a Saturday together in detention, treat each other poorly, but then end up bonding or even hooking up at the end of their trying day. Claire Standish, a pretty, rich, and popular girl who seemingly has it all, ends up romantically involved with the damaged and, frankly, emotionally abusive John Bender who basically insults her throughout the entire movie. And yet, she likes him. This scenario feeds into the whole “if a boy picks on you, he must have a crush on you” rhetoric– a subtext of the ‘boys will be boys’ cliche, which is just a lazy excuse for toxic masculinity and entitled behavior. If you can treat a girl that poorly and still get her at the end, then why initially treat her (or anyone) with respect at all?
Another example of questionable romantic dynamics can be seen in the string of films released in the late 90s and early 2000s that were adapted from novels and plays dating all the way back to the 16th century. Cue Whatever It Takes, 10 Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions, and She’s All That, all of which revolve around a wager in order to get laid through various forms of gaslighting. The plots maintain their antiquated themes instead of applying an opportunistic and progressive adaptation where love interests are not merely viewed as an acquisition. When sex is deemed as a conquest where one has to resort to deception and manipulation to be a part of, it is no wonder our society contains so much scrutiny on the subject from men feeling entitled to women being skeptical of their intentions.
And yet, these films are able to portray a conniving, arrogant character in a positive and empathetic light, while their targets of interest are women who usually end up changing their physical appearance and values while eventually forgiving their perfidious treatment all along. So, what does that say to young audiences? For guys, it is ok to manipulate and beguile young women because there is a strong chance they will be forgiving in the long-run. For girls, it’s ok that a guy treats you poorly because he will eventually grow out of it. In reality, none of these narratives convey a healthy outlook on relationships, sex, consent, and respect for one’s love interest. Instead, it sets up a sense of privilege or entitlement and sex as a game, while disregarding pivotal components such as communication, trust, and respect both for one’s self and partner.
While many teen films center around prom or a huge house party, getting laid is the primary objective. Usually characters think in order to score, alcohol has to be involved. Films like Sixteen Candles, where swoon-worthy Jake hands his inebriated girlfriend off to a nerd and tells him to “have fun” while she is completely unconscious is a retrospective portrayal of the subtleties within rape culture. And yet, this is the protagonist we want our main character to wind up with in the end. The narrative completely disregards any notion of communication, consent, and respect, which are crucial any time sex is involved. The word “no” requires respect instead of a perceived challenge to contort into an eventual “yes” from a partner. And if your partner is so wasted they can’t even say the word “no”, then silence and impaired judgement should become the cues to immediately disengage.
A fantastic example of consent and communication is featured in the 2018 film, Blockers. On prom night, one of the characters backs out of a sex pact with her girlfriends because she isn’t ready, and instead of her date getting angry and trying to persuade her, he listens the first time and suggests an alternative activity instead (light journaling, as a matter of fact). However, she compromises and engages in other sexual activities she does feel comfortable performing with her partner. Although the couple is still intoxicated, it is refreshing to see a respectful dialogue exchange displayed between two teens in a mutually beneficial manner instead of an all-or-nothing situation. The girl can turn down the guy and still not risk losing him as a romantic interest, and the guy listens to her immediately while offering patience and compromise. It’s a win-win. If more films showcase sexual encounters in a similar fashion, there is a strong possibility for viewers in real-life to follow suit.
In addition to healthy boundaries around consent and utilizing sex outside of the constraints of acquisition, sexual exploration is also beneficial to normalize. Sex itself can be considered egregious to some, but it doesn’t have to be– especially between consenting adults. Aspects of kink have been explored more openly on screen over the past decade which aim to normalize the more experimental side of sex. In Secretary, a young woman replaces her self-harm habit of cutting with a balance of pain and pleasure in BDSM play with her boss. Lee Holloway narrates, “in one way or another, I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why, exactly. But I do know that I’m not scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt, and I’ve found someone to feel with, play with, to love, in a way that feels right for me.”
This dynamic is what works for her and her partner, and if they aren’t hurting anyone in the process, what’s the harm in their personal choice? While the acts are consensual, the notion of a dominant and submissive may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as Lee’s therapist says in the film, “who’s to say love needs to be gentle and kind?”. The fundamental principles of BDSM are cemented in acts being safe, sane, and consensual. Within these parameters, there are hard and soft limits for each partner to disclose their fetishes openly around what makes them feel comfortable and supported.
Another taboo sexual dynamic that is beneficial to explore more on screen is open relationships. For many, marriage is a monogamous bond, but open marriages do exist by bringing in a third party or perhaps possess a polyamorous dynamic. Yes, several of society’s traditional norms are firmly rooted in religion and monogamy is still the norm. Therefore, any deviation can be considered illicit. However, exposure to these alternative lifestyles can help alleviate the negative connotation. In The Unicorn, a couple seeks out a third partner, or “unicorn”, to spice up their relationship. The film explores sex across generations as this trial arises due to their parents’ personal life; and throughout the film, gender role-reversals are carefully crafted while the couple openly discuss their fantasies with a sense of open-minded communication. There is no shaming of their homosexual fantasies or derogatory language between the two, despite apprehension to fulfill the other’s desires. Their dynamic is another prime example on camera of how couples can navigate experimentation with love, kindness, and respect while working through hesitations.
A similar kind of communication is demonstrated in Friends with Benefits, which follows two friends who decide to sleep together while extracting emotional involvement. They both disclose exactly what they find pleasurable in the bedroom, which is rare to see from women on screen and in real-life. To view a female character guide her partner with instruction on how to sexually satisfy her (with emphasis that female pleasure matters, too) is empowering to witness and sets the standard that it is not only ok to speak up in the bedroom, but beneficial to both partners to listen to one another. Furthermore, it challenges the societal stigma around female promiscuity and women who simply want to be sexual without emotional commitment. This balance is also exhibited in the film Slut in a Good Way which follows a group of teen girls who discuss the thin line and double-standards of having multiple partners.
Representation of the LGBTQ community has also grown on screen with films like Shortbus, Carol, and Tangerine. However, numbers tend to fluctuate with more representation in demand. The American biographical film Boys Don’t Cry and satire-soaked But I’m A Cheerleader remind audiences of the dark realities millions still face coming out as gay or transgender. While stories are being told in new lights, casting LGBTQ actors is also of utmost importance. Additionally, there’s room for growth behind the camera, as well in regards to more directors, writers, and producers who are LGBTQ in order to relay the stories needed to continue inclusivity within art,and can therefore potentially translate offscreen as to not vilify anyone whose sexual preference or identity does not align with the stereotypical norm. The spectrum of sexuality is vast and not necessarily binary as reiterated in the biographical film, Kinsey. This film portrays the life and work of sexologist Alfred Kinsey as he scientifically documents sexual behavior and identity in humans. Ultimately, the more films which explore the expansive nature of sexuality while emphasizing such personal details as preferred pronouns, the more widely accepted and normalized the queer community will become.
While there are several reasons to destigmatize sex, obvious risks exist pertaining to STDs and unplanned pregnancy. Several states across the U.S. teach abstinence-only health curricula with an unrealistic “just don’t do it” mentality as opposed to evidence-based curricula instead. Transparent conversations about sex rarely occur in the home or at school; therefore movies can be a great educational opportunity to model positive conversations and situations about risks. In Blockers, parents reluctantly navigate healthy boundaries to allow their kids to freely explore their sexual awakening while also being safe in their decision-making process. In Dallas Buyers Club, the fallout of the AIDS epidemic conveys the harsh realities of unsafe sex while Precious emphasizes the STD is not exclusive to gay men, and can also affect women, as well. Films like Juno and Saved! explore the religious stigma behind premarital sex along with the taboo of abortion and adoption. Although sex is a serious responsibility, especially among youth, it is still possible to apply humor and drama to amalgamate into a narrative that can invoke a comfortable relatability in audience’s concerns and challenges while incorporating historical and modern-day education.
The aphorism “art imitates life” is applicable to film, and when approached with sex, can both educate and entertain audiences. To be clear, I am not advocating for politically correct art or restrictions on art in general; more so, to diversify representation and creatively enhance realities in hopes to provide stronger inclusion and ways in which the topic can be explored in a uniquely constructive manner to reduce (and hopefully one day completely eliminate) sexual assault, ignorance, and hate. On a macro-level, America tends to obsess over sex and incorporate it into endless marketing campaigns, yet it is simultaneously demonized within a narrow-minded view of what lifestyles and identities are right and wrong. However, films have the ability to garner empathy, understanding, knowledge, and change off-screen. They allow us to escape reality while embracing it in a cathartic or vicarious manner. When Alice is begging for help in Cam, she essentially embodies marginalized groups as a whole. It is a human desire to be heard, accurately represented, and helped when out-of-control situations arise–our identity, livelihood, and self-preservation can all depend on it. Whenever that kind of relatability is witnessed on screen, there’s a sense of self-love and validation that may otherwise be absent in reality. But when experienced in film, that mindful inclusion can ultimately be a beautiful thing for all of us.
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