A Sort-of Review: (Some of the) Sex & Porn on Netflix

I’m totally fascinated by the advent of Netflix as a creative force in our entertainment world. Free from the strictures of network sensibilities, most broadcast regulations, and standardized ratings systems, and even free from the scheduling strictures that dictate HBO and its ilk, Netflix has unprecedented freedom to fund what they want, film what they wish, license what they feel like, and show the world what pleases them. Capable of making deals with media titans and independent filmmakers alike, Netflix can basically operate according to its own, very new, set of rules on an unprecedented scale and get whatever it feels like to a worldwide audience. It’s astounding.

And suddenly, in one place, I’ve realized that I can watch a wealth of documentaries, films, and television series that deal blatantly and often unflinchingly with issues of sexuality, sexual identity, gender expression, and even pornography. So I’ve been watching some of it. On Netflix. And it’s been real.

Also, I’ve been really busy doing freelance work that has left me zero time for my normal porn reviewing schedule. So instead of doing a review of one porn flick, I’m going to talk about three things I’ve recently watched on Netflix that deal with porn, sex, and/or sexuality.

mr-angel-netflixMr. Angel: This is a documentary about sex-positive transgender pioneer Buck Angel that was years in the making,. The film just finished its rounds of the film festivals this year, after much anticipation, and is now up for viewing on Netflix. The film digs deep into the troubled history, pioneering philosophy, multiple careers, and aspirations of “the man with a pussy,” who exploded onto the pornography scene in the early 2000s and has recently transitioned into motivational speaking, online dating wizarding, and trans activism. Bound up in Mr. Angel are the ideas of pornographers and theorists for whom Buck has been an inspiration and a fascination: talking heads like Dan Savage and Trista Taormino pop up alongside footage from inside adult industry conventions and Yale alike. At a time when trans people are starting to get airtime elsewhere not just as oddities but as humans, when Laverne Cox is shaking hands with entertainment royalty one day, the Obamas the next, and appearing on the cover of Time the next; when Caitlyn Jenner is a superstar; when trans rights are being talked about over dinner tables… Buck Angel’s status as a gender pioneer and a sex-positive icon needs to be front and center. So thank you, Netflix, for giving Mr. Angel the opportunity to widen the audience for this fabulous human.

Sense8: This is a brand spanking new Netflix Original Series from the illustrious filmmaking siblings The Wachowskis (who brought us The Matrix, of course, as well as V for VendettaCloud Atlas, and even Jupiter Ascending), and it’s got an agenda. The show’s merits and shortcomings have been much discussed since the show’s early June launch, and I’ll be one of the first to point out that it’s not doing everything perfectly just yet. But I will go all-out guns blazing in support of the show continuing for one very important reason: inclusive casting. The Wachowskis, who are very close to issues of human rights particularly as pertaining to sexual identity and gender, have written a show that spans multiple countries worldwide, numerous religions, various cultures, and a larger swatch of the Kinsey scale–as well as the gender spectrum–than I have literally ever seen in a major television series before. Including Sesame Street. Korean woman playing a Korean woman (who is a badass but not reduced to the tired “strong female character” tropes)? Check. Trans female actor playing a trans female character (who is involved in a healthy, supportive relationship and not reduced to her trans-ness)? Check. That’s a big one.

Holy shit is that a trans person in a healthy relationship being sexual without being fetishized on a major television series?!?

Holy shit is that a trans person in a healthy relationship being sexual without being fetishized on a major television series?!?

And it keeps going. Mexican actor playing a Mexican actor (who is involved in a beautiful relationship with an amazing partner)? Check. An African male playing an African male who is a good person but not without his conflicts (and not a warlord, and not ever shown carrying a machine gun). Check, check, check. Mixed up in all of their lives and subplots and action and (sort of ridiculous but adorable) music montages there is all kinds of queer sex that isn’t shown in graphic detail so much as really fucking hot glamour.

THIS IS ON TV (sorta).

THIS IS ON TV (sorta).

I won’t go into details because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who’d love it if the Skinemax experiences of their youth had been a little bit less hetero and a bit more gorgeous to look at, but… if you’re into softcore that makes you squeeze the couch cushions uncomfortably if you’re watching a platonic friend, check out Sense8.

Hot Girls Wanted: And yet, for all of the Netflix’s pioneering in the queer sex sector, there has to be some balance. After all, sequestering ourselves into sex-positive bubbles of hot queer people enjoying life doesn’t exactly prepare us for the real world, does it? Sadly, there are those out there who would be happy to continue treating sex as if it’s a social ill rather than a building block of human life. Who would rather point fingers and garner pearl-clutching gasps than look deeply into the abyss to see what color the abyss’s eyes are when its tares back. And so, as sex and gender warriros, we have to hear the other side. The sex-negative, porn-blaming, alarmist, hysterical side, to be specific. And Netflix isn’t shying away from it. The Netflix original documentary “Hot Girls Wanted,” follows a handful of “amateur” porn performers in Miami as they’re navigating their first few months in porn. It does not, predictably, go very well.

The promo image says it all: girl is sad because PORN.

The promo image says it all: girl is sad because PORN.

The documentary has been roundly criticized by industry insiders and journalists alike for failing to take into account the larger picture of the porn industry at large, much less the sex-negative climate in which it is forced to exist in this country, choosing instead to focus intently on one corner of that industry, which is reviled by many for its less-than-stellar practices. Sort of like finding that one restaurant in the shady part of town that doesn’t have its health grade posted anywhere and keeps a very smell, dingy bathroom, and then implying that the rest of the restaurant industry operates the same way. It’s just not representative, or fair.
I won’t get into it, though. You can read all kinds of discussions of the film here, here, here, and here. And they’ve done a better job than I will. My point is that, although I’m not a fan of “Hot Girls Wanted,” I’m gratified to see that Netflix is willing to hear all sides and give viewers a chance to watch sexual entertainment and draw their own conclusions. That it’s willing to talk about this stuff at all is a huge success for anyone who wants to talk about sex, baby.

The takeaway here, folks, is that there’s a brave new world emerging on Netflix. One in which breakout successes like Orange Is the New Black can showcase multiracial, multiethnic casts, lesbian sex (albeit mostly really boring lesbian sex this season, WTF), and trans characters, and then keep going with more documentaries and series that open up a place to showcase and discuss sexual issues in a real way. This is important, overdue, and actually freaking happening. So many things are wrong in this world, but many things are also starting to go right. Even in the case of Hot Girls Wanted, it’s encouraging to see that fewer and fewer people are willing to stand by and watch media blame pornography for everybody’s problems, and more and more people are willing to call it out when they see it. Things are moving, people. And possibly in a good direction.

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