‘Unrated: Sex in Cinema’ Panel Recap

Ok, guys, I’m going to go ahead and ignore the fact that the House of Representatives passed legislation denying all Federal funding to Planned Parenthood yesterday. I have to ignore it right now. Because if I start thinking about, one of two things will happen: 1) my head will explode and I’ll be done blogging forever, or 2) I will write five pages of vitriolic (totally justified) bile about how fucked up it is and never get to tell you about my amazing night Thursday night. So I’m going to go ahead and place my faith in the Senate (did your stomach just flip over and your brain start ringing warning bells? mine did) and hope this bullshit is stopped. And I’m going to tell you about my Thursday night.

On Thursday, March 17, I attended “Unrated: Sex in Cinema,” a discussion panel at the Museum of Sex here in New York, during which museum curator Sarah Forbes moderated a discussion between five heavy hitters in erotic cinema. Making up the panel were no less esteemed figures as Lisa Vandever, the brains behind and co-founder of the annual CineKink festival; Phillipe Diaz, director of numerous groundbreaking indie films out of LA, including Now & Later; Eliot Borenstein, professor of Russian and Slavic studies at NYU who focuses on sex in Russian cinema and literature, and author of Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture; Howard Gertler, producer of Shortbus; and John Cameron motherfucking Mitchell, writer/director/creative genius behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch and more recently the insanely well-received masterpiece Shortbus. (I am a huge fan of this man’s work, and it’s kind of awesome that I’m so lazy I hadn’t really read about who was going to be on the panel before deciding to attend, because when I realized why that guy’s face was so familiar to me [mostly because I’ve seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch at least fifteen times], I got one of those delicious thrills of adrenaline running through my body, tingly fingers and all.)

After I got past the first few minutes of brain-numbness, during which I stared at John Cameron Mitchell and tried to will myself to stop thinking, “Holy fucking shit that’s fucking HEDWIG! That’s John Cameron Mitchell! I’m ten feet away from him! Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod!!” I started taking notes on what the people in front of me were saying. I got a little jolt of “Oh my god that’s John Cameron Mitchell” every five minutes or so for the rest of the two-hour panel, but I muddled through in a semi-able-to-think fashion and I’m glad I did, because the conversation was fascinating.

Between the five of them, the panelists seemed to agree on the fact that America is fucked when it comes to the idea of sex in film. Deeply, deeply troubled. The words “Puritanism” and “repression” came up a lot in reference to Hollywood and American morality, in comparison with countries in Europe where many of the films under discussion have been received with open arms while screenings were shut down by riot police in Russia and largely ignored in America. Eliot and Phillipe both pointed out several times the strangeness of our distinction between sex and violence in cinema in this country, noting that while children are exposed to shocking violence daily, they are protected from sex. “If I had children,” said Phillipe“I would hope that as adults they would be exposed to sex every day in a good way and never have to face violence like this. So I would teach them about sex, not violence.” Violence and sex, he said, “are two sides of the same coin,” and in cultures where sex is repressed it seems that violence becomes more prevalent. John Cameron Mitchell (ohmygodohmygodohmygod!) agreed and ventured to say that, as an uncontrollable human need, sex is policed by militarized states and replaced by violence to fuel war efforts. In countries where war and invasion is a way of life, he said, sex is repressed. But not in less warlike countries: “Sweden, for example, hasn’t invaded anyone in a long time.”

Yet here in the US, Lisa Vandever piped up, her Cinekink festival, which prides itself on sex-positivity and celebrations of the human body, gets screened in advertising and communications because its press releases and advertisements often include the words “sex” and “porn.” Her e-mails go into spam folders and her advertisements are almost never accepted. Sarah Forbes of the Museum of Sex said she’d had the same problem: the MTA in New York would only allow her to advertise on subways and buses if, she said, she didn’t use the museum’s name in any ads. Which would rather, it would seem, go against the purpose of advertising.

Eliot said that, due to the absolute terror of young people being exposed to sex, he is always afraid that a line will be crossed in his classroom without his knowing it. “Even though I’m dealing with adults, mostly students between 18 and 22,” he said, “young people are often easier to upset than older people about sex.”

At this point, the conversation took a very interesting, but frustratingly brief, turn toward what had been on my mind throughout. Young people, sex, and porn. Lisa pointed out that our mainstream perception of sex seems to be expanding in that, with the proliferation of online porn, there is more openness to the idea of sex in public, but that it’s being reacted to in an infantile, “giggly, Jersey Shore kind of way.” John agreed and voiced the correlation I’ve made in my mind for years between the explosion of sex culture in young adults in America and the ever-rising numbers of alcohol-poisoning related deaths in colleges. If we were more open about these things, he suggested; if we let kids have wine at dinner when they were twelve, we wouldn’t have such high alcoholism rates and early deaths from over-drinking nearly as often. If we let people talk about sex and be more open about in public discourse, we wouldn’t have this kind of naïve, childish behavior around it in the media, which brought him around to a big point.

He said that in his experiences of having sex with young people, “people in their twenties have sex differently” because they were taught about sex by watching porn. He said he gets the feeling that they are always thinking about how they look. “How can you fully embody [your sexual experience],” he asked, “without being able to let go with it? There’s no surprise or spontaneity anymore,” he said, which is what sex is all about.

The idea that most of the panelists were working around, and which they all deal with on some level every day, is making sex part of the cinematic experience again, in a real, honest, open, and responsible way. Rather than porn films that are all sex and only sex, these are people who seek to put sex back into the artistic and creative experience of film-making and watching. To make sex and integral part of the story rather than the part that gets skipped over because it’s obscene. To take back their titles as artists and thinkers rather than perverts and degenerates. To bring America up to speed on its own sexuality and the things it’s been missing, in a responsible way.

It’s a good feeling to know that these people are out there. Being steeped as I am in pornography most days, I have great respect for the porn industry as it faces the ever-present face of public scorn for its interest in performative sex. But there is, and has been for a long time, something missing. A vast gulf between “legitimate film” and “pornography,” across which few people venture to try to leap or even shout at one another, has opened up. Bridges are few and badly constructed—reminiscent of rope-bridges in a Looney Toons cartoon rather than structure anybody pays attention to or uses, but there are people crossing them from time to time, trying to even stand strong in the middle and open their arms to both hardcore sex and emotion, arousal and understanding, and bring us all a little closer to each other and ourselves.

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