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Why is Everyone Suddenly Horrified of On-Screen Sex?
Tony Stamp looks at the encroaching puritanism in mainstream media.
I’m not sure Webworm has ever talked about sex before, which is pretty weird because it’s why we’re all here.
So today, Tony Stamp uses his monthly Totally Normal column to do a fascinating deep dive into modern attitudes towards on-screen sex.
This goes places — possibly into some slightly ‘Adults Only’ material, but no more intense than that romantic novel you accidentally stumbled on in that second hand bookshop when you were eight BUT THIS ISN’T ABOUT ME.
Take it away, Tony. Oh, and see you in the comments. I feel we’re all going to have feelings about this stuff.
Totally Normal #21: Totally Normal Sex
by Tony Stamp.
Sex on screen
It sadly seems to be true that media literacy is on the wane. According to this (very well sourced) YouTube video, people are watching less movies, and when they do, they watch them at home. The term “second screening” (playing on your phone or laptop while viewing a film), has become a thing.
And an interesting new wrinkle seems to have developed, in terms of viewers’ relationships to onscreen sex.
Consider this: what was the last big-budget movie you saw that featured on screen copulation? Earlier this year Oppenheimer caused actual controversy for daring to show its protagonist getting it on. Top Gun: Maverick was much more coy, and scraped through without incident.
But compare that to the original Top Gun with its silhouetted licking and so forth. By and large, we’re a long way from the hot and horny 1980s.
According to one study, Gen Z viewers want to see less heteronormative sex on screen, and more platonic friendships. Fair enough.
But there seems to be this creeping idea that sex has no place in mainstream entertainment. And in my opinion, that’s insane. Art should reflect the spectrum of our human condition, right? Well sex is a really, REALLY big part of that! Taking it off the table seems ill-advised.
And raises a few questions.
Some scorching hot takes have done the rounds, and as always, who’s to say if these are representative of a significant group of people. Still, there was the aforementioned firestorm about Florence Pugh’s nipples in Oppenheimer, which multiple people said were only there for “shock value” (if you’re seriously shocked by nipples, something’s gone wrong. We all have them!)
There were some even more extreme examples, like the woman who couldn’t say the word “sex”, and hid her husband’s eyes during the risque scenes in Nolan’s biopic (I imagine him seeing a boob by accident, ripping his shirt off like The Hulk, staggering out into the road and overturning a car with his bare hands).
And there was this doozy, where someone insists that fictional sex is coercive because the characters don’t have agency.
There’s a very real chance that’s an expert bit of trolling. But we do seem to have taken some — let me stress this — VERY POSITIVE advancements in our broader societal understanding of consent, and applied them to fiction in misguided ways.
It’s enough of a thing that one of the world’s biggest movie podcasts dedicated an episode to why we still need sex scenes, and it’s been touched on throughout Katrina Longworth’s excellent couple of miniseries, Erotic 80s/ 90s, as part of her show You Must Remember This.
At the same time, pornography in all its myriad forms seems to be thriving.
I began to entertain the idea that this encroaching puritanism in mainstream media might be related to the growth of online porn. It’s an area of the internet that’s still shrouded in a degree of mystery, and I was curious how it may have changed.
So I reached out to someone with first-hand experience, Jasper Ahptik.
Jasper is an online sex worker who got her start shooting for Suicide Girls, and began camming in 2009. It became her sole source of income in 2011.
“I was kind of stunned to see it was enough to get an apartment on my own”, she told me, “and live on my own without roommates for the first time.”
She doesn’t do as many live streams these days, but has branched out into Twitch and OnlyFans, in a niche she describes as “nerdy alternative, artsy type stuff”. She says she’s been “building an online community through livestreaming for a long time now.”
In her twenties she would livestream for up to six hours, but these days (she’s 34), caps out at around four. And there’s a lot of work involved.
“I know that there are streamers who just get online and they just make thousands of dollars. That has not been my experience. I try to plan little things. It might be like a game night, or I'll do movie nights. If I’m doing it on an adult streaming site, there will be a saucy component to it, you know, to keep things interesting.”
Her shows range from being softcore to more explicit, depending on her mood.
I’m interested in how advancements on the web have altered the online sex industry, and she explains the changes have been huge. On adult sites like Chaturbate, for example, where users can exchange money for tokens, one recent development is “token-reactive sex toys that operate via Bluetooth,” with names like ‘Oh my Bod’.
“A lot of people, their entire income is heavily tied to using these tip-reactive toys,” she says. “It’s nice that it gives people a feeling like they’re not just throwing money into the void, you know, like they’re actually like getting involved with a person on a slightly more intimate level.”
She says the advent of OnlyFans has had some positive aspects: “It allowed people to kind of like take a vacation, be able to take a step back and have something running offline while you're doing other things.”
But there are downsides too: “I’ve started to see some different expectations from consumers. Some people feel like, ‘oh, so now we can date’. It’s changed the boundaries a little bit.”
This idea of parasocial intimacy is one that resonates throughout the web, but it’s particularly felt in Jasper’s line of work. Even more so for performers without a team to do their admin.
“I’ll get messages at like 4am from a guy being like, ‘Where are you? Where are you? A reply-to-me-right-now’ type of attitude.”
“The running joke amongst me and my friends is like: the whole internet has seen my asshole, right? And so at that point people have this convoluted idea like, ‘well, I've seen you do these explicit things, so therefore I get to know about your childhood trauma’.
“I’ve had people ask me wildly inappropriate questions. I’m like, ‘I would rather have you ask me questions about my pussy at this point. Why are you asking me how my dad feels about my job? That's not a conversation I want to have with a stranger on the Internet!’”
I offer my assessment that, in my experience as a heterosexual man consuming porn, it seems overwhelmingly geared towards a male perspective, and male control.
She shares details about the one mainstream scene she shot (after which she decided it wasn’t for her: nothing bad happened, but the vibes were weird), that backs this up, a behind-the-scenes approach creating the illusion of impossibly virile men.
I can’t go into detail but here’s a screenshot of her telling me:
“No one is more obsessed with dicks than straight dudes”, she says. “I don’t know what it is. They’re obsessed. They’re like, ‘Well, so many women are size queens’. And I’m like, ‘I have not met one’. There is so much focus on, not just male pleasure, but maleness, in porn.
“The stuff that sells has a dick in it. Once you have the boy/girl videos, that’s the moneymaker. It’s always the moneymaker.”
Other distinctly male problems have arisen too. “There is this type of consumer of porn who prefers the idea that the woman is not consenting,” says Jasper, “and even if the woman’s consenting, they get off on the idea of stealing the content, because they know it should be paid for, and they're taking it without the consent of the performer.”
I came of age in a time when access to porn was limited. Maybe your friend’s dad had a VHS tucked away somewhere. Maybe you knew about a spot in the park where someone had hidden some copies of Penthouse (this was a thing that absolutely happened). For a good while there, if you wanted to peep some nudes you had to wait while your dial-up modem cranked down jpegs one painfully-slow row of pixels at a time.
For the last twenty years or so though, logging on and copping an eyeful has been easier than most things in life. Just tap whatever your heart desires into a search bar and reap the rewards. Handy, yes, but also a source of concern, for parents, and the rest of us.
I remember listening to an episode of the podcast Uhh Yeah Dude years ago, and they surmised that younger generations growing up with instant access to the most eye-watering smut the world has ever seen might cause a pushback.
Maybe Gen Z onward would look back fondly on an earlier, more chaste era, and try to emulate it.
I’m not sure that’s happened, but recent developments, like the ‘puriteen’ phenomenon, implies that porn belongs in one category, art in another, and never the twain shall meet (up to and including a squizz at Florence Pugh’s nipples, a part of her anatomy she’s happily displayed outside of her movie career, but anyway).
This is happening in conjunction with a ratcheting up of extremity in some circles, as Jasper explained.
“There are people who are getting desensitized to what they’re seeing. I know a couple of performers who are doing really, really extreme stuff. And it feels like their customer base is constantly looking for the next extreme thing, the next extreme thing, the next extreme thing.
“They can’t get off to a normal boy-girl sex tape, that’s not cutting it anymore. And some of these people haven’t even had sex in real life yet. It makes me wonder, how are you going to manage when you are with a partner for the first time? They have these weird distorted versions of reality.
“Porn is not meant to be educational. And unfortunately, because there is no education [in America], it’s filling that void.”
It starts to make sense how some younger folks might see this aspect of life as taboo, or something to be ashamed of. God knows it was confusing enough before the internet came along.
But Jasper makes a good point about the people policing what’s deemed permissible in mainstream entertainment, and how that’s often centred on women.
“I feel like there’s something infantilizing about how some people talk about it. The one that comes to mind instantly is that show Euphoria. Sydney Sweeney had her topless scenes and they’re talking about how Sam Levinson is preying on her, so she herself said, ‘I didn't do anything I was uncomfortable with. The stuff I didn’t want to do, I didn’t do’.
“At what point do we stop treating women like they don’t know what's good for themselves and they can't make a decision on their own? The things that happened with the MeToo movement, none of that was about what was happening on screen. That was about what was going on off screen.
“There’s a hair trigger on people being concerned specifically about women’s safety. And it’s good to have these conversations. But when an actress boldly says, ‘I chose to do this and I’m fine with it’, we’re doing them a disservice to be like, ‘No, you're not. I know better than you’.”
My conversation with Jasper was fascinating, and got me thinking about the line between real and unreal, and how we all tend to grapple with the difference.
I rewatched Klute recently, the incredible Jane Fonda film. There’s a scene in it where her character has sex with Donald Sutherland’s, and, with no dialogue, it says so much about these two fictional people, and consent, and power. It’s the lynchpin of the movie.
Earlier this year the Marilyn Monroe biopic Blonde was excoriated by critics and the public, with accompanying accusations that its director had exploited his lead actress. I won’t weigh in on the film’s quality, but it was clear to me that ‘actresses being exploited’ was the point. I very much doubt he made it because, as one of my colleagues suggested, “He just wanted to see her boobs”.
Even if you hated Blonde, the discussions around it involving abuses of power were undoubtedly healthy. If we cordon off anything sexual, or ambiguous, or taboo, into its own specific section of the internet, those discussions will largely dry up.
And surely that’s a bad thing?
David here again.
It seems criminal when talking about sex scenes in films to not mention The Room, and how wrong sex scenes can go (watch it at your own risk). This movie is really the only argument I have for outright banning every single sex scene in a film, and just sex in the general population.
I’m curious where you sit on all this. I tend to find the arguments against sex in films unusual, and this is from someone who’s experienced the horrors of watching Y tu mamá también with my father at a film festival in New Zealand. To his credit, he was a champ and didn’t make it weird. I wanted to sink into the seat and disappear.
A huge thanks to Jasper Ahptik for the insight into her world. See you in the comments. Tony will be hanging around in there too.
PS: In life admin — I am so appreciative of your responses to my piece about adult ADHD. They were ridiculously helpful, and I will be writing more about this soon. Flightless Bird is back to weekly releases, and today’s episode looks at Fantasy Football, a game played by 50 million Americans. Mister Organ continues to pop up in cinemas around the USA — the updated list is here. I’m doing a Q&A after the 7.30pm screening at Brain Dead Studios in LA on November 14. It’s out on digital November 21st — and to celebrate I’ll be heading to Roswell, NM to do a final Q&A in this place I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Tickets are here for November 20: The Galaxy 8, 4501 N Main St, Roswell, NM 88201.