Recently, I’ve been thinking about sex and consent, or more specifically, the way in which distorted cultural representations and everyday, real life sex feed into one another. The impact of pop culture is not ephemeral as the name suggests, but can in fact have ramifications far beyond our immediate consumption. Humans are the products of whatever they consume, and every element of life, from the conversations we have to the TV and films we watch, shapes us in some way (even if the change seems intangible at the time). Artistic culture can change how we conduct relationships and view ourselves.
The portrayal of sex in film tends to be polarised, with most films depicting a Jane Austen level asexual version or a Fifty Shades of Grey overtly sexual one. Genuine presentations of sex are few and far between, and the creative industries have a responsibility to rectify this. Otherwise, they are simply helping to perpetuate unhealthy relationships and, one could even say, rape culture.
Most people become sexually active as a teen, a time when they’re likely to consume around 10 hours of media a day. Such strongly opposed sexual dynamics in culture must have some kind of effect on how viewers carry out relationships. Therefore, is it any wonder teens are confused about where the boundaries of consent lie? It’s clear that those at the university level are concerned about this danger, too. St Andrews offers a leaflet called “Got Consent?” in its Student Services Office, and recently York University held its first consent information talk. In 2016, The Guardian reported that one in five students experiences some form of sexual harassment during their first week of term. This statistic leaves little question as to why universities are so concerned.
Let’s compare the sexual representations offered in 10 Things I Hate About You and Fifty Shades of Grey. The first, a classic rom-com, centers around a fiery male/female dynamic, but sex is almost entirely omitted from the narrative. This is surprising when one considers the bawdy humour of Shakespeare’s original Taming of the Shrew. Fifty Shades of Grey, however, has the opposite problem. Sex is the sub plot, narrative and soundtrack. The main issue with the film is that reluctance and fear are depicted as sexy, and consent (despite the weird pseudo contract) isn’t. Films like Fifty Shades are particularly worrisome when placed in the context of modern day porn, which saturates the Internet and is often degrading and violent toward women.
The same contrast found between 10 Things I Hate About You and Fifty Shades is also seen when comparing countless other films: for example, The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers versus Cruel Intentions, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Love Rosie and The Other Woman.
The lack of genuine cultural presentations of sex is hugely damaging to the brain. How does one reconcile these two completely contradictory portrayals in everyday life?
There are those who consider the cultural world to have little bearing on the actions and experiences of those in the real world, but research cited in “Sex, Culture and the Biology of Rape” by Owen D. Jones begs to differ. In this text, Professor Jones offers a view supported by many sociologists. He says that rape originates from collective cultural determination rather than the individual pathology and also argues that the idea of sexual desire being completely irrelevant to rape is untrue. Such responses are founded upon cultural norms, rules and prevailing attitudes about sex.
This is where the mirror between art and real life is shattered. Daily realities, particularly the “unequal gender roles” that Jones discusses, are supplanted in a distorted and brittle fashion in the cultural world. Rape is often used as a plot device in modern day film and television. It’s controversial and a little bit dangerous, and it allows writers to claim they are exploring complex human issues. In reality, sex sells.
No matter the packaging, the success of Game of Thrones and Outlander, for example, is partly based off of using rape as an opportunity for nudity, something titillating rather than an event to advance the story or add layers to characterization. This is troublesome, as it sensationalises something that should be unbearable to watch and desensitizes the viewer from the horrific nature of the act.
The most worrying part of this whole conundrum is that films and TV are infinitely more entertaining than sex ed class. Because of this, most information young people learn about sex doesn’t come from the real world. Sex ed classes generally warn students to either stay abstinent or use protection. If you don’t, you’ll contract a scary infection, get pregnant and end up looking like these photos of warted people who have been sexually active and suffered the consequences. This educational fearmongering, coupled with polarizing examples of sexual relationships, wreaks havoc on balanced perceptions of healthy relationships.
At the same time, there are cultural examples that reflect sex and sexual violence in a genuine and unflinching manner, but such examples are far too rare. The private nature of sex makes it difficult to portray in any performative realm, but films that do it well include Spectacular Now, Don Jon and Blue is the Warmest Colour. The first is a tender and realistic depiction of a “first time” experience, whilst Don Jon is an excellent film that exemplifies the transition from porn obsessed, meaningless sex to a relationship grounded in real connection. BITWC was recognized by The Guardian for its ability to realistically evoke love in its most passionate form. Even these examples offer somewhat polarized perceptions of sex, but they come closer to the real thing than most.
Sex is defined by opposites. It isn’t pure, and it isn’t dirty. It can be meaningful or meaningless, and one occasion doesn’t discount or discredit another type’s legitimacy. Too few films attempt to explore this ambiguous grey area, with most just settling for the simpler black and white version. This, in turn influences how audiences conduct relationships. The perpetuation of sexual violence at colleges and schools across the country is symptomatic of a wider problem within film, TV and music. In these cultural spaces, the misogynistic gaze has the loudest voice.
Creative industries have a responsibility to show genuinely complex representations of sex. These representations have a far-reaching role in encouraging unhealthy behavior and relationships. The majority of our time is spent absorbing information released by the cultural world, and it’s about time that their presentations of sex moved beyond simplistic, damaging oppositions and titillating sexual violence. Some films have initiated the opening line of dialogue in this new cultural wave, but now it is up to the writers and viewers of tomorrow to demand that the conversation continue.