Gay Sex Scenes: Who needs them, who wants them, who has them?

A recent spate of what I like to call “palatable” gay films seems to have captured the imagination of the average cinema-goer, gay or not. It started in 2016 with Barry Jenkins’s critically acclaimed Moonlight, and was manifest this year in the wildly popular Call me by your name, directed by Luca Guadagnino. Looking forward to new releases in 2018, I’ve clocked Greg Berlanti’s John-Green-YA-gay-rom Love, Simon as the next big palatable gay hit. I suppose it’s a good thing that everyone wants to see gay films now; people are starting to see past the gay part and admire the film for its craft and its story. And by people, I mean straight people.

I’ve been an admirer of LGBTQ cinema for years and I'll freely admit that a part of that admiration has been enjoying two attractive men grow together and - hopefully - do the deed. As a young gay man of course that was what I was after! But I also enjoy gay cinema because it tells unique stories from inside the LGBTQ community. Some of my personal favourites - Head On, The War Boys, The Fluffer, No Night is too Long - relate narratives about people like me, which are at once comforting but also fascinating to watch unfold on screen. Now it seems the tables have turned: gay films aren’t just for gay people anymore.

What I can’t seem to wrap my head around is what straight people get from seeing these films? I’m going to go ahead and say it’s not the thrill of watching two men get it on, nor is it the being able to relate to the characters’ inner conflicts and journeys. To me there are only two groups of people who would be interested in seeing a film like Call me by your name: cinephiles and gays. Despite this, the reception of Call me by your name was substantially bigger than both of these categories combined. The Sony Pictures Classics feature had this year’s highest per theatre average opening in the US at $101,219, and grossed nearly $405,000 in just four New York and L.A. theatres, according to Deadline.

So we must assume that the appeal of Guadagnino’s final film in his Desire trilogy must have extended beyond the LGBTQ community and aficionados of cinema to include the average cinema-goer who is, probably, straight. You might say this is fine; after all, straight people (here defined as people not identifying as LGBTQ) obviously still have the faculties to enjoy a great gay film like Moonlight, Carol or Brokeback Mountain, regardless of the orientation of the main characters. But here’s the rub: if a film like Call me by your name is classified as “gay”, why is there next to no gay sex in it? In a “gay” film about gays, why does more straight sex happen on screen and in more graphic terms than gay sex?

 Call me by your name (2017)

Call me by your name (2017)

 I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

 Love, Simon (2018)

Love, Simon (2018)

There’s no need to get Foucauldian about this per se, but there are some interesting arguments to be made here about what Simon Watney in his Policing Desire calls the “wholesale de-sexualisation of gay culture and experience” encouraged by the AIDS crisis. Gay films are now being made for larger audiences and this predominantly includes straight people. Now there’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but when filmmakers start trying to make straight audiences feel comfortable by limiting and/or cutting completely the gay sex from gay films, then we’re gonna have a problem.

In a recent article for the Guardian, gay rights pioneer Peter Tatchell spoke about the history of sodomy laws in the UK specifically, an issue that he feels was only fully rectified (pun intended) in 2013 when Scotland’s anti-gay laws were finally done away with in their entirety. This is key, because what underlies his very important point is the idea that the gay identity has always been and always will be tied to sodomy and, by extension, our freedom to “commit” it. Interestingly, critics like Jeffrey Weeks have gone so far as to assert that the most distinctive aspect of gay life is its “radical pluralism”. If we are to believe this (which I do) and also consider the fact that it’s taken this long (since 1533) for courts to rule that consensual sex between men does not warrant criminalisation, we may finally see that it is absolutely a problem when films about gay people are cleansed of all sexual detail.

There are myriad pieces out there about “straight-washing” in gay films of late. One Slate article even went so far as to insist that Call me by your name is really a straight film, featuring more aptly-described bisexual characters ‘so insistently aloof from contemporary history or politics’. That’s probably true - here’s my favourite quote from the piece:

‘The story is not so much homoerotic as it is autoerotic— it tells the story of two boys with nearly identical intellects and interests who fall in love with mirror images of themselves and then call out their own names during sex.’

More to the point, to under-expose straight audiences to gay sex is crucially counter-productive. If straight people want to see stories about gay people, they should be ready and willing to accept all facets of the gay experience. This absolutely includes sex - front and centre. So when the camera panned away from the action in Call me by your name, my heart sank. Not only because I wanted to see them knocking boots (who wouldn’t?) but also because it was insulting. As Leo Bersani once wrote, there is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it. Maybe that’s true and that attitude is still prevalent, but sex is a huge part of the gay identity - like it or not. If the right-wing prevails and gays become public enemy number one once again, the first thing to be attacked will be our right to consummate our relationship(s). This is already under threat around the world. Indulging straights and pretending that we don’t sodomise or that gay sex is something to be censored or merely hinted at won’t help our fight for equality in the long run. There can be no liberation in these films without perspiration - sexy, bare-faced perspiration! Straight audiences need to be exposed to and educated about gay sex so it’s not so shocking for them later, and so that, when the time comes, they may be on our side.

Sam ClealComment