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Portraying sex in movies and TV has come a long way since The Dick Van Dyke Show era, when married couples had to sleep in separate beds, couldn’t say the word “pregnant,” and were forced to wear shame-activated groin-shockers. Weirdly, though, we’ve replaced “pretending sex isn’t a thing” with “tons of sex, portrayed in a ridiculously inaccurate way.” This probably messes up our attitudes about sex just as badly as censorship.
If your first time having sex was an awkward, brief, uncomfortable encounter, this is part of the reason.
There’s a scene in the Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can (probably on TBS right now) in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s 16-year-old Frank impersonates a pilot and smoothly gifts a necklace to a stewardess. The scene then jump-cuts to the stewardess screaming “Yes! Yes!” during hotel sex. Frank makes the crack, “This is by far the best date I have ever been on,” with the joke being that it’s the first date he’s ever been on. But that’s not stopping the virgin minor from giving a stranger earth-shattering pleasure the first time he touches her.
That’s how it went for you, right? Your first time?
Look, no one has ever said “This Tom Hanks movie will teach me how to have sex!” But the reality is that by puberty, 99.99 percent of the sexual encounters a teenager has seen will have been in a movie or TV show, unless they grew up in a super open-minded household. And what they get, over and over, are scenes like that — a jump cut with no actual nudity, no foreplay, no one procuring a prophylactic unless it’s for a joke, and the guy (in this case, one with no experience) bringing the woman to borderline transcendental ecstasy with little effort.
Think of how differently this scene would play if there was actual realistic foreplay — Leo with his hands or head between her legs (that is, the thing that has to occur first for most women to have any chance of orgasm). To audiences, that suddenly seems far more explicit and graphic … even though to anyone who’s had sex, it’s the bare, routine minimum.
In a world in which American sex ed is barely allowed to mention pleasure at all, the “lessons” we get are demonstrations of sex that in reality would leave a confused guy saying, “You didn’t finish? But I was thrusting and everything! I was just about to say it was the best date ever.”
Even The Tiniest Nods To Realism Are Treated As Shocking
All movies rely on shorthand — characters order food at restaurants and leave before eating it, action heroes never have to look for parking, etc. But the shorthand we’ve decided to use for sex scenes is shaped by some very old-fashioned, incredibly arbitrary attitudes about what realities of sex are kosher to show.
Characters almost never search for a condom unless it’s a plot point (Knocked Up) or a joke (Road Trip). There’s no cleanup involved, so all we can guess is that the couples are having their meaningful pillow talk while lying in cum. The woman doesn’t have to pee, nobody needs a towel, the aforementioned condom doesn’t need to be removed and disposed of. Even critically acclaimed “gritty” shows like Jessica Jones aren’t immune to the “have the couple both fall backward onto the bed with the covers covering them post-sex” move (which would require some kind of planning and a 3-2-1 countdown to sync up).
And speaking of “sexy” movies, in The Cider House Rules, when Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron finally give in to their heaving biological urges, their sex consists of him hiking his pants down slightly and thrusting into her about three times. Then they’re both gasping for air, so … did she enjoy that? Do they ever discuss if she enjoyed it? Should he keep going with his mouth? Fools! One does not ask such things in a movie!
It’s fine to say that it’s not movies’ job to teach young people how sex works — just note that there is no one else doing that. When do young guys get the lesson “Hey, we know you can ejaculate by rubbing against literally any object for 30 seconds, but a lot of women can’t orgasm without some attention to the clitoris beforehand”? Instead, this is what gets reinforced thousands of times over: Sex is nothing but kissing, thrusting, then you both fall to the pillows in a state of satisfied exhaustion.
Related: If Movie Sex And Relationships Were Realistic
Masturbation And Kinks Are Always Played For Laughs (Or Sadness)
Any deviation from extremely straightforward sex with E-Z mutual orgasms usually serves a specific purpose: either a wacky joke or telling us something deep and meaningful about the characters beyond “They want to have sex and enjoy it.”
Masturbation, one of the most ubiquitous acts on Earth, is usually pretty enjoyable and uneventful in real life. In movies, it almost always serves one of two functions: 1) It’s a joyless character’s sad, lonely respite (like for Kevin Spacey in American Beauty or Matthew Broderick in Election), or 2) It’s a setup for the character to get embarrassingly walked in on (Tommy Boy, American Pie 1 through American Pie 27: Pantsless Trade School), or for the masturbator to accidentally grab a tube of Tabasco Sauce that’s shaped exactly like their tube of Unhot Masturbating Sauce.
The same goes for anything novelty or fetish-related. Characters never just have fetishes because that’s a natural thing and they want to have pleasurable sexual experiences. It has to reveal something darker about them. Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers is a crazy nymphomaniac, Mad Men’s Don Draper likes to get slapped ’cause he’s a troubled cable show protagonist, and Christian Grey likes bondage because he has an abusive past.
Or, again, it’ll be the butt of a joke. Who enjoys dildos? Jim Carrey’s insane suppressed-rage alter ego from Me Myself & Irene sure does. And if someone owns a vibrator, they’re not just going to use it to uneventfully enjoy themselves; you better believe that thing’s gonna end up knocking over Grandma’s urn. If a character is into bondage or, god forbid, butt stuff, it will be portrayed as the most hilariously depraved shit ever, despite the fact that a good chunk of the people reading this have at least experimented with one or both.
It really is amazing how puritanical Hollywood is about this, even in 2019. Yes, Deadpool will let his girlfriend penetrate him with a dildo, but that’s to emphasize that he’s an outrageous character who breaks social norms in often gruesome ways. Hollywood always plays scenes like that for shock value, which reinforces that we’re supposed to find them shocking. Imagine the Rock having butt stuff done to him in a serious love scene, and both characters treating it as normal.
Related: 5 Movies And Shows That Create Hilarious Sex Questions
In Our Attempts To Be Progressive, We’ve Made A Terrible Compromise
I’ve made it this far and have only mentioned heterosexual sex. Of course, homosexual sex acts are even harder to come by and usually even more chaste, unless the movie/show is specifically about non-straight characters. And if a film depicts sex acts involving at least one trans person that isn’t “Bro gets tricked into having sex with a trans woman lol!” then you’re probably watching an indie film that played at some arthouse theaters and got praise from critics for being bold and daring. “This was the film that deigned to notice these people both exist and like to have sex. Brace yourself for a truly shocking experience.”
It becomes yet another example of how when movies/shows depict sex outside of brief penis-in-vagina interludes, they portray it in ways that reinforces taboos. For decades, conservative types have complained that Hollywood’s obsession with casual sex would lure our vulnerable children into a life of lurid depravity. In reality, mainstream movies lag far behind what the average middle-aged suburban couple does as a matter of routine, and rarely dares to portray the things that couple does when they want to spice things up.
A cynical person would say that Hollywood is conforming to standards that were set a long time ago by dudes who decided sex should be portrayed exactly how they wished it worked — with minimal foreplay, no condom, lasting only as long as it takes the average guy to ejaculate, and then you have a cigarette and get back to trying solve the big case. As time has gone on, we’ve only become progressive in that we can show that style of sex in greater volume and detail. “The bad news is the restaurant’s food is all spoiled, the good news is that it’s all-you-can-eat.”
Therefore if those young, curious dudes want to see the real stuff, they turn to porn. On one hand, there they can at least see the mechanics of what’s going on, and can be exposed to sexuality in all of its forms without judgment. On the other hand, they’ll also find there are entire genres of porn about, say, muscular authority figures forcing victims into sex. Hell, there are entire genres just about porn producers coercing nervous, unwilling girls into acts they’re not comfortable with.
Obviously, it’s also not the porn industry’s job to teach teens how to have safe, mutually satisfying, consensual sex. But it’d be nice if someone was doing it.
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