In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart made history by using the most plain-and-simple phrasing in his vocabulary to express his definition of hardcore pornography, declaring, “I know it when I see it.” In the eleventh episode of the third season of the late sitcom Parks and Recreation, fictitious pornographic actress Brandi Maxx provides a far sturdier take on the distinction: “For me, it’s when the penis goes in.” They’re both right, after all. Sex (and by extension, pornography) entangles dozens of tacit feelings, social gestures, and moralistic taboos into one complicated and culturally fraught act, impossible to describe without conceding that you kind of have to be there to understand it. But then, in the most literal sense, it’s also just body parts messin’ around with other body parts. Part A meets Part B.
Perhaps that’s what actors in unsimulated sex scenes on film tell themselves, that it’s all just empty motions made in the name of professionalism. But no matter how consummately dispassionate an actor can force him or herself to be, that doesn’t change the fact that a massive gulf of difference separates nearly-nude writhing with one participant rocking a modesty sock from actual, no-bullshit penetration. When George Miller eschewed the green screens and strapped his stuntmen into giant harnesses to bob on pendulums of death for Mad Max: Fury Road, viewers roared with approval because they recognized that they were witnessing something special. There’s no substitute for legitimate danger. Audiences come to cineplexes in search of something real, and even if the people onscreen may be playing make-believe, some actions retain an absolute meaning regardless of the intent of those parties performing them. Two actors can have sex and not mean it, but they did indeed do the deed, and that counts for something. It was real.
It’s somewhat surprising that when a director makes the choice to include unsimulated sex in a film, charges of pornographic obscenity or baseless provocation can’t be far behind. (Lest we forget the hackles raised at the MPAA just because Ryan Gosling placed his head in the general vicinity of Michelle Williams’ vagina in Blue Valentine.) Because traditionally, mainstream narrative films take that route in an effort to amplify the sense of intimacy between the characters going at it. Nevertheless, the intercourse invariably dominates the critical discourse surrounding the text and tends to eclipse the intentions behind the act. Self-appointed moral guardians decry obscenity while gatekeepers of taste turn up their noses at the gimmickry of such shameless provocation. As his latest opus Love prepares to deeply penetrate American arthouses, French-Chilean enfant terrible Gaspar Noé has borne the brunt of this narrative. The early posts on the trailers and immodest promotional posters for Love have labeled it simply as a “3D porno,” both because the idea of a film that climaxes with a literal climax off of the screen and into the audience’s face infiltrating an arena as prestigious as Cannes is kind of hilarious, and because that’s what it is. The penis goes in.
But basic titillation isn’t the end goal of the graphic depictions of sex in Love or the rest of the odd corps of films that have included bona fide genital contact. The sexual centerpiece of Love is a menage a trois between its leads, and the performers go through their movements with a shocking verisimilitude. When Noé capped off his 2009 feature Enter the Void with a jaw-dropping in-uterus money shot of a digitally rendered penis in the process of insemination, he wasn’t trying to get anyone off or rile anyone up. It’s an uncommonly tender moment, immediately tapping into a primal and universal component of the human experience. Pretty much everybody outside of their teen years has become acquainted with the sexual experience, but to witness it secondhand mediated through the disconnect of the film medium creates a new sensory phenomenon entirely. Cognitive dissonance overtakes the audience’s analytical faculties as we attempt to reconcile the familiarity of the sexual act with the intensely private nature of what’s taking place onscreen. We’re seeing something we recognize, but know we shouldn’t. On unsteady ground between empathy and voyeurism, film achieves something rare and becomes real.
Even in the instances that the realness of unsimulated sex has been used for shock value, that shocking quality has usually been in service of larger thematic purposes. Full penetration began cropping up in art films abroad during the early ‘70s, adding dashes of eroticism to an art form expanding the boundaries of what it could and could not do. Naturally, accusations of obscenity cropped up in short order, decrying the depictions of sexuality as hollow salaciousness, performing no function but to give the audience a rise (so to speak). Sometimes, such as in the case of the many displays of analog depravity in Pink Flamingos, the masterpiece of bad taste from America’s creepy uncle John Waters, that reaction of gasping horror from the nation’s pearl-clutchers was the point. Waters took no greater pleasure than in offending the sensibilities of the sensible, and proving beyond doubt that the sick stunts taking place on screen were the real deal was the most efficient way to do that. In Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid Western El Topo, the shock of the unsimulated sex provided a profane counterpoint to the film’s stew of religious and philosophical iconography.
It didn’t take too long for unsimulated sex to transcend its semiotic shorthand for transgression itself and take on a complex, shifting set of emotionally and culturally coded significances. The inarguable, unignorable realness of the penetrative image has been put to good use in loftily theoretical ways, such as in Yugoslavian master Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie, where the entire critical framework focuses on the commodification and commercialization of the female body. To censor or otherwise fake sexual acts would undermine the film’s central thesis, contributing to the cinema’s peddling of sexuality without having the sincerity to deliver it. The graphic images contained within Nagisa Oshima’s geisha study In The Realm Of The Senses scandalized Japanese audiences, but they were the farthest thing from adolescent button-pushing. In truly capturing the indignities that Japanese society thrust upon geishas, honestly depicting the sexual component of her everyday life was essential. It would’ve been a betrayal of the central character’s integrity to forge the struggles she faced as a geisha. The only way to experience them truly is to enact them truly.
Unsimulated sex in non-pornographic film (that is to say, displays of eroticism not solely for the sake of sexual excitement) represents the logical endpoint that the medium has been working for since its very inception. It says something crucial and even slightly comical about human nature that after we figured out how to make pictures move, our first order of business was making them bang. Production of pornographic filmstrips directly followed the advent of the motion picture, demonstrating a steadfast demand from the consumer populace for representation of sexuality. Before the dawn of the 20th century even came to pass, wily Frenchmen had begun stitching together primitive filmstrips gawking at women in various states of undress. Shorts such as Albert Kirchner and Eugène Pirou’s one-reel striptease Le Coucher de la Mariee and its ilk became regular viewing at so-called “stag parties,” get-togethers at which gentlemen could escape their wives, exult in one another’s company, and watch strangers go to town on one another. In the decades to come, pornography would certainly grow, but never truly matured. The demand and rates of production for pornography have only grown over time — if anyone should doubt that horniness is humanity’s greatest renewable resource, spend more than ten minutes in any corner of the internet.
Despite the titanic scope of the industry, pornography never really came of age as a genre. Across the myriad scenarios, power dynamics, and styles in which pornography has been produced, the aesthetic of fakery has been the unifying thread. Somewhat ironically, entertainment produced solely for the express purpose of recreating the sexual experience has fared the most poorly in doing so. “Porn acting” has become synonymous for wooden, unnatural performance and the production values have always landed somewhere between “pocket change” and “nothing”. Character development and causal links between actions in the plot are seen as impediments to the good stuff, annoying obstacles separating viewers from the good stuff. As such, they’re usually hurried out of the way in short order, nudging the performers towards the inevitable endpoint of intercourse. (The laughably improbable “pizza delivery leads to sex” scenario has become so deeply ingrained in the public imagination that incalculable teenaged boys have taken work as pizza couriers on the off chance that it may, one fine day, come to pass.) Hardcore pornography enjoyed a brief yet intense flirtation with mainstream legitimacy in the heady days of the ‘70s, when nudie theaters dotted Times Square and the likes of Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door, and The Devil in Miss Jones generated furtive conversations among respectable folk. But right on through the digital revolution and into the present day, pornography’s never been able to transcend the limitations of its raison d’etre. All the stuff that makes the sex feel real only gets in the way of the sex.
Which is precisely what’s made mainstream cinema that’s deigned to match its emotional reality with the physical reality of sex so vitally important. There are certainly instances of films passing the line of penetration for shock value alone — Vincent Gallo wanted to get the critics at Cannes in a snit over his verité blowjob scene in The Brown Bunny But for many of the films including unsimulated intercourse released in recent years, it’s been a means to a far more sincere end. Like Love, many films with ostensibly pornographic content have taken such extreme measures to accurately reproduce the emotional reality of sex and its attendant emotional connotations. One of the most eye-grabbing instances in recent memory came in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color, and its unshy multiple-minute sex sequences between leads Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos. During a pivotal scene in the intense courtship between the two young women, they engage in oral sex with one another in a shamelessly well-lit room. While comments from the actresses about their director’s untoward behavior on set suggest the presence of a leering male gaze behind the text, outside of the context of its production, the scene practically vibrates with emotional sincerity. The sexual component falls away surprisingly quickly; even with such graphic imagery onscreen, the eye moves towards the actresses’ faces, the center of emotional information in the scene. Both of the women are giving the performances of their lives, and yet there’s an element of their performance that goes beyond inspired artifice. Because the sexual act they’re performing is, in the most literal sense, real, they’re also able to lose themselves in the exhaustion that could only accompany actual physical exertion. Contrary to what the script of There’s Something About Mary might have us believe, there are some things that truly can’t be faked. The closeness between Seydoux and Exarchopoulos is too desperate, too overwhelmingly raw to be contrived through actorly processes. It’s a byproduct of their lived and shared experience.
So let’s be completely forthcoming about America — nay, human civilization’s — dirty little secret: sex is for more than procreation, and cinematic sex exponentially moreso. The unending demand for pornography incontrovertibly proves that the good people of Earth demand graphic images of people getting freaky, and mainstream film’s reclamation of sexually penetrative imagery from pornography suggests that we may be nearing the point of preparation to handle it like adults. Depicting the act itself onscreen still feels like a forbidden act, and the overarching rejection from the excitedly offended and the tongue-clucking tastemakers alike suggests that a long chasm separates the public from full acceptance of this creative technique. Even so, this formal flourish possesses a potential for immediate audience effect that goes far deeper than anyone had imagined. Recent films, Love being the most notable, have tapped into the capacity for searing emotion that real sex can hold. But for now, world cinema contents itself with slowly eroding the gap between mainstream cinema and hardcore pornography, gradually locating the emotional truth inherent in the act. So in a final assessment, while we sort out all of humanity’s hangups and social norms and hardwired cultural assumptions, let’s just consider one simple concept: it’s just when the penis goes in.