“But Simulated Sex isn’t Real Sex”

A couple weeks ago, we looked at a chapter from Mindy Kaling’s book Why Not Me?, entitled “I Love Sex Scenes!” In it, she claims that she isn’t the only one who enjoys onscreen simulations of sexual intimacy. And even though she uses some hyperbolic language to make her point, she’s still right in that she is not alone:

  • The conventional response to sex scenes is that they’re horrible and not sexy and it’s all so unnatural. But I’ve always found filming sex scenes to be quite a turn-on. I like the experience of being in a sexual position when you’re not supposed to be in one.” (Hugh Grant)
  • “Sex scenes are great. A lot of my costars have been sexy guys my age who are really respectful and cool. So, why not? I’m not going to pretend it’s not fun.” (Amanda Seyfried)
  • “You are not supposed to say that you enjoy doing sex scenes, you are supposed to say ‘Oh it’s really difficult, you know with the lighting and the cameramen and the boom operators are all watching,’ but I never had that. I just like doing them.” (Stephen Moyer)
Do testimonies like these contradict what I’ve been saying over the last few years? After all, a large part of my time has been spent on the testimonies of actors sharing how horrible and degrading sex scenes can be.

The answer, however, is that there is no contradiction. In fact, the positive testimonies of Mindy Kaling and others actually serves to further confirm what I’ve been saying.

After all, my point has never been that all actors are inherently repulsed by sex scenes, just that many of them are. Their experiences, while not universal, are prevalent. That leaves room for other actors to have different—and even vastly different—responses.

I submit that the reason why many hate sex scenes, and why others love them, is the same: sex scenes are sexual. This dichotomy of emotionally charged responses—hatred and love—is evidence of experiences that are far from innocuous. This hatred and love are passionate reactions to vulnerable experiences (i.e., sex acts outside the normal and appropriate boundaries).

Of course, the dominant cultural assumption is contradictory. If the actors don’t actually “do the do,” their sexual acting out can’t really classify as “real” or “sex.”

Over the next few weeks, we will examine five problems with this line of reasoning. Today, let’s look at the first problem.
1. It’s Faulty Logic

It is true that a typical sex scene in a film, TV show, or stage play doesn’t involve “actual penetrative sex” (as Mindy Kaling called it). But what is that even supposed to mean? What does that prove? Simply that no reproductive protuberance was inserted into a reproductive receptacle? Are we supposed to bow down in awe before such inspiring acts of restraint?

Try using that same logic in any other area of life:

  • After a date, a teenage boy proudly tells his girlfriend’s parents, “We only spent twenty minutes in the backseat of my car, and your daughter is still technically a virgin!”
  • A high schooler tells her parents, “My partner in art class had me undress so he could paint me naked. But don’t worry: after he positioned me like he wanted, he never touched my body again.”
  • A husband tells his wife, “I’m so glad we finally had actual intercourse. All that foreplay stuff was boring and non-sexual.”
  • An out-of-town businessman tells his wife, “A woman came on to me at a bar, and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so we only fooled around. But nothing really serious happened, and I thought she was unattractive anyway.”
Would any of these people be praised for their virtue? Hardly. They’d be rebuked for their foolishness and impropriety—and rightly so.

Now, it could be argued that in most of the hypothetical scenarios above, the implicit motive of the sexual offenders was faulty to begin with. That is, their goal was to get as close to the line of punishable impropriety without actually crossing over it.

Yes, indeed. That is exactly my point. The motives of all actors might not be as devious—in fact, I know they’re not (since many of them feel pressured or forced into nude and sex scenes)—but the end product is practically identical as the scenarios above: “Sure, the actors kissed each other in various places, and they touched each other in various places, and they undressed each other (to a degree, at least), and certain body parts were uncovered and captured on-camera—but come on, they didn’t actually have intercourse!”

Or, to quote from a real life example (a 2016 round table discussion with several actresses):

Jennifer Lawrence: I had my first real sex scene a couple weeks ago, and it was really bizarre. It was really weird.

Cate Blanchett: When you say “real sex scene”—you mean penetration?

[Everyone laughs]

Jennifer Lawrence: No. No, yeah, thank you for clarifying.

So, because Lawrence wasn’t penetrated, we can all relax. It wasn’t really “real.” No harm, no foul, right?

As I have previously explained, Lawrence’s emotional description of her first sex scene—involving drunkenness, anxiety, and gut-wrenching guilt—is nothing to laugh at, and nothing to dismiss as “unreal.”

Whether we’re reading the testimony of Jennifer Lawrence or Mindy Kaling, we’re reading their response to something very real. We’ll continue our discussion of this very real thing next week.

Next entry: When Actors Enjoy Simulated Sex, What Does That Prove?