Sex education in France is not bad. I remember having teachers tell us about STIs, consent and things like that from age 13 to the end of high school. Having talked to many of my non-French friends, I consider myself lucky that we even had that kind of discussion at a time when, realistically, my classmates were starting to be sexually active. However, absent from those sex education sessions was any kind of talk about same-sex relations. To be fair, they always mentioned that there existed people who were gay but it never occurred to me, from those educational videos they made us watch about coitus, that straight sex and gay sex were completely different things. I, along with many other LGBT kids, had to figure it out for myself based on the images of hetero sexual activities I had been shown outside of school —which I have addressed in a previous article. Mind you, that was about ten years ago, and I’m sure sex ed has evolved since.
I remember vividly the first time I ever saw gay sex on television. I must have been about 11 years old and I was staying at my dad’s, as I would on the weekend. I didn’t get to see him very often when I was younger, so he often tried to compensate by letting my brother and me play on our PS2 and watch cable television as much as we wanted. And, one night, as I browsed through the cornucopia of channels that were accessible to me only on Saturdays and Sundays, I stumbled upon a television show I would only much later know as Queer as Folk. If you have ever watched that show, which I’m assuming you have if you’re reading my blog, they have gay sex ALL THE TIME so, of course, the episode started with an orgy scene at a bath house. In retrospect, I find it funny that I wasn’t even shocked in the least that this scene involved at least 5 men having sex, but I guess the backroom-going sex-crazed trope was in concordance with what I had been told about gay men. [Side note: I don’t blame my parents for presenting gay sex in that way. They are very gay-friendly left-leaning baby-boomers, and what that means is that most of their gay friends were doing drugs and one another in the 70’s, only to be diagnosed with AIDS in the 80’s, and die in the 90’s.] For many years, that remained the only depiction of gay sex I had in mind that wasn’t porn, and so my frame of reference in terms of what it was supposed to look like was quite the overwhelming one — and I’m sure any lesbian who has watched The L Word feels similarly.
As a rule, sex is presented in popular media through the lens —literally— of creative storytelling and aesthetic inclinations. There is close to no room for imperfection: if it doesn’t serve the story, you’re not going to see anyone trip, or stutter, or sneeze, or do anything that would cut the pace of the narration. Fair enough, I don’t hate that there aren’t more people getting the hiccups for no reason in movies, probably because I have a pretty good understanding of how that works. However, I do get frustrated with the unrealistic expectations about sex that are perpetuated by its over-glamorized depictions in popular culture. I’m pretty sure teenagers have no idea of how FUCKING AWKWARD real sex is. Spoiler alert: no one choreographs your moves IRL. It’s usually pretty messy and unsynchronized and you don’t often get to do it to a string quartet. [Side note: I once had sex while American Horror Story was playing in the background so, sometimes, less is more.] There is nothing inherently wrong with the way that sex tends to be depicted on television or in movies, but I do wish we embraced the gracelessness of it, because that’s a huge part of what makes sex personal and intimate. As far as I’m concerned, being nude is no longer what feels most organic about sex, it is discovering someone else’s body in ways that please all parties involved, in spite of all the floundering that it implies. I find it a shame that, unless it’s one of the character’s first time, we don’t often get to see that as a positive rather than ineptitude.
What bothers me most with popular depictions of sex is the complete and utter lack of safety involved; or, to be more specific, the dismissal of safety as part of the sexual act. People often say that “rummaging for a rubber is just not photogenic,” but that’s a pretty lame excuse considering that the notion is very much relative to the ingenuity of the creative team —I mean, can’t we just put an Instagram filter on it and call it a day? Considering how influential some TV shows such as Friends have been on the question of contraception, I’m worried about the indifference shown by contemporary writers to such a pressing issue. Zachary Quinto recently said:
“AIDS has lost the edge of horror it possessed when it swept through the world in the ’80s. Today’s generation sees it more as something to live with and something to be much less fearful of. And that comes with a sense of, dare I say, laziness.”
But, as Damon Jacobs puts it in his response to Quinto:
“[…][I]t makes logical sense that ‘today’s generation,’ i.e., those who came of age after medication regimens became available in 1996, would perceive HIV as ‘something to live with and something to be much less fearful of.’ It would be illogical for an entire cohort to live in traumatic reaction to the ‘AIDS’ they never experienced, similar to the way I grew up without the horror of polio.”
Blaming the misconceptions of contemporary youth about HIV on young people themselves, as if somehow panic was the best way to work against the virus, sounds very similar to the kind of God-fearing abstinence-oriented discourse you hear from religious sex educators. The so-called “laziness” on the part of my generation —and, admittedly, I know very few people my age who have never had unsafe sex— doesn’t so much stem from our acceptance of HIV as something other than a death sentence [Side note: I, for one, am glad that the presence of people like Project Runway’s Mondo Guerra in our cultural landscape has diversified the representation of people living with HIV beyond the characters of Rent.] as it is a natural response to the complete dismissal of safe sexual practices in contemporary narratives. I still don’t really know when it is a good time to bring up the subject and I’ve been around the block, so I feel bad for inexperienced teenagers who are nervous enough as it is without having to figure out a way to be safe and sexy at the same time. It is definitely sad for people who engage in heterosexual intercourse, but at least they get some kind of education at school; when it comes to same-sex relations, popular culture is probably the only source of information one gets and even great shows like How To Get Away With Murder barely step out of their aesthetic comfort zone. Never forget: no glove, no love.