Several years ago I spent a few days in Las Vegas (my first time). There I discovered, while walking the strip, that there are locales in conservative America where one publically receives free and graphic pornography. The dozens of business cards handed to me as I walked the city of sin not only provided an image of the naked women, but often, a woman seemingly engaged in some sort of sex act. I think at the time I was quite surprised by this. I was not surprised to see such an image, but surprised at how alien these sex acts looked and how the sex act itself had taken on a clumsy, or rather cliché,  closeness with performance.

I have thought of that recently, off the back of the Blue is the Warmest Color discussion. There has been a lot of demanding and compelling pieces (see for example here and here), especially around the way in which sex is portrayed in film. I can’t help but think though, that critique of the sex act on the screen misses the mark when it fails to consider the gender dynamics at play, as this summary post does. It seems to me that the now legendry ten minute sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color gives us some space to consider the way patriarchal heteronormative gender (re)performance pervades sex acts in commercially viable cinema and television production. I mean this in terms of the sex acts of heterosexual women (so for me, the ‘sexual revolution’ as portrayed on commercial film educated me in the how-tos of sex performance in ways that seem much less than revolutionary. Ater leaving Vegas, I realised that at one level those graphic business cards were actually the conservative I knew all along), and also in terms of non-heterosexual sex on film (especially the sheer lusciousness invoked when heterosexuals say “Lesbian love scene”). So the apparent problem with Blue is the Warmest Color is not merely about stylizing lesbian lovemaking, but also about the way the patriarchal heteronormative is still driving the sex act. Even when commercially viable projects push the boundaries a little (I am thinking the first sex scene The Kids Are All Right) it seems to do so in a way that still makes sense to the heterosexual; the boundary is pushed as far as the male heterosexual gaze can withstand. Perhaps this is why both heterosexual and lesbian sex acts almost never engage sex toys in commercial productions.

I wonder then, if performativity and subjectivity are even helpful categories when thinking through sex acts, or at least the possibility of sex acts disentangled from the titillating patriarchal and heteronormative productions our generation watch on the big screen?  For instance, is there a way in which ambivalence[1] could speak of bodies that simply collide with all sorts of impulses to engage with those body parts we know as the breast, anus, vagina, penis, and so forth? And is it possible to think through this primarily with a theological lens? I am, of course, cautious to continue. But would it help to understand those bodies more primarily as creatures? Maybe the category of creature could undermine some of the entanglement in agency/subjectivity/performance that fuels the stylizing of women’s bodies at sex.  Earlier (warming: enormous theological and provisional leap ahead![2]) I thought of Vladimir Losky and wondered about apophatic practices and the possibility of sex as creatures colliding in an ambivalence that forms a kind of performative undoing. Is this why drunken sex or very bad backyard porn often seems closer to slipping out of performative categories, or at least seems to make more sense of our animal, or rather, our creaturely impulses?

I don’t want to finish here by simply dropping the ‘everything is really queer’ hermeneutical key. It seems a rather heterosexual thing to do these days, and I think it forms a trope that demands critique for its disembodied appropriation. But I would like to have a conversation around the collision of identity politics, performativity, and sex acts. And I hope that we in theology can attend to this is some way that makes use of theological categories in ways that might surprise us.

[1] Obviously what I mean by ambivalence needs a lot more unpacking here. I am trying to think through a posture of ambivalence towards the gender construction from which sex act on film so often portrays. This is not to sublate the subject, or abandon identity politics, but rather to play differently.

[2] Keep in mind, this is a blog post!

2 thoughts

  1. There is something in sex as performative on the big screen that I think you touch on, especially as it seems to still go only as far as what is comfortable to a heterosexual man (though hardly a conservative religious one). Yet I also wonder, how much sex do I really want to see performed, regardless of its boundaries? I ask mostly because I think there is something to how it forms our expectations in ways that simply do not reflect reality, no matter with whom we are having sex.

    I would also like to hear more about how you think viewing ourselves as ‘creatures’ fits in to this, especially in light of Lossky and undoing. Coakley highlights the way Gregory of Nyssa sees sex as a kind of undoing which reflects our undoing before God who cannot be contained. In contrast to Augustine, she notes that while both value properly ordered desire, in Augustine this leads to sex which is under control, and in Gregory sex which is beyond (not necessarily out of) control.

    If apophaticism is to have a place here, perhaps it is to acknowledge the ways in which a shared sexual experience can approach our undoing before God without needing a manual (written or visual) to describe how that happens or does not happen. In other words, there are qualities that accompany such ordered sex but not necessarily particular (and only a certain set of particular) acts. The problem with the media (and certain obsessive strands of theology) is that it so often tells us exactly how sex should happen. It is still about control, this act leads to that response, bing bang, done.

  2. I do want to say more about what I might want (and as you rightly point out, we are not necessarily talking about the gaze of the conservative religious hetero male) and not want portrayed in film. I think this has always been a difficult space for feminists, because while I agree that the commercial production of and logic of mainstream sex laws (cue, just for fun,Beck!) exercise an – what is for many at least – unhelpful control over sexual practices, I can not imagine a future in which this patriarchal gaze does not push further and further the stylized image of women at sex. And this really does alarm me.

    So that is why I am interested in practices of undoing (and I think Coakley is helpful here because she at least wants to say something also about celibacy) and the category of creaturehood. Is this a category that can move the discussion away from the human subject and allow women to contest a more ambivalent space? Ambivalence, of course, can also be dangerous. I guess I am very interested in how those of us invested in the theological enterprise think about this and if some sort of theological retrieval can be useful here at all.

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