catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 12 :: 2007.06.15 — 2007.06.29


Sex, lies and videotape

Sexuality & the ABC’s of P, G, R, N, C, 13, 17, & X

In 1989 a young filmmaker named Steven Soderbergh helped jumpstart the modern independent film movement with his debut movie sex, lies, and videotape. It’s the story of a man who ventures into the world of sexuality by interviewing women discussing their experiences on camera. What’s most intriguing about this movie, aside from it launching a unique filmmaking talent, is the subject matter. Sexuality is a topic always at the forefront of our minds whether we like it or not. I feel like the social debate regarding its impact is minimal while the celebration of it without consequence is ultimate. To counter that, I’d like to open the bag and begin a dialogue.

We’ve all had a variety of experiences and they dictate a significant portion of how we see the world and those within it. One of the more essential areas of our experiences hinges on our human sexuality. Like it or not we’re sexual beings. It’s this subject that is often met with body shivers, chair shifting, or loss of eye contact. I’d like to just explore this subject by recounting my foray into this world and hopefully opening some dialogue. 

For me growing up next door to my older cousins and having liberal access to cable television, I was allotted vast sexual experiences before I’d even grasped the essence of it. However, I was also raised around a sentiment of apparent fear regarding sexuality in the South. I was raised with a plethora of religious experiences and the taboo nature of this subject in these circles is strong. Without question, sexuality seems to be on par with Al Capone, Public Enemy No. 1. The tension seems to dwell safely in the secrets, the places we don’t go either because of fear of exposure or fear of what we’ve been told will happen to us if we do what we’re not supposed to. Talking with a colleague recently, she recounted an experience regarding her journey to get married in the Church.  Having had a child before getting married she noted what she thought everyone in the required marriage class was thinking: here’s a “sinner”. 

The secrets run the show in my estimate. The secret experiences maybe even our parents don’t know. The things we did behind closed doors as adolescents or otherwise or perhaps still do. Maybe you’re back-logging your recent activities at this very moment, even looking around in shame or guilt regardless of the fact that you’re alone. For many it’s a stashed magazine, an isolated retreat of feast and lust. For others, it’s late night cable, bar-hopping for one-night memories, or just unabashed promiscuity. Much of what goes on internal—or at least what happens experientially that we banish to the dungeons of our minds where the memories stay until we resurrect them for glory shenanigans over beer with our bar-buds or in the locker room. Some are pretty clandestine about their sexuality while others are brash and bold. One thing’s for sure, sex brings humanity to its knees both figuratively and literally. The senses succumb one by one to the thrill of the pursuit, countless dog-eared moments in our mental memory books if not in our photo albums. Again, like it or not we are concretely interlocked with the issue of human sexuality and it’s essential for us to consider it and its powerful impact on us and our culture.

Anything can trigger the memory of desire. It might be that ole tune that epitomizes your adolescence and your attempts at learning to explore the sexual baseball diamond, i.e. how to run the bases, when to stop, and when to steal. It might be an old fragrance or a picture. Perhaps we can’t pinpoint a day when our sexual intrigue began to stir but there certainly are moments that impact us. For many, at least in my generation, one of those moments happened in 1982. It starts with bass thumping and guitar. We don’t yet know it’s a fantasy. Slowly Linda Barrett begins to get out of the pool in slow motion. The Cars’ “Moving In Stereo” continues to resonate. This is Phoebe Cates in Amy Heckerling’s movie adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Legend states that most VHS copies of this cult hit ran fuzzy during this scene due to the large quantity of rewound use. Some might be able to cue up Rod Stewart’s “Infatuation” and others Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red”. Regardless, many of us do act like Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to our sexuality. I think we’re all in need of some reflection, or as Dr. Seuss notes it, “Oh, the places you will go.”

Sexuality is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere and then some. Our television sitcoms, commercials, reality shows, magazines, advertising on billboards, in newspapers, movies and music, on and on—they all put the issue front and center. In our mental reconnaissance of lust and Eros and in the silence and secret unaccountable rooms of the mind, we plead the fifth, we deny, we avoid. I’m not advocating pure unadulterated exploration. Some would, but I don’t. Yet, I’m hoping to audit my own experience and how such has shaped my current view for good, bad, or ugly. Why, because I don’t merely live for myself. I, like many of you, have kids. It’s my responsibility to help shape and guide understanding, mine and theirs. I don’t want to be afraid anymore. My religious culture has helped condition me, like Pavlov’s dog. For those of moral and theological mind, I understand the struggle to find balance. The fear lies in subjecting ourselves to such rumination and what might happen. Yet the cognitive retreat isn’t all that healthy either. As glamorous as sex is in the stored images of our minds, there’s always a ‘take’ element to it, as in sexual pleasure as something that is essentially for me and thus meant to be taken, as in ‘scene-six, take-five, action’. I think most of us could attest that the billboards of adventurous sexuality that we wear around are mere sophomoric fantasy.

I’ll offer you a brief visual example of the significant and seemingly under acknowledged impact of sexual image. In the period of the late 1480’s, premier painters in Italy laid their brushes to the wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. They painted frescoes. The technique consisted of painting in pigment on wet or fresh lime mortar or plaster. The essence lies in the wet plaster, as it dries, it absorbs the pigment and the painting actually becomes one with the wall rather than merely resting on top of the wall. Similarly, I believe the sexual image is just one of the images with such power. In other words, sexuality leaves a vast impression of understanding and therein consequences. Our minds are plaster that becomes infused with sexual images.  

It’s hard to identify, practically at least, why it is we are so consumed with sexuality. Futile perhaps to consider it but we need to ponder it. We seem driven by this revolutionary ideology of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Our happiness is supreme and therefore we seek it out, quite often sexually. What is it about our sexual identity that keeps us churning? If you stroll down the eclectic streets of Deep Ellum (Dallas), Adam’s Morgan (Washington D.C.), South Street (Philadelphia), or M Street in Georgetown, take a look around, what do you see? Shoulder to shoulder in the local eateries and fluffed in the windows of our stylized fabric havens is a throbbing desire to attract and maintain intimacy. We want to be known and yet we’re afraid of it too. Our periwinkle gabardine jackets and our wine-and-dine romance seem to be about, not sex, but our identity, our sexuality. 

To take movies as an example, consider the sex comedy. A quick overview would suggest that the modern rise stems from the early 80s. It was movies like Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, and others that set the tone, and just at the right time, the evolution of the home-video market and cable television. Then it seemed that Reagan’s influence permeated the movement and the sex comedy went underground for a bit. It’s recently resurfaced with a vengeance in movies like American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Wedding Crashers, and Knocked Up. These are major ‘money-makers’. Consider American Pie, a humble little raunchy comedy with a budget of $11 million which grossed over $235 million worldwide. Wedding Crashers brought in over $280 million with a budget of $40 million and Virgin raked in over $170 million with a budget of $26 million. We’re not even talking about home-video profit. What’s the point? There’s a market, a big and hungry market, for laughs and sex and film has been helping deliver sex to the masses for generations. The Classical Hollywood filmmakers had to be creative to sidestep the Hays Code and genres established unique conventions to adjust. Movies in the Film Noir style utilized cigarettes and Hitchcock utilized images like that of a train entering into a tunnel. All in all, sexuality and its message, like any great being, adapted. It always finds a way.

It’s important to acknowledge the context and how it might enlighten us to our current condition. In the 1940s, there was a young copyrighter for Esquire magazine named Hugh Hefner. He was a big fan of pinups like the “Memphis Belle”. Rose the Riveter and the impending World War did much to set the table for our current conditions yet we merely want to blame an idea, sexuality, not ourselves. Sex and movies go hand in hand, they fit. Movies are simply illusion. They allow us to create an ideal world. Thus, our fantasies coupled with illusion make for good sexual currency. Why aren’t Norma Jeane Mortensen and Margarita Carmen Cansino household names? Because Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth are creations of film history, sexual symbols of freedom and exploration, that’s why. Like Phoebe Cates for the generation X folk and Welch, Hayworth, Monroe, West and others before, sex and movies are a significant slice of life in our sexual identities. We should embrace it, seek to understand it, and learn to move forward, not avoid.

Sex seems to be something that can consume you to the point where you might need to employ the ole stop, drop, and roll technique. Sexuality is just one of the many ways people search for a sense of identity. Indeed as Paul Simon suggests, there are ‘fifty ways to leave your lover’ and they all tickle the fancy of Jack, Stan, Roy, Gus, and Lee. What’s so wrong with pleasure? An answer of ‘nothing’ might seem to suffice. Yet, is there a point at which pleasure should be bridled? I’m not suggesting iron-clad chastity belts or PAX television, but too much pleasure can entangle our souls. Just as well, an all out retreat from the issue and its impact is naïve and unnecessary. Even considering the average waistline of Americans should suggest that pleasure is not always a good thing. Sexuality, this unsinkable cheerio that floats to the top of the social bowl of banter, is reigning supreme without a constituency that’s reflective.

If I could make an observation about the moral mind, especially the Church, regarding sexuality, it would be this. It’s like Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. There’s a sense in which we’d like to rehabilitate the public mind regarding sexuality, an aversion therapy of sorts. As a moral and Christian man myself, I, in many sentiments, agree with that notion because it seems that human sexuality has been subjugated to our lusts under the inebriating notion that consequences are minimal. Is there any truth to how the so-called secular culture tends to see the religious culture, like a lagging world of discipline equivalent to a 1950s high school teacher with a vast supply of rulers? Perhaps, but the religious culture and its attempt to rehabilitate ‘inmate six double five three two one’ isn’t too far off from that extreme. We need an emotional and cognitive audit.

Again, like an expanding national average waist line, over time we abuse and take more than what our bodies need, and we harm ourselves—but in the name of pleasure, it becomes acceptable, a right even. The sentiment is you only live once. Even the most simple and mundane things like advertising seem to have an affect on us. We all know sex can sell anything: motor oil, cars, hamburgers, and of course beer. It keeps most corporations in the black. It’s what the studios used to get butts back in seats during the depression. It almost feels like the Church is the Orwellian likening of “Big Brother”. Of course, there’s got to be more to our human sexuality than the Old Milwaukee beer ad, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

Sexuality gets people hot, in terms of their libido and their anger. We’ll either launch or explode. Where’s the balance? Ten. Why can’t we develop a healthy understanding of sexuality? Nine. Eight. What is a healthy or proper way to understand human sexuality? Seven. Six. Five. What are we doing alone and behind closed doors? Four. Three. What are we thinking as we pass attractive lads and ladies? Two. One. Where do you stand in this debate? Are you the debris that’s just exploded or are you the mid-air rocket?

None can attest to what sexual escapades do inside, to the heart and mind. We know our own experience but we’re limited in our ability to know the minds of others. Yet knowledge of the self provides at least a clue. There are consequences, good and not so. Musician Ben Harper’s “Alone” seems to capture the internal strife for me. As I’ve sought to understand myself, those around me, sexuality and the like, I’ve found in these words challenging, a resonating voice:

This empty room it fills my mind; Freedom it leaves me confined; Every single wall has cracked; But in this life you can’t turn back; I don’t want to live alone; I don’t even know myself inside; I don’t want to be alone; Human nature is a beast; Please don’t leave me here…Alone!

Wherever we might currently be in our public and private sexuality, a rumination of our innate design and our tendencies should be welcome. For the moral-minded, should we be reciting and canting the sentiments of our religious leaders, “We counsel you…not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don't see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic. Don't listen to music that is degrading."? For the sexual carnivore, what present and lasting consequences, internal strife, or otherwise are being bred by our inability and unwillingness to consider the nuances of sexuality? I think we ultimately have to know ourselves well. We need to be students of ourselves—something we’re not all that good at. Perhaps it’s time we went a bit deeper. Or as Brooks Atkinson once noted, “People everywhere enjoy believing things that they know are not true. It spares them the ordeal of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for what they know.”

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