The depiction of LGBTQ+ sex in films: problematic or not?

During February, we annually honour LGBTQ+ history month and a great way to do so is to look at how society portrays the community, especially through media like film.

Laura Kasongo
8th February 2023
Image Credit: IMDb
I recently saw To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! (1995) at the independent Star and Shadow cinema here in Newcastle, who are celebrating LGBTQ+ history, and found it to be a film of pure Queer joy; surprising for it being an early Hollywood breakthrough. Whilst not in the prior mentioned, there has always been the issue of fetishisation or harmful untruths within LGBTQ+ cinema, particularly when it comes to portraying sex.

After avoiding it for fear from its criticism, I watched the well-known Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and now understood some of the backlash. The sex scenes between Adèle and Emma felt borderline pornographic to watch, especially when ‘69ing’, and whilst I’ve witnessed graphic heterosexual scenes, these felt more staged from fetishized stereotype. It felt like I was inside of the head of the teenage boy who wants to watch the lesbians make-out at a party. As well as being unrealistic, their relationship seemed to solely rely on sexual desire and focused on this idea of lesbian hunger, which heteronormatively removes weight to their connection.

Yet, French LGBTQ+ cinema does redeem itself in possibly one of my all-time favourite films - Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a lady on fire (2019). Who would’ve thought that a historical drama could depict same-sex intercourse more beautifully than a modern one?

In great contrast to Blue is the Warmest Colour, Sciamma prioritises intimacy through gentle touch and whilst we don’t explicitly see the sexual act, we are aware of it in the morning-after. Héloïse asks “Do all lovers feel they’re inventing something?” to Marianne and this in itself reverts any lesbian stereotype adhering to the heterosexual gaze. The female form is admired and armpit made vaginal, still with a soft touch in a nature that’s not implicitly sexual from shame but personal intimacy.

There’s a tendency in LGBTQ+ films to contrast a protagonist’s experiences of opposite and same-sex relations, yet the heterosexual counter is abortion in Portrait of a lady on fire. Perhaps this illustrates lesbian sex as one of mutual satisfaction and not the male carelessness impregnating young Sophie. In Blue is the Warmest Colour, Adèle’s sexual experiences with men are depicted as unsatisfactory, born out of loneliness and in Call Me by Your Name (2017), Elio’s are out of internalised homophobia. Tom is duty-bound as a husband in My Policeman (2022) to Marion, but their mutual dissatisfaction from such clinical sex differs entirely to the love-making between him and Patrick.

Patrick and Tom actually look into each other’s eyes when loving; something which he cannot do with his wife. Luca Guadagnino also doesn’t make the sex scene explicit in Call Me by Your Name, focusing on the lovers’ shared vulnerability through intertwining bodies. I generally do believe it difficult to make a sex scene worthwhile in a film without it being skipped for adding very little to the plot or leaving little to the imagination and that’s further complicated by understandings of LGBTQ+ sex. Queer sex shouldn’t be made pornographic but neither should it be erased.

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AUTHOR: Laura Kasongo
Arts Sub-editor, Poet and Photographer.

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