Are We In a Hyper-Sexual Culture or Not?
We're in an era where both fearing sex scenes and commenting "I know it's bubblegum pink" on women's TikToks are the norm.
Hello and welcome to Many Such Cases.
It’s been about a decade since I last cried laughing in a movie theater. I’m not terribly proud to admit that it was the scene in This Is The End where James Franco and Danny McBride argue over McBride’s use of Franco’s porno magazines and the accusation that Franco masturbates “like a pilgrim.” I was 16.
This Is The End, while not a Judd Apatow project, was the finale of the Apatow era. It’s all the names and humor and specific brand of raunch that he honed meeting their death. But it’s not just because Apatow personally has stopped making movies that I haven’t had as much luck getting a good laugh in theaters. Really, it’s probably just because I’m not 16 anymore, and what was funny to me then just isn’t as funny now. This Is The End is not a paradigm-shifting cultural product, but still it offers something by which we can assess what has changed. We’ve since entered a cultural libidinal rut — the rates at which people are having sex, as I constantly reiterate, highlight this. But in terms of media, I’ve seen this play out most recently in some of the responses to the upcoming romantic comedy Anyone But You, which will be R-rated. In the comments of a TikTok discussing this news, numerous people complained about this. “No rom-com needs to be rated-R,” one person said. “Some movies are basically just porn now,” said another.
My initial response to this was basically, what the fuck are these people talking about? Rom-coms have an extensive history of R-ratings — this is well in line with that tradition. Moreover, what movies exactly are like porn today more so than in previous decades? I can hardly recall the last time I saw a pair of breasts in film in a way that was explicitly meant to be erotic or fun, least of all one given a full theatrical run. HBO might offer us something in shows like Euphoria or White Lotus, but these instances of sex and nudity are never meant to be all that appealing. Instead, they’re meant to signal something bleak, a sense of emptiness or decay. Sex is rarely ever presented as a good thing.
And yet, foiling this sense of sexual stagnation is the intense sexual culture of the Internet. Scroll past this TikTok discussing R-rated rom-coms and you’ll find a thinly veiled OnlyFans advertisement of a woman claiming to sleep with her father’s best friends for content, or comment section filled with young men speculating upon the color of a woman’s vulva. The phrase “I know it’s bubblegum pink” has become a meme of its own because of this. It’s hard not to hear from parents that they’ve discovered their teenage sons commenting such things on TikTok and not think that we do in fact live in a hyper-sexual, pornographic world. But then again, I look back on a film like Superbad and the concept feels right in place.
So, where does that get us? It’s a rupture that I’ve never quite known how to reconcile. Perhaps the answer is simply that we live in a culture that is both hyper-sexual in some regards and sexually empty in others. Rather than two combatting perceptions of our current sexual state, these circumstances are deeply intertwined. We are in this erotically bereft, neo-puritanical moment because our relationship with sex has become schizophrenically compartmentalized. The sex that the Internet is saturated with — and in turn, the sex we are exposed to — are not ones of much eroticism and intimacy. There’s not really even any humor in it. There are exceptions, of course, and big ones — there is plenty of real-world, actually pleasurable and fulfilling sexual experiences one can have that originate online, and presumably the people who are hot and having sex online are also hot and having sex offline, too. But some of the individual pleasures that the Internet offers have come at the expense of our universalized sense of sexual culture charged with any symbolic meaning. It feels like we’ve been robbed of our sense of mystery.
What is responsible? Are things just too freaking woke? Is it our phones? Is it porn? Porn is now primarily consumed on phones, which wasn’t true a decade ago. But part of why the joke about jacking off like a pilgrim in This Is The End lands is obviously because Internet porn had long since been normalized. Before delivering that line, McBride notes that Franco built a house with iPads built into the walls — a more appropriate medium for porn, I assume. And surely this minute-long scene about ejaculating is its own indication of a hyper-sexualized world, too. But at least one quantifiable difference between then and now is that people were having more sex then. It’s my belief that this lack of fun and sex in film today and the anti-sex scene response towards a movie like Anyone But You is one of the manifestations of this shift. It’s confirmation that sex does in fact shape culture.
It’s all possible that the only thing that has really changed is our perception. Maybe the data about sex is wrong, maybe prudes were hung up about This Is The End or any Apatow production before that. This could all just be me projecting my own disillusions (well, obviously that is what this is) rather than any sort of coherent set of observations about a shared experience we’re having. And look, this Sydney Sweeney flick is happening. That’s good, even if the movie itself ultimately isn’t. Most people agree that the fear surrounding its rating is dull and childish. And surely there’s plenty of laughs and boobs I’ve missed in recent productions, too. There’s reason to be optimistic.
It’s not as though I’m nostalgic for 2013, specifically — we’d have to go back a bit further than that. I am nostalgic for laughing till I cry in a movie theater, for not being addicted to my phone, for not having the world at my fingertips, for a time of paper porno mags. I’m nostalgic, surely, for a vision of culture that never truly existed. But mainly what I think I yearn for is for a little mystique and energy. This is precisely what our current sexual world does not offer. The Internet has siphoned our sexual energy into its own well. It doesn’t translate into the fabric of our culture, only onto itself. The problem isn’t just that it’s addictive or alienating or divisive. The problem to me now is that really, it’s not even any fun.
By the way, I am in France this week. I am spending a few days in Paris and a few days in Marseille. Please send your best recommendations. I enjoy eating and drinking.
Also, if you’ve seen any movies/shows with sex scenes in them that aren’t depressing, I’d be interested in hearing about them. Thank you for being here!