Hollywood porn

Definitely not the opera

Lights, camera, action takes on a whole new meaning with real sex in movies

Last month, actor Shia Labouef announced that he would be having “real sex” in his upcoming movie Nymphomaniac. Labouef said all of the sex scenes in the movie, directed by Lars Von Trier, will be real, not simulated, and that although some of the scenes will be blurred during the theatrical release, the uncut version will be available on DVD. This news created a major buzz among the entertainment websites, but it's not terribly novel.  Although it sounds shocking, this will not be the first time “real sex” will be included in a movie released into theatres.

The line of what can and cannot be shown in movies has been gradually pushed from the days when a man and woman could not be shown in the same bed together, even if they were fully clothed, to the point where the sex scenes are so graphic it's hard to tell what's simulated and what's real.

Although many movies were rumored to have featured actual penetration or oral sex, most of the actors involved have stated emphatically that they were just excellent acting jobs. Sienna Miller and Hayden Christensen, for example, have denied that their sex scene in Factory Girl involved actual penetration. But some mainstream movies have featured real sex scenes and Von Trier seems to be the industry leader. His 1998 film The Idiots and Antichrist from 2009 both feature unsimulated penetration scenes among other sex acts. However Von Trier confessed the main actors in the movie did not perform those scenes. Porn actors were brought in as doubles.

Most of the movies that have featured real sex acts have been foreign films, but John Cameron Mitchell's Short Bus, released in 2006, contained a bunch of real sex scenes performed by the actors themselves. It is one of the only North American movies ever to do so. Canadian radio personality Sook Yin Lee performed unsimilated vaginal and oral sex for the film. It was considered so salacious that CBC threatened to fire her from her radio job for doing the movie.

Why is it so rare and why does it cause such a frenzy? If sex scenes have become so graphic that you can barely tell the difference between acting and the real thing, why is crossing that very thin line such a big deal?  The argument levelled at Mitchell was that by adding real sex, he had turned his movie into porn, instead of art. But our need to define what is porn and what is art is superficial and it becomes meaningless when you look at any of these movies. In pornography, sex is the main objective and the story is built to frame the sex scenes, if there is any story at all. The sex scenes are designed specifically to arouse—it's meant to get you off.  Non-porn movies might arouse, but getting off is not the primary goal.  The sex scenes are a part of the story.   Most of the sex scenes in Short Bus were more disturbing or thought-provoking than they were hot, and it was exactly because they were so real.  They were reflective of our real experiences with sex, which are usually not glamorous and sometimes confusing, disappointing and even funny.

The contradiction in how we deal with sex in movies mirrors how we deal with it in real life. We want to use it, discuss it, make money from it, but at the same time we want to distance ourselves from it. We want to get a thrill from it, but we don't want it to be real. As if to underscore this point, earlier this week Von Trier announced that Shia Labeouf and his co-stars will not be having real sex on screen after all. The sex scenes in Nymphomania will be created using body doubles and visual effects. Still, whether the line is real or imagined, few dare to cross it.

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