by Tony Comstock
Special Guest to the Legal Satyricon
In a world that seems awash in sexualized imagery, why is it that so little of this imagery speaks to the common pleasurable reality of sex? We’ve been producing the “Real People, Real Life, Real Sex” erotic documentary series for some time now, and I’ve heard the same kinds of questions dozens, perhaps even hundreds of times from people who know and love our work, from therapists and counselors, from people in pain about their sexuality, and from people enjoying their sexuality as part of full and wholesome lives. Over and over, I am asked, “Why are films like ours, films that depict sex in a way that is joyous and cinematic, almost nonexistent?” “Why are art films that contain explicit sex always so downbeat?” “Why does pornography look and feel so different from the other sorts of visual images we see?” “How does what we do — and do not — see in cinema affect our understanding of our own sexuality?”
I’d like to say the answer is that I have a special insight into the human sexual condition as it relates to cinema, but it’s a little more complicated than that. To truly understand why sex on film looks the way it does, one needs to look at the history of sexual imagery in cinema, the history of obscenity laws, and the business and technology of image making. Once you have that background, you can explore how cinematic images actually work, and how that relates to cinematic depictions of sexuality. I have spent many years investigating that background, and the more I learn, the more I am driven to make the films that we produce.
I have been a photographer my entire adult life. I believe passionately in the power of the moving image to help us understand who we are as human beings. I’ve documented unspeakable suffering, violence, and death. For that, I’ve been called a courageous witness.
In bearing witness to sex, I sometimes get called other, less charitable names. Sometimes this hurts my feelings. Sometimes it makes me feel like quitting.
I bear witness to the sex act because I believe that depictions of truly joyous and wholesome sex — depictions that represent the overwhelmingly positive and important role that our sexuality plays in our humanity — are all but absent from the cinematic landscape. Moreover, in an age where it is easier than ever to see sexually explicit imagery, it is harder than ever to find imagery that reflects the common reality of sex: that sex is nice; that sex is normal; that sex is good.
I’d like to share a comment left on my blog about three years ago. As you might imagine, doing this work and demanding that it be taken seriously can sometimes be a struggle. But when I despair, I go back and read this:
I have issues with sex. I’m a sexual abuse survivor. Anyone who’s been sexually abused comes into sexuality with a handbag and two trunks of emotional baggage.
When we were trying to conceive there was a blatant point to having sex: having a baby. That made it okay. After all, society couldn’t look down it’s nose at a married couple — young, still facing fertility problems, trying to have a child.
And then when the child is born, you get the excuse of body recuperation. And if your child is sick, you get a bonus 6 month reprieve. However, there does come a point where sexuality, motherhood, couplehood, and life clash. I’m tired. Sex requires energy. So does doing the dishes. But sex requires an emotional investment, something I’m not ready to make, something I feel inferior making. So the dishes it is. And laundry for good character.
I feel conflicted by sexual imagery. I sometimes like what I see. I sometimes like it a lot. But sometimes it scares me. I’m not pretty like Eva Longoria. I’m not thin or have shiny hair. I don’t have nice breasts. Mine are saggy and droopy and currently nourish the body of a very rotund 9 month old. They serve a purpose, and purposeful breasts aren’t sexy — to me anyway. And besides, they don’t LOOK like the breasts I see on TV. Perfect, sculpted breasts. Breasts that boys like. And bodies. Don’t get me started on the bodies.
What we see isn’t real. It’s said over and over. I know there are 50 people off-set creating the magic. What they’re feeling isn’t real. What they’re doing isn’t real. And it makes me wonder if what I’m doing is okay. Emotionally un-investing myself in my relationship. Because really, I can’t ask family about sex. I can’t ring my mother-in-law up and ask her if she ever felt this way when looking at her naked body. Or ask her if she felt hung up on emotional issues when her husband’s hand touched her bottom.
Abuse survivors bring guilt into the game as well. Not only do we have more bodily hang-ups, failed relationships and mental problems, but we have guilt about sexuality. About wanting sex. About feeling GOOD about sex.
Today though, something struck me in just in the right spot. I had one of Oprah’s famed “a-ha” moments. A link took me to www.comstockfilms.com. Dubbed: “Real People, Real Life, Real Sex” the site explores sexuality for real. In a documentary style, we meet and enjoy the couple and then venture into the velvety movement of their bodies.
I must say. I was stunned. I’m not a fan of porn. I am disgusted by a lot of what is sold to men. The fairytale behind that isn’t charming, in my opinion. But watching these clips I thought, wow. Oh my goodness. So THIS is sex. For real. And I loved the charming banter of the couples. I feel grown up right now. Like a real adult. I’ve confronted one of my demons — enjoying a sexual experience — and I can actively admit that I enjoyed it. Which is probably a lot more information that you’ve wanted to hear from the mother of a child who doesn’t do a lot of sleeping. If you’ve got the time and the inclination I encourage you to take a step into the realm of Comstock films. It’s the first step I’ve taken to embracing that humans are allowed to be sexual beings. – Jen P.
Award-winning filmmaker Tony Comstock frequently lectures on the legal and business realities that shape and too often warp the sexual imagery we see. Drawing on examples from Hollywood’s history of self-censorship, landmark obscenity cases, and the collision of technology and image-making, Comstock offers an expanded framework for understanding of how what we do and do not see in cinema effects our understanding of our own sexuality.