Death of the Critic

Fetish on Film

Written by: Tom Blaich

I've written about sex for this site before, but today I want to talk about another oft-overlooked part about sex on screen: kink. It is an aspect of sex that most people try to ignore because it doesn't fit in their neat little box of what sex is and what it should be. A dirty deed that isn't to be talked about, done only between a man and his wife in their bedroom at night. If you want to show a character as really wild, you'll have them break one of these conventions in their sex. Maybe they'll have sex out of wedlock, or do it in a different room of the house.

When we see "abnormal" sex, sex that strays from these rigid moral guidelines, it is usually done to show us how "weird" a character is, how "non-normal" and different from the main character they are. Bad people are linked to kinky sex all too often in film, as if a predilection for whips and leather makes a person evil instead of simply kinky.

There is also an intense shyness towards non-normative sex. Light BDSM is usually as far as kink will go on screen, with maybe a riding crop and some showy leather dominatrix outfits. Because it is always a dominatrix and she is always a sex worker. It is a strong combination of male gaze and compulsory heterosexuality all rolled into a ball of “non-offensive” sex acts. It’s a scene you’ve probably seen a few times before in actions movies, where our hero bursts through a brothel and sees a chubby businessman type tied to a sawhorse or cross getting paddled by a sweaty leather dominatrix.

As awful as
50 Shades of Grey is (and trust me, it is awful), it is the first film in a long while to be main stream and prominently feature a male and female dom/sub relationship. It had a whole host of problems, like the fact that it modeled an abusive and awful relationship, but the degree to which it became a part of the culture is fascinating, and it was interesting to see an alternate display of sexuality actually gaining traction for once, most through an audience of middle class women, instead of the men that a lot of movies seem to be aimed at.

Usually, alternate sexualities aren’t a good thing in movies. Our heroes are whitebread Americans who like whiskey, guns, and consensual heterosexual sex with their loved ones. Our bad guys are the ones with the dangerous proclivities, with soft spots for whips and leather, candles and pain. It’s an age old tactic in storytelling of creating an “other”. This “other” is different from the majority of your audience. Instead of being a straight, white, 30-something year old male, they are immediately identified as an other. Maybe they are black, or gay, or Arabic, that one is popular lately. Or maybe they like being whipped by someone during sex. This “otherness” is tied directly with a concept called “compulsory heterosexuality” which
I’ve written about before in an essay on James Bond and Goldfinger.

“Compulsory Heterosexuality” refers to the societal view of what the “default” sexuality is. This creates a great deal of pressure on non-cishet people to appear/act as heterosexual so as not to be seen as being an “other”. Adrienne Rich popularized the term in her 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She describes it as the concept of heterosexuality being one that is enforced by the patriarchy, even when people don’t self-identify as such. Heterosexuality is “natural” so GSRM groups are therefore “unnatural”.

For a long time (and even now) showing a character as non-heterosexual was a way to show certain traits. They were evil, unnatural, and strange. Lesbians were just frigid women who needed a good man. A gay man was unmasculine and weak. Curiosities to be looked and discussed in whispered tones but not understood. There were certain rules build built around sex for a long time where we could barely even show hints of it. The idea of “immoral” (read: non-heteronormative) sex was strictly forbidden. Even now, things like male bisexuality isn’t aren’t regarded as a real thing.

So what happens when we have sex that is so outside of the norm as to be shocking to some people? That isn’t a man and a women vaguely humping in the dark or two women rhythmically grinding on each other without showing any nudity or actually doing anything remotely resembling lesbian sex. What happens when the costumes come out. Or the sex toys. Or something even more wild.

Try to think of an inclusion of any of these things outside of jokes in mainstream movies. When even a vibrator is considered weird, how is a film supposed to show a convincing and serious fetish-based sexual relationship? There is an inexorable link in the minds of the public between kink and deviancy that is so hard for people to break. It’s come to the point where the idea of some kinks is seen more of a joke than as a real thing. Where the idea of someone having sexual desires that do not mirror your own is laughable.

There was a
very interesting documentary made recently about the porn website (Very NSFW obviously). Turns out that these leather-clad, knot-tying, dildo-wielding fetish experts are just as normal as any other person that you’ll ever meet. The only difference is that they are a lot more open about sex and sexuality, where a man can be whipped by two women for an hour and then treat them perfectly normally afterward.

People like to put sex into a box. A nice neat square box that they can tape up and put in the back of their closet and never talk about. They hide all of their sexual fantasies in the bottom of the box and try to cover it up so that no one will find about them. They treat people who leave this box in the open as others, as weird. They are afraid of what they will find in someone else’s box because they are afraid of what they have buried in their own.

We tried to set a strict rule of morals on people: look like this, talk like this, eat these foods, read these books, and fuck like this. However, a lot of people are starting to break this rigid set of rules, thinking outside of this box, and packing it full of their latex and leather. We have works like
Girls, Queer as Folk, and so much more that show us sex is more than just hushed humping in the dark of night.

Turns out that women masturbate. That straight men like sex toys. That gay men exist. That people are inherently different. There is no norm for us to follow or one size fits all moving box for everyone to pack their sex lives into. We are too vanilla, and we are afraid to spice things up. But we shouldn’t be. I wait for the day that a mature fetish relationship can be shown onscreen because that is the day that storytelling has chosen to finally evolve. It gives us a larger foundation to work with for our characters and our stories. It gives us more variety. It better shows us what the real world is like.

Who gives a fuck if it’s weird?


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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