Lexi Bickell takes DIVA on a journey through her viewing history 

BY LEXI BICKELL

It’s no secret that TV and film are incredibly influential. They hold sway over the opinions we form about everything from politics, to food and sex, both when we’re growing up and as adults. With the average UK adult watching three hours 45 minutes of TV per day, and 72 films per year, it’s no wonder that advertisers fight tooth and nail for prime commercial slots. 

A good example of this kind of influence is the billion-dollar phenomenon, Fifty Shades Of Grey. The first book was an overnight sensation when it was published in 2011. It became the fastest-selling paperback ever released in the UK and pushed erotica into the mainstream, pervading so far into the public consciousness that it became standard reading for commuters. DIY chain B&Q even issued warnings to their staff to expect extra customer queries about BDSM-related items (think cable ties) when the first film was released. 

The third and final instalment of the movie trilogy premiered at the beginning of this year, and it got me thinking about the way sex is portrayed onscreen. A lifetime’s exposure to TV and film must massively contribute to the attitudes and opinions we have as adults, even when we think they’re our own – including those about sex. 

For this article, in honour of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, I decided to get personal, revisiting some of the most memorable sex scenes from when I was growing up and examining how they affected my attitude towards sex and my own sexuality (spoiler: it’s not heterosexual).

1. Titanic (1997) 

Titanic was one of the first “grown up” films I watched and it perfectly captures what the first on-screen romances I saw were like – straight, traditional and pretty vanilla – and always with a tasteful cutaway before the sex got too heated. Scenes like this reinforced the idea that adults gave to me and my friends; that sex and romantic love are all tied up together. You don’t get one without the other. The physical details of sex, I was naturally a bit hazy on at first (who knew a blow job had nothing to do with a hairdryer?!) but I wasn’t concerned about it. I figured that whenever I eventually fell in love, with a man, the physical stuff would sort itself out. 

2. Mr And Mrs Smith (2005), American Pie (1999)

The illusion that sex and love were tantamount was shattered when I watched Mr And Mrs Smith aged 10. The film was hugely influential on me, as well as on Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s marriage. Brad and Angelina Jolie alternating between violently shagging on the kitchen counter and throwing knives at each other was the first time I’d ever seen rough, completely unromantic sex. I can see in retrospect that it was the first time I’d considered that you could have sex with someone without being in love with them. It freaked me out! It disrupted all of the ideas about sex that I’d had and made me, for the first time, feel scared of it in some way. 

It was an unfortunate coincidence that I also watched American Pie for the first time around then. I went to all-girls schools for the entirety of my education, so when Jason Biggs used an apple pie as a Fleshlight, I was horrified. The only boys I knew were friends’ brothers – I had no male peers I could reference this idea against. Were all guys like this when they were alone? Were apple pies crumbling all over the nation and I’d been oblivious to it this whole time? Cue a frantic, prepubescent Googling session with terrifying results. 

3. The L Word (2004-2009)

Jumping forward a few years to 2009. By this point, I’d grown up a bit. I was in an awkward adolescent stage consisting of spots, greasy hair and a growing interest in sex; I also had an increasing inkling that I wasn’t as straight as I had assumed. The L Word was like nothing I’d ever seen before and it shocked me. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing diversity of characters in mainstream film and TV, how lacking it was just a few years ago. The only gay woman I remember seeing on TV until that point was Willow on Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and she wasn’t even my type. The L Word was a whole ‘nother world. I stumbled across the iconic lesbian show online and watched it secretly on my laptop like so many others, petrified that my parents would catch me and ask what I was looking at. I wasn’t scared because I thought they would be angry, but because I was far from ready to consider the possibility that my Titanic-fuelled heterosexual daydreams might not come true. I loved seeing the women onscreen experiencing the same highs and lows as heterosexual couples. It assured me that if I ended up with a woman instead of a man, my life wouldn’t have to be vastly different. 

4. Black Swan (2010), Sex And The City (1998-2004) 

By 2010, I had shrugged off some of the grease and had more confidence in myself. I felt comfortable calling myself bisexual too, even if it was only to a couple of people. I’m not wild about labels now but I don’t oppose them either, because bisexual was identity-confirming at the time. It gave me something that I could point at and say “that’s me”; a verbal security blanket. Watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis writhe around in a trippy, lingerie-fuelled sex scene at the cinema only added to my assurance that I was on the right track. Black Swan’s effect on me was similar to that of The L Word, except bigger. This was a huge, mainstream film, with actors in it that my friends recognised. Seeing two young women having relatively graphic sex in a movie that everyone was talking about made me feel less “weird” and isolated, and made me think about coming out to more people. 

It was also at around 15 or 16 I started watching Sex And The City, on a DVD boxset. I LOVED this show, mainly because of Samantha. Despite being all for the idea of female empowerment before I even knew it was called that, I had no understanding of female sexual empowerment. Very few of the women I had seen in films and on TV took real control of their sex lives, and even fewer “used” men in the same way I’d seen men “use” women onscreen. Samantha was the first woman I’d watched who was unapologetically sexual, all the time. She refused to allow herself to be judged for her sex life and if someone tried to, she told them to fuck off. She helped me to realise that sex not being sweet or loving didn’t necessarily make it bad, just different. I vowed to emulate her attitude in future romantic dealings. 

5. Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013), Orange Is The New Black (2013–)

Both Blue and Orange came out when I was 18, in 2013. At this point I was far more mature (thank god) and far more relaxed about my sexuality. I’d been out with guys and with girls and there was far less fear surrounding sex in my mind. I was openly bisexual to my friends and telling my family was just around the corner. However, a different issue had arisen. I had a sense that sex was supposed to somehow be pretty, or neat, probably in a reflection of how I felt I was supposed to be. The trouble, as anyone who has had sex will know, is that sex is neither pretty, or neat. These were the first things I’d seen that showed what I would consider to be more realistic sex. It wasn’t always pretty. It could be messy, sometimes funny – people got things wrong, and it wasn’t the end of the world. This was important for me to see, although I didn’t know that at the time. It made me less concerned about sex being perfect and more about it being fun, which really, is kind of the point. 

So, how did the TV and movie sex scenes I saw change how I see sex?  When I first learned about sex, it was very narrowly defined; it was the result of one-man-one-woman love stories. Now, as long as sex is between consenting adults, I don’t think what or how people do things, or who they do it with, is anyone else’s business. 

Examining my own viewing history has really brought home how important onscreen representation is, and is something I’ll definitely be paying more attention to in future. It’s also reminded me of my 15-year-old self’s best life advice: WWSD – What Would Samantha Do? 

This article first appeared in the September 2018 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!

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