What is Queer Sex?

by Connor Winterton, Birmingham City University, UK

Over the last six to seven years there has been a wave of filmmaking emerging that I label as ‘Neo-Queer Cinema’, which includes films such as Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs 2012), Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche 2013), Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie 2013) and even more recently Theo and Hugo (Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau 2016). This is a wave of queer filmmaking that crosses national boundaries (insofar that it does not belong solely to one film culture) and belongs more to the independent realm of cinema than the mainstream. While New Queer Cinema, particularly in the early 1990s, offered a variety of queer representations and unapologetic attitudes, the last decade has seen more conventionally romantic, sexually explicit and even homonormative relationships being brought to the screen. Recent neo-queer films have been exploring themes of love, lust, intimacy, as well as loss, emotional struggle and heart-break. Most, if not all, of the films I include as Neo-Queer Cinema include some kind of sex scene in them, some more explicit than others, and often explore (implicitly) what it means to engage in ‘queer sex’, providing a form of queer visibility that has not been so often represented on-screen. While my research so far is continually expanding, one of its main aims is to interrogate what it means to engage in queer sex and particularly how Neo-Queer Cinema has represented these acts. But, before I can critically engage with the films, what even is queer sex? This article will briefly explore what the term ‘queer sex’ can mean, providing one example from a neo-queer film and the other from a more heterocentric film. 

The most obvious and popular definition of queer sex is that it is sex between LGBTQIA individuals and is only ‘queer’ because ‘queer’ people are doing it. This is also the most prevalent type of queer sex represented on-screen, where the sex acts may themselves even be normative, even though they are performed between and by queer individuals. Typical gay, bisexual and lesbian sex acts such as oral sex (blowjob and cunnilingus), anal sex, masturbatory sex, even playing with sex toys (vibrators, dildos, butt plugs etc.), is (arguably) familiar and practised by people in real life, in porn and in some theatrically released films. These acts are not decidedly radical, transgressive, or even taboo, they are only ‘queer’ because they involve queer people. While the (gay, lesbian or bi) sex acts may not be exactly transgressive or radical, representing them on screen is transgressive, to an extent.

A neo-queer film like Blue is the Warmest Colour, for example, recognises and challenges the boundaries of typical representations of sex and explicitness in cinema. It includes sex scenes that are lengthier than many theatrically released films, while placing the spectator very close to the characters and the sex they are engaging in through certain stylistic strategies like the close up. The film has been heavily criticised and academics like Stuart Richards (2016) discount it as a queer film because of its heterosexual male director and its objectifying sex scenes, which is clearly debatable. [1] However, Blue is an illustrative example of a film that represents ‘relatively explicit’ sex between LGBT individuals that, in turn, is not exactly ‘queer’. [2] The sex in the film symbolises a rite-of-passage for its protagonist Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos) that is common to US teen films, and the film largely represents the sex as being a physical manifestation and expression of love between Adele and Emma (Lea Séydoux), which could be seen as being hetero or homonormative. The sex acts they engage in are somewhat conventional, typical of porn as they ‘scissor’ and erotically lick/touch each other, and engage in oral/masturbatory sex (no toys included!). The sex, then, is only queer because two lesbians are doing it, and this is somewhat typical of most neo-queer films. 

The other proposed definition of queer sex to offer is that it involves sex acts which are non-normative, and this time can be performed between heterosexual or queer individuals. This may include BDSM, kink, fetishes (for example autoerotic asphyxiation or bestiality) and non-normative sex acts such as fisting, water sports, orgies, or even erotic vomiting. [3] These acts defy normative ideas of what sex is assumed to be, challenging the boundaries of what we see as ordinary. As Robert Reid-Pharr states: ‘it would seem that every time a fag or dyke fingers a vagina or asshole [it is seen as] a demonstration of queer love or community’, instead however, ‘dominance, submission, violence, real or imagined, are often integral parts of queer sexual practises’. [4]

A film that, for example, represents a form of queer sex that is not just simply ‘sex between LGBT people’ is Crash (David Cronenberg 1996). [5] The opening of the film begins with Helen (Holly Hunter) erotically rubbing her breasts on a small (well, tiny) aeroplane, letting the smooth and cold metal graze against her body. A man then approaches her from behind, partially undresses her and begins kissing her bottom, while she rubs herself against the machine. The characters’ fetishes throughout the film revolve around the danger of crashing (in a car) and having sex with others who have survived car accidents. While some fetishes are not always transgressive, the nature of the characters’ fetishes in Crash and how their bodies interact with the cars or other objects is unusual, non-normative, queer. Their sexual desires transgress the boundaries of normativity and they take pleasure in engaging in queer sex, even though all of the characters are heterosexual and the film is arguably heterocentric.

As I am in the early stages of my research more meanings and definitions of queer sex will no doubt crop up. What I can say is that both definitions proposed here are forms of queer sex that challenge cinematic and normative boundaries and are transgressive when represented on-screen.

Notes

[1] Stuart Richards. 2016. ‘A New Queer Cinema Renaissance’. Queer Studies in Media & Popular Culture 1(2), 215-229.

[2] Linda Williams. 2014. ‘Cinema’s Sex Acts’. Film Quarterly 67(4), 9-25.

[3] See Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. 1998. ‘Sex in Public’. Critical Inquiry 24(2). Winter, 547-566.

[4] Robert Reid-Pharr. 2013. ‘Dinge’. In: Donald E. Hall, Annamarie Jagose, Andrea Bebell and Susan Potter (eds.) The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 213.

[5] Another example would be Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell 2006).

Contributor

Connor Winterton is currently a PhD researcher at the Birmingham School of Media, Birmingham City University. His thesis is concerned with the representation of ‘queer sex’ in contemporary American and European cinema, in a wave of filmmaking he labels ‘Neo-Queer Cinema’. The thesis will critically discuss what queer sex may be defined as, whilst also examining the stylistic and narrative representation of queer sex acts, and how they have or have not changed since the 1990s (or more precisely since New Queer Cinema). He is also currently writing a chapter on female heroines in Tarantino’s films (more specifically Kill Bill and Death Proof), which analyses on-line responses to the women in on-line spaces such as blogs and community forums.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s