by Travis Hedge Coke
When the question of whether or not sex scenes in movies contribute anything positive, anything to character or plot, I thought of Ohtomo Megane. Not everyone’s go-to, particularly since they do not make movies, but I thought of their short comic, A Passing Story.
A Passing Story, like most of their work, is only available in English through illicit means. And, largely, they are known for their smut and pornographic work.
The sex scene in A Passing Story, is wordless, so there was no illegitimate translation, not that visuals are equative culture to culture. It remains different to read a wordless page in English or Japanese.
The scene does open up the conversation on what is a sex scene, and on what is sex.
It is without irony or good humor that the same persons who will insist sex is strictly a penis in vagina thrust repeat activity, are the people who will see everything from a hip to a hill as about sex.
Sometimes our prudishness is a matter of how well people can see over our shoulder, while sometimes the technical actions take a backseat to all other matters in context.
In a Marvel comic (X-Men vol 2, #108, by Chris Claremont, Brett Booth, Leniel Francis Yu, et al), which I assume saw a rise in resale value with Jonathan Hickman’s recent revamps, we saw a middle-aged doctor die of a horrible disease, and in the last moments of her dying, she had sex with Charles Xavier in a room full of people. Because the authors avoid the word sex, or a direct exaggerated euphemism, only showing one person straddling another, hips in close contact, hands on one another, naked as the day they were born, text about lovers floating around them, the comic has plausible deniability, but it’s sex.
In a DC comic, an early issue of Justice League Dark (Mikel Janin, Peter Milligan, Ulises Arreola), two characters have a tantric engagement, called maithuna in Buddhist and Hinduist religious practices. All of the contact is by fingertips, and all their fingertips do are touch. It is implicitly sex. It is culturally and religiously acknowledged, even if there is no physical contact at all, to be sex. Unlike the Marvel comic, this one is not published as approved by the Comics Code Association, but propriety is preserved in the esoteric phrasing of “tantric” and being less heteronormatively American-sex-sensibilities graphic than the X-Men scene.
While involving physical bodies and genital contact, Ohtomo Megane’s sex scene is also more abstract than the other two. Their line work begins representative and dissolves into inference.
Whether any of these are necessary, or efficacious, to progressing their plots, or two defining their characters, is impossible to objectively answer. So, also, it is impossible to say, objectively, whether the more representational two figures and the word, lovers, makes it more of a sex scene, despite contextual obfuscation, or the more contextually obvious but usually abstract.
Taken on faith, is it more sexual, or more plot relevant, that the two engaged characters are having to be separated by the man’s former high school student and her (grown) adopted son?
Is fingertip to fingertip sex a gain in intimacy, or parodic? Is there a tangent line between parodic, erotic, and pornographic?
All three scenes affect the tone and style of their respective comic, although I admit, the X-Men scene may present a different tone for me then for many readers, especially those audiences who will steadfastly deny that there is even a sexual connotation.
And, what of comics that are both sexually explicit, visually representational, and unabashed?
It is possible, and more than likely, that the reason we cannot pinned down which is more affecting, which is more effective, and which is actually sex, is that there is no “actually sex.”
One of the reasons filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, can intimate pornography with soft focus and giggles, is that, as with other taboo presentations, part of the audience always be relied upon to avert their focus.
This same response is how Alfred Hitchcock was able to convince motion picture rating boards that there was no on screen nudity or violent physical contact in the shower scene in Psycho, a claim repeated frequently by non-fiction books, critics, analysts, and film experts.
In recent years, David Lynch was able to have the entire screen warp during murderous gunshots, in the revival of Twin Peaks because audiences reflexively flinch response to the sound and context.
Movies, such as, The Hustle, were threatened with an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, because women spoke words like, “anal,” and not men.
And, so on, through any medium you care to consider.
Comics, and our response to them, is not significantly different to film, television, music, prose. Non-narrative film, the lack of narrative in music, particularly when non-narrative is a stand in for documentary, in film, and in music, for instrumental songs, is as much a fairy tale as sex scenes adding to the plot.
1 : having the form of a story or representing a story
2 : of or relating to the process of telling a story the author’s narrative style the novel’s narrative structure.
2. : the main events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.
– Oxford Languages
Like sex, plot and narrative are also easy to give a general definition to, but impossible to give a universally applicable description to. If we agree there are sex scenes that are nonpenetrative or sex scenes that are even without individuals contacting other individuals, that it is a sex scene whether the visual presented is of a person or persons or if the visual is directed away from them but still acknowledging their presence and the act, then a sex scene requires, fundamentally, nothing that comes into common definitions of sex. What are the prosody of plot? The plot or narrative of a comic cannot be limited to only “having the form of a story,” because everything has the form of a story if you are looking for, or even just only expecting a story. “An interrelated sequence” presented by the authors? All that’s in a comic is an interrelated sequence presented by the authors. Everything else is the indicia and some advertisements, maybe a letters page.
What are the segments of sex?
Even limiting ourselves to comics that are not based around sex or sex scenes – this would be so unfairly skewed if we looked at Small Favors (Colleen Coover), The Adventures of a Lesbian College Schoolgirl (Jennifer Finch; Petra Waldron), Lost Girls (Melinda Gebbie; Alan Moore), or Gullivera (Milo Manara) – the limitation ranges us into the question of how much physical romance or sexual anxiousness is enough to qualify as sex-adjacent.
Spider-Man comics are crazy horny sometimes. There are Spider-Man comics where he’s eager for a sexual partner, Spider-Man comics where Spider-Man shuts the door on us, the reader, to pretty clearly have sex, there are sex jokes, there are narrative implications of sex. But, it is true, we have seen Spider-Man hit his wife more times than we have seen them have sex.
There is no argument that sex does not motivate Small Favors, that sex scenes are not constant, yet most of the sex in the comic is both explicit and nonexistent, as fantasies of the protagonist or inherently dreamlike scenarios without followthrough or physical causality. Which, is the case, as well, for the first half of The Adventures of a Lesbian College Schoolgirl or CLAMP’s erotic daydreams series collected as Miyuki-Chan in Wonderland. If a dream-murder is not a murder, is dream-sex, sex?
Showing off in-progress pages of a new comic, recently, Jennie Gyllblad tweeted, “It’s about the get LEWD,” above a page almost completely concerned with hands and face as a woman returns home, turns on a light, hangs her coat, and checks her bag. There is no effort to eroticize in the cheesecake or erogenous zone display checklist sense. Her eyes widening, loosening the tie at her neck, the wrinkling of her clothing. That emphasis on eyes and mouth, on hands and fingers, panel to panel, when prefaced with, “It’s about the get LEWD,” makes it lewd. The sexual content is generated in promise.
Which brings us back to X-Men #108 and A Passing Story, and why the X-Men comic requires a clear visual in classical heterosexual sex positions and the erotic short can avoid the clear delineation of physical bodies or specific types of physical contact. The explicitness is built, not into the comics, themselves, but the audience’s expectations going into those different comics. X-Men #108 is banking on an audience who will temporarily pretend that sex does not exist, while A Passing Story can jump ahead, artistically and narratively, because the audience is in a place to pre-assume.
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