I can no longer remember the faces of the first strangers I watched have sex, only that I was in high school, and it was late at night, and I was terrified by the sight of a penis exposed, center-screen, angrily pink and erect. It was aggressive, erotic, uncensored, and entirely new. Penises are not something they show you in the movies.
It wasn’t the first penis I’d seen in my life, but it was the first one I’d seen on screen. I only started watching porn after I’d already lost my virginity, when the mysteries of how you do it have already been dispelled. But how do you do it on screen? That I was still curious to learn, trembling in the dark, afraid that at any moment my parents might burst into my room and discover me to be someone wicked and sick.
Even then, I sensed I was doing something deeply wrong and perverted—not watching porn, per se, but watching it as a woman.
Here is the funny part: most of the time when we watch strangers have—or pretend to have—sex, we are surrounded by other strangers.
It’s one of those weird things that we have collectively decided to pretend to be comfortable with, like sitting children on the laps of an old men pretending to be Santa Claus, or the garter ritual at weddings. In crowded theaters, warm with the bodies of people I didn’t know, I have watched Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda’s egg sex, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux scissor, and Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou in orgasmic close-up. Despite this being the appropriate, artistic way to watch intercourse, I still find myself paralyzed during these scenes, as if any fidget or adjustment I make in my seat could signal to the people around me that I am unbearably aroused.
Even when watching more mainstream sex scenes—Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams’s sizzling, post-downpour make-up sex in The Notebook (2004), for example—the audience is expected to be unresponsive. There is an odd movie or two where this unwritten rule is allowably broken, such as the hoots and shouts expressing a distinctly visual pleasure from the audience during Magic Mike (2012) or Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). But when on-screen flirting and dancing progresses into something that would be considered pornographic if it were found on a virus-riddled website instead, a respectful hush typically falls over the crowd.
When this hush is broken, it feels violent and dangerous. During a particularly steamy scene at a New York City library’s screening of Chelsea Girls (1966), one audience member became so engrossed in the picture that he began muttering phrases to himself normally reserved for the intimacy of one’s bedroom. “Yes, yes,” he panted aloud, so all of us could hear. “Mmm. Yes, yes.”
The audience quickly became agitated and alarmed, with people shouting back “be quiet,” less disturbed by the disruption—people had been coming in and out of the room talking all night—than by the man’s alarmingly honest, and indecent, declaration of arousal.
When I saw Gone Girl (2014), I shared a row with a middle-age woman who took a flash photograph with her cell phone at the exact moment the internet alleges you can see Ben Affleck’s dick as he steps into a shower. But for the most part, moviegoers have agreed to the unspoken rule of acting impossibly unfazed by whatever bodies on screen might expose, or do, to one another.
The old rule of thumb, of course, is that the difference between mere cinema and “porn” is a gut-level recognition: You know it when you see it. But try telling that to the woman who has Affleck’s blurry dick on her phone. Nevertheless, the subtle semantic shift from porn to sex scene gives a woman permission to enjoy looking, at least on a level that is intellectual, acceptable, and clean—and so long as she doesn’t let anyone around her know she is aroused.
That being said, decades-worth of cinema was made by men and for men, “the male gaze” being that famous heteronormative phrase expressing the distinctly masculine way of framing of an actress’s body on screen. I blame this patriarchal double-standard for why it took high-school me so long to find a penis on-screen, and why I had to finally resort to porn to actually find one. A woman’s breasts are readily shared on celluloid, but what might arouse heterosexual women is harder material to come by. There are bold and profane exceptions, such as a close-up of Hedy Lamarr’s expression during an orgasm in Ecstasy (1933), but such films are noteworthy for a reason.
Instead, many women have had to learn to live off a visual appetite prescribed for heterosexual men, a fact that often extends to porn as well as cinema. But while sons might be gently slapped on the wrist for their discovered stashes of skin flicks, laughed off for “boys being boys,” women are supposed to be satisfied with erotic literature, insubstantial daydreams, and maybe the odd dick pic or two.
While there is a large female audience ready to pay for more male nudity at the multiplex, its conspicuous exclusion might be explained by that unspoken fear men harbor of being made obsolete by women finding sexual satisfaction, visual or otherwise, without them. Consider a wry observation made in Wonder Woman (2017): curious young women can quickly realize that, with a little imagination, they do not need to depend on men for pleasure.
But as often as we might watch “sex” around strangers, we do not often watch porn around them.
This is a fairly new phenomenon. Pre-internet generations were not afforded the luxury of Pornhub and the incognito browser window. Before the internet, there were pay-per-view “adult” television channels that could show up, unwelcome, on a bill. And before television, there were porn cinemas (again, a particularly male pastime, although Sandy McLeod in Variety (1983) shows a refreshing curiosity about porn). Plus there have always been pornographic magazines, which, unless stolen, need to be honestly bought, presumably meaning making eye-contact with another stranger.
Our discomfort watching sex around other people is only heightened today by the fact that the internet has made your business just that: entirely your business. And for the most part, your peers typically hope you keep it that way. Couples might watch porn together, and teenagers might show each other clips in the locker hallway between periods, but on the whole the internet has given us permission to explore what excites us unhindered by what others might think.
This goes for women most of all. Yet despite having the power to watch porn without judgment, or perhaps because of it, female viewership is still grossly misunderstood; a search for information on the topic turns up titillating personal essays (“Why, as a woman, I love watching porn”) and sensationally-spun statistics (“One in three women admit they watch porn at least once a week”).
Women are routinely fed the belief that by watching porn we will arrive at “unrealistic expectations” about sex—or worse, we will somehow be damaged or corrupted by the content. It is an infantilizing proposition: that a woman can’t distinguish reality from the fantasy of a porn video, but is safe from the sanitized, steamy sex in The Notebook.
This is to say, I was breaking all the modern rules of “viewing while female” when I watched porn in a movie theater for the first time in 2014.
I was a senior at Bennington College in Vermont, where a double feature of L.A. Plays Itself (1972) and On the Prowl (1989) had been advertised on homemade flyers around campus in the final few weeks before the autumn term ended. I tried to casually talk my friends into going with me, mumbling something incredibly chill and normal like “Hey, did you hear they’re showing porn in the campus theater tonight? Do you guys want to go, you know, check it out?”
So I went alone. Oddly, despite having advertised free porn for a week, the theater was empty but for a small handful of chain-smoking, flannel-wearing classmates sprawled out in the back row. Blessedly there were enough open seats that I was able to triangulate a spot as far away from any other human body as I could possibly get, leaving a buffer of open seats free around me on all sides.
L.A. Plays Itself screened first, a strange, experimental gay porn flick that shifted from a long, serene sex scene outdoors to a hardcore S&M sequence that left me deeply (and perhaps childishly) terrified for the actors.
I was also a little distracted. Throughout L.A. Plays Itself, one of the girls in the theater stood sideways against the projection so her body cast a shadow on the screen, and all the while she held a toy gun suggestively between her legs. Sometimes she would stick her tongue out. It was, I figured (although it had not been advertised on the flyer) a kind of performance art project.
When it was time to switch over to On the Prowl, the girl with the gun returned to her seat. One of the boys in flannel and a thick cologne of hand-rolled American Spirits stood up and gave a brief introduction, something about how there were lots of different versions of On the Prowl; that it was a pioneering work of “gonzo porn;” and then a bit about it being the inspiration for a famous scene in Boogie Nights, a movie I hadn’t yet seen. While he was talking, I mostly focused on fixing my face into an expression of just the right amount of scholarly interest.
The boy returned to his seat and the projector went momentarily dark before flickering back on. The screen was abruptly filled by a shaky shot out the front of a car, with lavender credits flashing the names of the participants, plus a tantalizing, uncredited conglomerate labeled “the men they pick up.”
The next shot was the backseat of a limo, where a man and two women sat, looking slightly cramped. “Here we are, driving around in San Francisco, going down to North Beach, where I’m going to get a quick espresso to keep me up for the night,” the man said. “A friend of mine, Linda, is on my left, and Renee Morgan, who is really the star of the film, is on my right.”
The man added, as if it was nothing in the world: “The idea is, we’re just going to go around town tonight and pick strangers off the street—men, maybe a woman, maybe we’ll go to a dyke bar—and see if they want to fool around with Renee, and see what we get.”
The man, who left himself out of the introduction, needed none: He was Jamie Gillis.
Gillis is a controversial figure in the porn world, a bisexual actor and director who was famously down for pretty much anything, his restlessness sometimes bordering on a kind of cruelty. “I’d like the readers to think I have scruples,” he told an interviewer a decade before On the Prowl, in 1979. “But alas … none at all have I.”
Gillis starred in hundreds of adult movies; he was so popular in 1989 that when the On the Prowl crew pulled over to the side of the road to pick up a pair of Marines, one of the soldiers admitted on camera: “I know who you are.”
The Marines in question were Shawn and Carl, the first men in the flick to be lured into the limo with the promise of being in an X-rated film. But rather than cutting to the sex at that point, like most pornos do, the camera lingered on the Marines as they attempted to make small talk with Gillis. Meanwhile Renee, in the center, struggled to get the air conditioning to work. “It’s hot,” she complained.
Tempted to check the time on my phone, I guessed at this point it had been nearly 10 minutes since the film began and no one had, well, fucked yet. There had not even been a flash of a nipple here or there to hold the home viewer over. Instead, the actors were focused on trying to sort out the air conditioning as the two men they picked up off the street sat patiently to either side in the backseat, making polite conversation.
It would have been almost humorous if it weren’t so completely mundane.
Finally, after what seemed like an impossibly long time, Renee and Carl began to have sex. Shawn sat by awkwardly until Gillis prompted, “You want some head, Shawn?”
Shawn blurted that he was not up to the job yet and Carl tossed his head back in a laugh. Gillis jumped in: “Hey, hey, listen,” he said. “That happens to all of us, you know? It happens on film with me sometimes.”
Little was happening on screen, as Shawn himself had admitted, but I was completely rapt although, watched strictly as pornography, the whole movie appeared to be a dismal failure.
If porn is a fantasy, then this was something else entirely—the unpleasant reminder that the people in front of the camera are, in fact, people, complete with imperfect bodies that misbehave at inopportune times. While among porn’s abundant criticisms is that it sets “unreal” expectations for viewers, On the Prowl instead rudely jerked back the curtain on the constructs of sex on camera.
There is sex in On the Prowl, but there is a whole lot of not sex too. Gillis was constantly intruding a microphone into the frame to catch the wet sucks and moans of Renee and the strangers in the car. Renee fixed her lipstick with a towel between blowjobs and later wiped semen off her stomach and fiddled with her hair. At one point a camera cable comes unplugged on the street. Some shots are zoomed in so close that they are just a skin-colored blur with nothing for the home viewer to even focus on.
Who is this supposed to be for, anyway? I wondered, completely bewildered by how different it all was from the porn I’d perused in shameful hours of the night.
But by the time the film ended—with a shot of Renee’s final lover sauntering down an equally anonymous, muggy San Francisco block—I had figured out an answer to my own question. I was bursting with excitement.
On the Prowl had taken a predominately male art form and turned it on its head, putting the woman in power as foolish young men like Shawn climbed into her limo, presumably fueled into the folly by the dream of becoming a porn star. Of course, none of them do. The men are instead a giddy combination of awkward and eager, unsure where to put their hands, posturing as sexual conquistadors while at the same time clearly not understanding how to make a woman tick. Renee was patient, but looked increasingly disinterested in sex as the night wore on. A hilarious observation: This was how so much of sex plays out in real life, too.
Even with Gillis at the helm, On the Prowl was empowering and hilarious, sexy and strange. I wanted to write about it and discuss it with my professors, to read scholarly articles about its merits and debate its flaws. I wanted to browse Renee’s red carpet photos and read her interviews. Then all at once, the excitement drained out of me. On the Prowl, I realized, was my secret. It wasn’t “art” simply because I’d seen it in a movie theater. No matter how much I might analyze it, praise it, or discuss it, the film would remain that unclean, unwelcome, unspeakable other; porn.
I felt awash in the same shame of those dark nights in my bedroom in high school. Again, that refrain: I wasn’t supposed to be watching.
Since seeing On the Prowl, I have watched dozens of films with so-called “unsimulated” sex scenes in theaters. But when the shots are well-lit and composed by auteurs—Nagisa Oshima, Alain Guiraudie, or Lars Von Trier, for example—my gaze is understood by those around me to be that of an unaffected cinephile, not a deviant woman. To shatter that fragile assumption would be unpleasant for everyone involved.
We are told (so much of writing about porn begins with that clause, “we are told”) that men are the ones who are visually stimulated, that “watching” is a pleasure afford uniquely to them. More than half a century of cinema was shot under this assumption, and who is really to say it has stopped now? What remains for women to enjoy is a sanitized Victorian romance and the climactic swell of the orchestra when the couple is, at long last, reunited.
As women, our gaze is constantly talked down to on screen, our desires limited to sweet nothings and roses, or, if we get lucky, an open hand on a steamy car door in the belly of a doomed ocean liner. There are very few sex scenes—or porn films, for that matter—made for skin-hungry female eyes. Such a thing is not supposed to exist. We are not supposed to exist.
When I left On the Prowl that night three years ago, I was faced with the fact that being a woman who looks is a dangerous, unspeakable thing to be. It is powerful. It means you might not need a man to satisfy you, and where does that leave men? It means that my eyes can turn penises into objects, tools for getting off, blurry pink pixels on a phone to be pulled up again and again.
So this is my great and terrible secret: I am a woman who watches sex. I watch sex in movie theaters, where fucking is an art to be politely applauded when the credits roll. I watch sex in films that have been banned for being obscene, and I watch the glossy, golden sex of summer blockbusters. I watch sex in basements, and on my apartment’s television, where it can be seen from the street. I watch sex on the backseat screens during airplane flights, and I watch sex on my laptop, in incognito windows, where it is still considered dirty and wrong and obscene.
The more I watch, the more I am unlearning my shame.
If history has taught us anything about sex, it is that the profane becomes safer with time. In a college philosophy course, one professor spent two hours showing us ancient Greek pornography. The postcoital opening scene of Psycho (1960), which once shocked audiences for depicting lovers in the same bed, now seems tame enough to show a child. Film Society of Lincoln Center, a New York City theater buoyed by the donations of wealthy Upper West Siders, is already tentatively venturing into reframing pornography as art with its recent retrospectives of “adult-oriented” filmmakers like Radley Metzger and Walerian Borowczyk. How long now until there is a Gillis retrospective? Until Pornhub is in history books? Until we can call On the Prowl art?
To the others like me: Be patient. Already the mainstream film industry is changing—slowly, and sometimes awkwardly, but bit by bit, from the Rabbit in Sex and the City to the cunnilingus in Fifty Shades of Grey to the admission of masturbation in Wonder Woman. Porn and cinema and art are sisters, and in each the female gaze is breathtaking and increasingly diverse and representative. It is a celebration. It is an act of rebellion. It is a weapon.
To the other women, the curious ones, the ones who want to look without shame but don’t yet know how: A happy ending does not always require a sunset in which to ride off into. Sometimes all you need is a muggy San Francisco night.