A cinephile’s sex education

It’s family movie night — a couple of laughs fill the air, emotional moments come and go but nothing you can’t handle.

That is until the two main characters kiss. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, you are bombarded by A Sex Scene.

You don’t know what to do. You can’t look away — then they’ll know you know what sex is — and Dad is frantically reaching for the remote to skip the scene while Mom tells you and your siblings to close your eyes. But you just can’t look away…

I grew up in a household where all sex talk was avoided, which is pretty ironic considering South Asia’s pride and joy — Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and the many other regional cinemas have a history of heavily sexualizing women.

For most 2000s kids, “Shelia Ki Jawani” was the item girl song. Just like its predecessors, this sequence includes the female protagonist singing a song with suggestive lyrics, to a crowd of ogling men. Our heroine seduces the crowd of men with the subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, sway of her hips.

As a young girl, I was mesmerized by these movie sequences. I never really picked up on the sexual nature, to me these were just really pretty girls in even prettier outfits. In the case of “Sheila Ki Jawani,” I was made acutely aware of the song’s sexual nature, with the lyric “I’m too sexy for you” in the chorus (which I only ever whispered under my breath or altogether avoided).

Sex wasn’t talked about outside of home either. At my elementary school of just under 200, I never received a full, in-depth and comprehensive sex-ed class. Instead, we were just separated by assumed gender and told what happens to each body (periods and boobs or body hair and erections). So for me, and so many others, sex scenes in movies acted as our sex education.

Although the average PG movie (or even one rated-R) isn’t as explicit as porn, sex scenes — whether filmmakers are aware or not — build a base-level understanding of sex for the viewer. Gender roles of sex and intimacy are constructed from the get-go, through the Disney movies we watch as children to the TV shows we grow to love as adults.

In children’s and teen media, sex and relationships are expressed as a resolution and be-all-end-all. In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is saved from her death-like sleep by a non-consensual kiss (and of course, they live happily ever after); in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, Samantha’s family forgets her birthday and the saving grace is the attention of Jake Ryan and his red 944 Porsche. The film includes normalized sexual harassment. Yet, Samantha and Jake end up together.

Despite these relationships with bizarre power dynamics and the woman never getting what she deserves. In Dirty Dancing, Baby and Johnny have sex in a moment of vulnerability. Sex becomes a declaration of love without explicitly saying “I love you.” Having sex was a resolution to the built-up tension and high emotions — they literally dance their way into bed. Johnny tells Baby about how sex with her is different, it’s real.

Nowadays, sex is spoken about more explicitly in media. Take Netflix’s Sex Education as an example. It unabashedly talks about sex, sexuality and gender identity. It explores Queerness, asexuality, masturbation and even has a full episode about vaginismus.

The show’s first season came out when I was in grade 10 — I was beginning to have questions about sex that I didn’t even know how to ask.

Funnily enough, my mom watched the show with me. I slowly became comfortable enough to ask her things like “Would that actually happen?” (cut to Adam taking three Viagras in the first episode).

It’s with shows like Sex Education that I think film and TV can become a safe space of sex-ed and send home messages around sex and intimacy that will improve our understanding.

There are already small improvements in media, in Bollywood — like Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani which has not a trace of an item girl sequence and didn’t shy away from topics of feminism, sexual assault and gender identity.

Although I don’t need explicit sex scenes featured during family movie nights, I hope sex can be portrayed as a nuanced part of life.