From edition

Review: Screening sex

Linda Williams

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008

By Frederik Dhaenens

Linda William’s Screening Sex is undoubtedly indebted to the legacy of Michel Foucault. In 1976, he stressed that there is no essential truth and fixed meaning in relation to human sexuality. How one experiences and/or expresses sexual desires depends upon a specific time and place. He argued that there is no core identity that defines one’s sexuality. Rather, the construction of sexual identity happens within the realm of a specific society where hegemonic discourses define the sexual, and social, political and cultural institutions are used to subdivide sexuality into categories of preferable, deviant or restricted sex acts. Throughout history, each society has been relocating its boundaries and redefining what is approved sexuality and what is sexually perverted. Stephen Garton (2004) argued that because of this continuous shape-shifting it is impossible to draw up ‘a’ history of sexuality. Yet, he stressed that it is important to study the diversity of sexualities throughout history. In a similar way, Williams does not set out to write a history of the representations of sex but presents us an assessment of different discourses on the screening of sexualities throughout the history of the moving images. Although her book is a chronological retelling of cinematic representations, she does not consider her study to be a straightforward story that starts with humble kisses and ends with explicit in-your-face pornography. She is more concerned with how these screenings of sexuality became part of the carnal knowledge – the sexual awakening of an individual – of US American audiences. According to her, American audiences dealt with these sexual expressions like a child deals with carnal knowledge. She sees it as knowledge that came too soon or too late, in the shape of a vague, deferred and blurry revelation. To this end, she uses Sigmund Freud’s concept of primal scenes. This refers to the first moment a child witnesses its parents having sex. The child does not understand the scene and defines it as a violent scene while at the same time being sexually aroused by it.

Besides, Williams is interested in how these screenings both reveal and conceal. In this respect, she emphasizes the double meaning of the verb ‘to screen’. On the one hand, to screen sex is to reveal its many expressions through explicit imageries. On the other, to screen sex is to conceal sex and hide its representations. Williams does stress that audiences may experience suggested sex acts in a similar way as explicitly depicted sex acts. To this end, she refers to the role of the imagination of audiences:

“Movies move us, often powerfully. Sex in movies is especially volatile: it can arouse, fascinate, disgust, bore, instruct, and incite. Yet it also distances us from the immediate, proximate experience of touching and feeling with our own bodies, while at the same time bringing us back to feelings in the same bodies” (2[1]).

Williams makes out a strong case against Frederick Schauer’s (1982) assumption that hard-core pornography has a direct effect onto the body of the spectator. Even though she argues that the screening of sex has become part of how we think and feel about sex – assuming that ‘we’ have actually watched screened depictions of sex – she clarifies the difference between watching sex and having sex by first accentuating that audiences cannot be reduced to a unified spectator and second that the role of the mediator cannot be erased. Significant differences in experience can occur because of one’s different sexual foreknowledge or because of choosing for either a public screening in a cinema or a private screening on video or Internet. For this study, Williams prefers to elaborate more on the public cinematic experience and only elaborates on the future of screening sex in the ‘private’ environment of home in her conclusion.

Aside from the conclusion, each chapter is devoted to the cinematic screening of a significant sexual act. Williams discusses a variety of sexual acts such as kisses, the female orgasm, hard-core sex or anal sex while paying attention to the way they were screened and how they were received. She illustrates these acts with detailed text analyses of transgressive films that depicted these sex acts. She approaches these case-studies from a multidisciplinary point of view, starting with personal recollections of her movie-going days she has spent with friends, remembering for instance the thrill in going to watch the porno chic movie ‘Deep Throat’ (Damiano, 1972). She mixes her own experiences with insights from psychoanalysis, film history, film studies and cultural studies. She manages to steer clear from dense theorisation, thanks to her well-balanced and witty style. Considering her personal memories as a reference frame, she mainly discusses films that were distributed in the United States and were viewed by middle-class audiences. However, she does include a considerable range of non-US American films that were distributed in the United States.

Her first chapter discusses the so-called long adolescence of American movies, referring to the fact that it took a while for US American cinema to fully explore issues of sex and sexuality. Rather, it began with the amazement of seeing a kiss on a big screen (Edison’s ‘The Kiss’ (1896)) and the spectacle of seeing ‘moving’ images, but from the late 1930s on movie content was being regulated. The attempts of pushing the boundaries by representing more nudity and sexual content were stopped by the instalment of the Production Code Administration (1934-1968). The Code consisted out of a list of images that were forbidden to be shown. As such, Hollywood movies could no longer incorporate images of carnal representation, lustful kissing, perversion or adultery. But at the same time, the Code unwillingly encouraged film makers to hint at these societal taboos. Williams illustrates this with ‘Casablanca’ (Curtiz, 1942), a picture that obeyed the Code’s rules but managed to suggest adulterous sex acts in between shots. She continues with chapters that show how blunt representations of sex found their way to the screen, and became part of the US American audiences’ carnal knowledge. Williams locates their sexual awakening in the early 1960s, when foreign films such as Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’ (1959), which displayed transgressive representations of sex while other avant-garde and Blaxploitation pictures began to experiment with displaying moments of sex. Next, she discusses the cultural impact of ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (Bertolucci, 1973) that introduced simulated graphic sex into the art film. Interestingly, she juxtaposes this art film to ‘Deep Throat’ and ‘Boys in the Sand’ (Poole, 1971), both porn flicks that were flirting with the status of art. Moreover, almost all the films analysed in Screening Sex can be labelled as art house films transgressing the more generic format of porn. It seems that Williams was looking for those films that were culturally preapproved by their reputation or the status of their director but that dared to show the sexual. Pedro Almodóvar could easily get away with a shrinking man plunging into a giant vagina in ‘Talk to Her’ (‘Hable con ella’, 2002) and nobody expected any less of Lars von Trier when he inserted real sex in ‘The Idiots’ (‘Idioterne’, 1998), a film that was made by the rules of the Dogma 95 manifesto which emphasizes a return to cinematic purity. Art house cinema proved to be an ideal and accepted site of experimenting with simulated or real sex while balancing between general acceptable erotic and transgressive perverse imagery. Art house directors sometimes even succeeded in bringing these pictures to a mainstream audience, such as Ang Lee’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005). This ‘gay’ cowboy melodrama became a movie touchstone and Williams is at her best when she elaborates on this film, offering both an in-depth analysis of several sex scenes and a significant discussion of the movie poster. She stresses that the representation of the sex scenes as primal scenes helped changing the stigma of same-sex anal sex as humiliating or painful into a desirable form of pleasure. With further analyses of ‘Shortbus’ (Mitchell, 2006) and ‘Boys in the Sand’, she argues that screening queer sex is imperative to the representation of queer sexualities as much as Jane Fonda’s screened orgasms showed the potential of the female orgasm without the necessity of the phallus.

In her concluding words, Williams expresses the necessity for American mainstream cinema to finally grow up. It is clear that she prefers the way European cinema has smoothly integrated explicit sexual imagery and disapproves that American screened sex is stuck in repetition. However, she argues that an increase in screening explicit sexual intercourse should not be pursued as a means to approach real sex through moving images. Rather, these various representations should be desired for what they are. Screened explorations of carnal knowledge may arouse because they are screened, not because they want to replace the real thing.


[1] References to the reviewed book contain only the page number(s).


Foucault, M. (1976) Histoire de la sexualité, vol. 1: La volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Garton, S. (2004) Histories of Sexuality: Antiquity to Sexual Revolution. London and New York: Routledge.

Schauer, F. F. (1982) Free Speech: A Philosophical Enquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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