A few weeks ago, on a horny whim, my boyfriend and I rented L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake), a 2013 erotic thriller set on a nude beach that earned an X rating in France. The last gay movie we’d watched together was 2010's Beginners, about a terminally ill, late-in-life gay man played by Christopher Plummer (oof), so I was eager for something fun and a little porny. We took it to another gay friend’s place to watch with dinner.
Almost everyone in L’Inconnu is nude most of the time, save for their cross-trainers, as they lounge on the beach or abscond into the surrounding woods in twos and threes. Most of the sex in L’Inconnu is unsimulated, with the aid of body doubles — the film earns its X with both a blow job and an ejaculation. But when Franck, the protagonist, and the titular Stranger eventually hook up, the film’s vérité takes a disappointing turn. They have (simulated) anal sex in the woods, an act introduced and supposedly facilitated by familiar element of cinematic gay coupling: spit. The Stranger spits in his hand, rubs it fleetingly against his crotch, and penetrates Franck.
Spit-lube as employed here is unequivocally not a thing — or, at least, not for this purpose, and certainly not to the extent to which the film would suggest. As any veteran of anal play will attest, it takes considerably more liquid to achieve, much less enjoy, penetration. But the trope stands, even in an X-rated foreign film about cruising gay nudists.
Sex in cinema, whether queer or straight, is steeped in fantasy — no less than is pornography, in its own way. Everyone is far more attractive than in real life, and there is no cat to be chased out of the room; veracity is a relative virtue. But where most filmmakers opt for selective omission (the cat, etc.), many gay sex scenes have had this unfortunate spit element added, whether out of some misguided belief that this happens (or that it works), or as a sort of pitiful clarification of what exactly is going on between those two men’s bodies.
The first time I remember seeing this spit-lube moment was in 2006, hunkered in the back of a movie theater far from my hometown, in what has since become the most famous scene of Ang Lee’s Best Picture–losing Brokeback Mountain. With no more force or moisture than it takes to eject a watermelon seed, Ennis (Heath Ledger) spits in his hand, jabs it briefly into his jeans, and takes hold of Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) from behind, both of them grunting with self-loathing and release, high on the eponymous mountain.
Grossing more than $178 million worldwide (more than $83 million in the U.S. alone), Brokeback Mountain’s single gay sex scene is among the most viewed in the history of film. It may be the only gay sex scene many of its viewers have ever seen.
At the time, with no personal experience to draw on, I didn’t question the scene’s honesty. The fact of it was sufficiently shocking enough, especially to my closeted self, to keep me from thinking too long about it — but in hindsight, it’s become a fixation.
LGBT-inclusive sex education remains a nationwide rarity, despite being advocated for by the Center for Disease Control, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Advocates for Youth, and the Center for American Progress. A video like this one, from the IMPACT LBGT Health and Development Program, might have changed the course of my adolescent sex life — but as it was, my middle school sex-ed curriculum made no mention of gay people, or the sex they might be having. For all I learned about the menstrual cycle and epididymitis, when it came to acting on what I eventually acknowledged as my real desires, I was at an utter loss.
My first time was one afternoon in high school, home alone with my then-secret then-boyfriend and an old tube of Vaseline. It sort of worked, but to say the enjoyment was more emotional than physical wouldn't be unfair. We needed lube, but I’d had no idea to what extent. As a 17-year-old I was barely comfortable buying underwear, much less gay sexual aids from the family planning aisle of my small-town CVS — but had I known about the need to begin with, I might have been better-equipped.
The sex in Brokeback and L’Inconnu du Lac is, admittedly, anal in extreme conditions, but unrealistic gay sex in film is hardly limited to lakeside woods and frigid mountain tents. Gay sex, when it appears in mainstream media — that is to say, television and film without overtly gay themes — is often done poorly, whether out of ignorance or reluctance to get into the lubey details. Even gay filmmakers often get it wrong: Spit-lube appears in La Mala Educación (Bad Education) (2004), from openly gay writer and director Pedro Almodóvar, as well as in the film Weekend (2011), from openly gay writer and director Andrew Haigh and which stars openly gay actor Chris New. In fact, Weekend omits lube altogether, despite the fact that all of its sex takes place indoors, at the home of an adult gay man, who really should have some handy.
Lube is also notably absent throughout the first season of Hunting Season, Jon Marcus’ web series about Alex (Ben Baur), a gay blogger Carrie Bradshaw–ing his way through sex and love in New York City, voiceover and all. The series is known for raucous sex and frequent full-frontal male nudity. In the third episode of the first season, Alex and Lenny (Walker Hare) have brief, spontaneous sex that includes a condom, but apparently nothing else.
Some of the best gay sex on screen can be found in HBO’s Looking, about gay men in San Francisco, which was canceled this year after its second season. For all its faults — too slow, too white, too Girls, depending on whom you ask — Looking pretty much got sex right. In an episode early in the second season, dopey, narcissistic Patrick Murray (Jonathan Groff) prepares for a weekend with his boss, Kevin Matheson (Russell Tovey), by buying two Fleet enemas — itself a refreshingly honest drugstore moment. Later, in bed, the camera follows Kevin’s arm as he reaches for a condom on the nightstand, then, a moment later, for a small squeeze bottle — lube! Patrick climbs on top of Kevin, and we hear the bottle click open.
Rewatching this scene after the disappointing expectoration of L’Inconnu, Brokeback, and countless others, this click was like a hallelujah chorus. Rather than a Titanic-esque loogie, here was a same-sex love scene that began with the crinkle of a condom wrapper and the click of a bottle of lube — lit, by the way, not by the moon or the glint of the sun off a nearby body of water, but by the gentle, 60-watt ambient lighting of a gay domestic interior.
For straight viewers of a scene like the one between Kevin and Patrick, I imagine, the bottle and its significance went unnoticed, or at best may have raised an eyebrow. As with any minority experience, sexual or otherwise, visibility and diversity challenge ignorance, and spur thinking that leads to greater understanding. Scenes that confront, rather than avoid, potentially confusing or little-known aspects of gay sex raise the cultural bar for honest representation in gay stories.
But even Looking didn’t always set that bar too high. In the first-season finale, when Patrick and Kevin first have sex, a generous jump cut takes them from kissing, clothed and vertical, to lying half-naked on the floor of their office, Patrick still awkwardly in a polo shirt and socks. “Are you sure you want me to?” Kevin asks, then, on Patrick’s assent, penetrates him without shifting position — not a drop of lube in sight.
Fifteen years before Kevin and Patrick’s explicitly lubricated second-season sex scene, on a different premium cable network, the series premiere of the American remake of Queer as Folk included a similar moment. High school student Justin Taylor (Randy Harrison) loses his virginity to hunky man-about-Pittsburgh Brian Kinney (Gale Harold) in the latter’s palatial loft. The episode is an almost shot-for-shot remake of the first episode of the original British Queer as Folk, which premiered in 1999 and ran for two seasons. The sex scenes between the Brian and Justin characters (Stuart and Nathan in the British series) are almost identical in both, except that the American version includes an explicit discussion of “safe sex,” a condom, and the application of lube. It’s an honest scene that lands somewhere between hot and how-to, but its candor is important as a precedent.
But for as well as they handle sex between two men, both Queer as Folk and Looking exist in a specifically queer pop cultural niche, the same one shared by The L Word. All three aired on premium cable, arguably another niche. While many queer people of younger generations have since done their homework, confused, closeted baby gays may all too easily miss these shows entirely, at a time in life when they need them the most — and plenty of straight people have never bothered to catch up at all. The latter isn’t necessarily a tragedy, and, of course, it cuts both ways (I will never watch Friday Night Lights, sorry I’m not sorry). But for better or worse, these shows’ nicheness means many viewers, whether queer, questioning, or straight, are exposed to gay sex and intimacy on screen only when it happens to occur in works of broader cultural interest, like Brokeback Mountain.
Some of this lack of exposure is systemic. The 2013 Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, directed by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh and starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, was unable to secure theatrical distribution. The sex in Behind the Candelabra is not fantastic — lots of weary humping and one very masticatory off-screen blow job — but is at least as bare as most hetero movie sex. The film eventually ran on HBO, the alpha and omega of on-screen sex, and went on to win two Golden Globes and three Primetime Emmy Awards. Vindicating though this may be, it’s hard to imagine an equally star-studded biopic without gay sex getting pushed to the outskirts of pop culture.
Without access to queer niche media, whether on Netflix or HBO at the video store when the ‘rents are out of town, most queer young people lack the same exposure to same-sex sex or even intimacy on screen. One aspect of this gap is most easily filled with pornography, which even in Nebraska is only a few keystrokes away, but a porno — even one that may happen to include lube — is not a drama, and even the best gay porn does nothing to bring gay sex into the mainstream. Making good gay sex scenes in film and television isn’t just about making good gay sex scenes; it’s about allowing good gay sex to exist within good gay stories, between characters we can care about as viewers, gay or straight. The past decade alone has seen a proliferation of consistently improved gay characters, and just as gay characters are breaking out of the sidekick comic relief to which they’ve been relegated since Sex and the City and earlier, so, too, should the way we have sex.
Gay media aimed at overwhelmingly gay male audiences, especially, has no reason to dance around depictions of sex — nor does any such coyness fly with an audience that obviously knows better. What’s more, much of the most challenging and boundary-pushing gay content available today comes through nontraditional channels — on premium cable or in web series, free of the red tape and editorial oversight of scripted shows with bigger budgets. If there’s no worry about upsetting the ratings board, why the constant omission of gay sexual realities?
Such omissions perpetuate ignorant notions of how everyday gay people — not 1960s Wyoming cowboys, or beached nudists, or sex bloggers — have sex. Gay sex in film and television needn’t be a step-by-step how-to, but faithful representation is humanizing and validating. The mainstream cultural imaginary of gay sex as makeshift, improvised, and uncomfortable — à la Brokeback — is reinforced by spitting, grimacing, and pillow-biting. Spit-lube is only a small piece of the misrepresentation puzzle, and we should view bad gay sex in general as a failure of depiction. It may be several more Lookings until good gay sex finds a place on primetime network television, but acknowledging current shortcomings is the first step. A gesture as simple as reaching for a bottle of lube goes a long way toward faithful representation of gay sex, and, by extension, gay men.