Romanian filmmaker Adina Pintilie’s debut feature Touch Me Not provides a beautiful, powerful, intense look into the world of sacred intimacy and sexual healing. Slowly and tenderly, the semi-documentary introduces us to a handful of characters bravely exploring their relationships with their bodies, seeking community and guidance to transcend the limitations of inhibition, physical disability, grief, trauma, and fear. A stony-faced middle-aged woman (Laura Benson) engages a series of sex workers in an effort to understand and perhaps emulate their manifest comfort with their bodies and their sexuality. She spends a fair amount of time at a hospital, looking in on her elderly invalid father, who we eventually come to understand harmed her physically early in life. She also stumbles across a touch workshop for people with disabilities and becomes fixated on a tall bald fellow (Tómas Lemarquis) whose relationship with another workshop participant (Christian Bayerlein, a quadriplegic — he refers to himself as “a wheeler with SMA [spinal muscular atrophy]” — with remarkable self-awareness and body-positivity) is central to the film. The filmmaker herself and the camera equipment appear prominently in the film, highlighting the delicacy and the vulnerability of everyone participating in one of the most extraordinary films about bodies and sex I’ve ever seen. The scenes with sex workers — a handsome tattooed call boy, a transgender prostitute, and an extremely gifted London-based sacred intimate named Seani Love — as well as a scene in a BDSM sex club could all have been handled sensationalistically or mockingly, but they’re not. I love films that take seriously and respectfully the quest for sexual healing, and I equally admire films that don’t overexplain everything that’s happening. Touch Me Not, which won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival last February, has a few more showings at the Museum of Modern Art through January 17. You can read the New York Times review (and watch the trailer) here.
Christina Voros‘s documentary Kink, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January, had one screening this month in the New Fest, the LGBT film festival that has entertained New York’s gay cinemaphiles for the last 25 years. Produced by that unpredictable enterprising Energizer Bunny James Franco, the film provides an extremely illuminating tour of the San Francisco studios of Kink.com. That’s the empire that creates the BDSM porn that shows up on websites like Bound Gods and Naked Kombat familiar to kinky gay guys, as well as non-gay sites such as FuckingMachines.com, WhippedAss.com, and Bound Gang Bangs.
Need I say that this is not a film for the faint of heart?
The documentary incorporates talking-head interviews with directors, producers, technicians, and performers as well as scenes of them going about their daily business. There are lots of hardcore scenes, some of which turned me on, some of which made me cringe. But what makes this a compelling and admirable film is the high quality conversation it models about sex, kink, BDSM, boundaries, consent, violence, abuse, why people make porn, and what people get out of watching it.
Many of the producers interviewed are very smart, attractive women — such as Princess Donna and Maitresse Madeline — who not only speak with great intelligence and nuance about BDSM and porn but who operate on the set with fascinating flexibility, compassion, humor, and sophistication. Same goes for transman TomCat.
The Kink site I’m most familiar with is Bound Gods, whose creator, Van Darkholme, is a major figure in the documentary, representing the gay male fetish fiefdom within Kink.com. Although I’ve been curious to check out the bondage and fetish sites he produces, I’ve always been put off by his personality and his manner. He’s extremely brusque and lacking in the qualities of caring that I would want in a kinky top. And he doesn’t come off any differently in the documentary. Considering how coldly he treats his performers, especially the way he berates and corrects the tops in scenes he’s filming, it’s hard for me to understand how he gets so many guys to do the things they do for him.
And it’s not just that the women are nurturing and the men are brutal — we get to watch a male top conducting a very intense scene with a woman who’s bound, suspended, and being worked over by an ingenious vibrating machine, and he exhibits a beautiful mixture of authority and attunement. Another male producer makes it very clear that he doesn’t like to have anyone on the set who isn’t really really into what’s going on.
This is not a film that’s going to be a hit in theaters or get an Academy Award nomination. It will most likely find its following on DVD. But I hope a lot of people will watch it. Just as the feature film The Sessions gave moviegoers an avenue to understand the world of sexual surrogacy, Kink succeeds in its intention to avoid sleazy sensationalism and to enlighten curious viewers.
SEX IN THE CINEMA: The Sessions
Have you ever wondered what someone who works in the field of sex therapy thinks about The Sessions? I can tell you.
A few weeks ago I watched Ben Lewin’s film, in which Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a sexual surrogate who is hired by Mark, a severely disabled man (John Hawkes) living with cystic fibrosis. Like many Hollywood movies these days, the film is “based on a true story” about Mark O’Brien, a journalist and poet in Berkeley, California, who was the subject of an Academy Award-winning short documentary feature called Breathing Lessons, which mostly portrayed the life of someone who spends much of his day in an iron lung. The Sessions zeroes right in on the most intimate aspects of O’Brien’s life, his relationships with the staunch female caretakers who bathe him and evince subtle/overt disgust for his body, and his wistful desire to experience sex before he dies. The sexual surrogate that Hunt plays is herself a kind of sacred intimate, a social worker whose job entails getting naked and physically intimate with her clients, with the intention of healing.
My overall response is to be impressed with Hollywood for being willing to make a film on this subject and to treat it with as much honesty and respect as they did. I give Helen Hunt a lot of credit for being willing to be so free with her body and the filmmakers for making a film that many people can identify with whose circumstances are very different from Mark O’Brien’s. The tone is neither sniggery-salacious nor overly solemn. I keep thinking about the moment when she invites him to touch her breasts and says, “If you touch one, you have to touch the other. It’s kind of a rule.”
As a professional, I could take issue with a few things that are “Hollywoodized” and not an accurate depiction of sexual surrogate work. Her first session with him is way too rushed. Most sexual surrogates do NOT walk in the door and get naked nearly as quickly as she does. Especially with someone whose issue is lack of sexual experience, there’s usually a process of progressive desensitization to anxiety-provoking situations. Of course, that would be tedious to document on camera. The film plays up the dramatic moment of her “hurting” him at the beginning, to establish his extreme sensitivity, but it makes her look obtuse, and that seems pretty unrealistic to me. In the scenes where he ejaculates immediately, the movie suggests that the encounter is over when that happens, which is exactly the nightmare that men who struggle with rapid ejaculation fear. In real life, in Mark’s sessions with the surrogate, she didn’t end the session there but continued to work with him to let him regain his erection and experience arousal longer. And at the end, her emotional attachment to him is exaggerated in a way that is sentimental and melodramatic — typical for a Hollywood movie but way overplayed as a depiction of how most sex surrogates deal with completing treatment.
It’s very interesting to go back and read Mark O’Brien’s essay “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate,” which was published in The Sun. You can read it online here. You’ll see that the movie hews to certain facts and embellishes many others. At the time of his sessions with Cheryl, he was 4’7″ and weighed 60 pounds. Such a brave man!
You can also view Breathing Lessons online here (and I encourage you to).
I don’t do sexual surrogacy, but – as I’ve written about elsewhere – there are similarities and differences between sexual surrogates and sacred intimates. For instance, I’ve worked on and off for nine years with a man who has a version of increasingly disabling muscular dystrophy, gets around in a state-of-the-art motorized wheelchair, and has very little ability to move his limbs. Getting him out of the chair and onto the massage table, and then back, is extremely arduous, but it is very meaningful to him to receive the kind of loving touch I offer, which is somewhat different from what he receives from his husband. And it’s meaningful to me to provide a safe place for him to have this experience. I always feel very honored to work with people who have unusual bodies, knowing how emotionally fraught it is for them to show themselves to others. And I think they get about me that I have a lot of reverence for the life and pleasures that are possible in each individual body.