Reading Chloe Angyal’s lessons from a summer’s-worth of romantic comedies, I was particularly struck by this:
This is surely one of the most bizarre lessons Hollywood rom coms teaches us about sex: You can only be open about your sexual desires with someone if you’re not dating them. In Friends With Benefits, Jamie and Dylan are delighted by the fact that they can speak freely about their wants and needs — like where they do and don’t like to be touched — because, it’s implied, they could never be that open with a significant other. Jamie is relieved that she doesn’t have to limit sex to a location with good lighting, the way she would with someone she was dating. In other words, Hollywood still wants us to think that honesty about sex is impossible in romantic relationships. When you’re having sex with a friend, you don’t have to fake orgasms, withhold constructive criticism of sexual technique for fear of offending your lover, or camouflage your repulsive body with flattering lighting. When you’re having sex with a romantic partner, however, those things are par for the course.
However much we may say the evangelical myth that if you wait to have sex until you get married the sex’ll be better is precisely that, a myth, we really do buy into a modified version of it in our pop culture when we assume that sex will automatically be awesome if you have it with someone you’re in love with because of…spontaneous synchronicity, or something like that. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, Andy may be quick to the finish line when he finally consummates his marriage, but when they have sex a second time, it’s implied to be a tantric, transcendent experience. You don’t need practice to make perfect, just true love.
The movie’s sexual politics aren’t perfect, but the scene in Chasing Amy where Alyssa*, Banky, and Holden talk about what it’s like to sleep with someone who won’t give you feedback and directions may be the most honest romantic comedy scene ever filmed:
Maybe the idea of other movies is that the quest for love is so overwhelming and titanically difficult that it only seems fair that sex should come easy. But that’s not true, and even if characters sleep together before they’re married, the romantic comedy promise that falling into bed is as easy as falling out of it is just another myth, and one that’s rooted in some considerably conservative assumptions.
*Probably the first significant movie with a character with my name. Came out when I was 13. I had some cognitive dissonance.