Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, the new film starring Emma Thompson, doesn’t know what sex is. It portrays a brief liaison between a widow (Nancy, played by Thompson) and a male prostitute as liberating for her, a blessed introduction to the world of sexual pleasure. The marital sex she knew was functional, orgasm-free (for her). Maybe religion’s to blame; she was an RE teacher. I don’t know if the film specifies whether she has a religious background, but it’s at least implied. And in an interview Emma Thompson blames religion for the shame that has denied so many people sexual pleasure.
Back to my opening claim. Such a plot entails a two-dimensional view of sex. The physical act, detached from an enduring relationship, is seen as something that brings pleasure, and indeed psychological liberation. And spiritual healing: she calls her liberator a ‘sort of sex saint’.
In real life, sex is two things. It is the act itself, and it is also something else: the desire for the fullest intimacy with another person. This is harder to talk about: it’s vaguer, and it’s linked up with soppy stuff about falling in love, and moral stuff about fidelity. But that second thing isn’t ‘sex’, you might say, it’s a context in which sex might or might not occur. No, that’s reductive and naive. In real life, sex is also this context, this wider desire, this framing of the act itself. It has this psychological and cultural dimension.
So sex is a problematic, contradictory coupling of two things. The problem is that sex in the narrower sense retains the power to destabilise sex in the wider sense, and can always claim to be the real thing.
Our culture would rather pretend that sex were simpler. Let’s pretend that the liberating power of sex can be located in the act itself, divorced from the stuff about fidelity and trust. In real life, it is sex in the wider sense that is psychologically liberating – that’s why most of us end up settling down, more or less. But saying so is not edgy, cool or well…sexy. And it might veer into moralism, and the seeming criticism of alternative lifestyles. And it’s not so easy to base a titillating film around it.
So let’s pretend that sex in itself is good in itself, profoundly good, a liberating life-force, pure and true. Let’s pretend that casual sex, or sex with a prostitute, is the full whack. In reality such sex is not full sex, it’s semi-sex, for the other thing is lacking.