Two men on the screen in front of me were making out and quickly removing their clothes, only illuminated by the dim lighting of the night. Their bodies were barely visible, and they had to be quiet in case one of the guy’s family members could hear. My friend was sitting next to me rather unamused because the scene was taking forever to build up to the actual sex, and I felt a similar agitation. Right before anything sexual actually happened between the two men, the camera panned away to look at a tree outside.
This was not the normal pornography that I watched. In fact, it wasn’t pornography at all. It was a mainstream “queer” movie that everyone on TikTok seemed to be raving about: “Call Me By Your Name.”
At the beginning of the semester, my friend and I decided to watch “Call Me By Your Name” together and do a presentation on the film after seeing it on the syllabus of my philosophy class. Of course, I had wanted to watch the movie before even enrolling in the class because I wanted to understand the film’s popularity on TikTok and other social media platforms. My friend and I had heard a wide array of critiques and praise, so I was curious to know what the movie actually contained and whether or not it was the queer movie everyone said it was.
To my disappointment but not to my surprise, it wasn’t. Like other movies before it, while it used queer characters, the story felt disconnected from actual queer people and their experiences. It played into the daydream fantasies of straight people, creating a fictionalized reality in which queer people were the subjects to be toyed with and aestheticized.
While I took issues with the entire movie, the sex scene between the two main characters, Elio and Oliver, particularly aggravated me. As I mentioned before, the sex scene had a long buildup leading up to the actual act of sex, with the two leads talking, touching, kissing and undressing for a seemingly long period to create tension. However, while the two characters are about to engage in sex, the camera quickly shifts away from them, almost in an attempt to hide them.
I do not have issues with filmmakers making the decision to keep sex out of their movies in order to save the audience from discomfort. However, “Call Me By Your Name” is different in that it shows sex quite explicitly. Marzia, Elio’s girlfriend, has her entire body except her genitals revealed to the audience in two sex scenes. The film just doesn’t show queer sex, which is an issue that needs to be examined.
The entire film serves to aestheticize the relationship between the two men for the consumption of a straight audience, and this is clearly presented with the use of a scenic location, classical music and a focus on Western art. While the setting of northern Italy is very real, it is transformed into a dreamlike world that influences the main characters’ sexual interactions. The actual sex scene with Elio and Oliver becomes fantastical and unrealistic, and the refusal to show anything explicit — regardless of whether or not the filmmakers intended this — desexualizes the characters and turns them from people into mere spectacles.
Queer sex under the gaze of heterosexual viewers requires a transformation in order to be palatable for consumption. And an important part of creating that palatability is through the desexualization of queer sex and queer romance because it falls outside of heteronormative expectations. Other movies, such as “Rocketman” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” do not receive the same attention as “Call Me By Your Name” because they are movies about queer people that are not intended to be palatable in their representations of queerness and sexuality.
My own sexual experiences were not fantastical or aesthetically pleasing; they were exactly what you would expect: sexual and human. I could not relate to Elio or Oliver — their relationship and sexual interactions felt empty to me because they failed to replicate any of my experiences as a queer person. While I certainly can’t speak for all queer people, I can still recognize that this film and other films like it were largely meant for a straight audience, especially given the caution over showing queer sex contrasting with the freedom of showing heterosexual sex.
In the beginning, I mentioned that “Call Me By Your Name” was popular on TikTok, but I return to that point to identify the main audience: straight women. Before I watched the movie, I correctly anticipated that the film would cater to heterosexual consumption, specifically that of straight women, because a large portion of the comments talking positively about the film was coming from a largely nonqueer audience. The issue, however, is not that straight women — more broadly straight people — enjoy the film, but that the film was made for them, which is something that can be observed in many forms of queer media.
In a previous column, I mentioned that straight women consume queer sex, specifically between men, through forms of media such as yaoi and boys’ love. So, queer people in a sense are trapped within a dichotomy; they can either be hypersexualized or completely desexualized, both of which completely deny them of their humanity.
Not all queer media needs to have sex scenes, but whether or not the characters have sex, I want that decision to be made with me and other queer people in mind.
Joaquin Najera writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].