A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Bathhouse

Last week I introduced my boyfriend to the movie Shortbus. He didn’t believe me when I told him there was a well-made movie out there by a known director that had a real plot but still showed honest-to-god, no-bodysuits, no-cut-to-the-windchimes sex. Within minutes of the opening credits, he was convinced.

Shortbus is about real people, I told him—people like you and me. Of course the characters in the film are all several years younger than us. We’re in our mid- to late-forties (or, as Chad likes to remind me: he’s mid, I’m late). But however old they are, they’re seeking the same thing everyone’s looking for—real connection. And somehow, when the actors get to physically connect on screen, that point gets underscored. We see them getting as physically close as human beings can get, but the emotional walls are still there, and that, I think, is what the movie’s all about. … And besides, it’s hot.

Chad came to the movie with trepidation. He’s never really been into porn. As he says, it’s more fun to play a sport than to watch it. While I’m not exactly an aficionado—like my friend Dirk, who can name the entire Bel Ami canon (and pull a bootleg copy of any volume off his bookshelf)—I have been known to peruse the back room of my local video store from time to time.

Porn is a guilty pleasure. You don’t watch it for the art. You can occasionally learn something from it, I suppose. In one video, I saw a position that made me pretty curious. When I tried it out on Chad, he started smiling but then looked at me with a suspicious brand of curiosity. “Where did you learn that?!” he asked. “A movie,” I said, blushing. He pondered that for a moment, but didn’t let it interrupt the mood for long. Smart boy: he never looks a gift horse in the mouth.

But that’s just about all you can expect from porn: after hours and hours of watching, you might learn a couple of new moves, but it isn’t going to turn you into the next Zak Spears. Not the way a cooking show might turn you into the next Rachael Ray.

Porn is more like a Broadway musical. In the old-fashioned kind (think Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music), the songs are basically an interruption in the plot. It’s the same with porn, where the sex stops the plot dead, or what little of it there is. Actually, the other thing porn and musicals have in common is that the “interruption” is actually the thing you’re interested in. Nobody ever went to see Phantom of the Opera for the story.

But then along came a guy named Stephen Sondheim, and suddenly the music and the plot in musicals became fully integrated. The same thing didn’t happen to porn until Shortbus, which basically opens with a guy blowing himself and then goes on to tell a perfectly convincing and engaging story about real people, who happen to be having real sex on camera. (Come on, like you’ve never done that!)

The sex in Shortbus is perfectly integrated with the plot—which conveniently revolves around a sex therapist. Ironically, the sex therapist has perhaps the biggest sexual problem in the film: she’s never had an orgasm. So we see her trying. Oh boy, do we see her trying. I didn’t know whether to give her husband the thumbs-up or worry about his blood pressure.

The coup-de-theâtre in the film is the therapist’s arrival at the eponymous Shortbus, which is basically a sex party hosted by Justin Bond (playing a character named Justin Bond—art imitating life or life imitating art? You decide). In any other film, the camera would coyly focus on the therapist’s widening eyes as she watches the shenanigans. But the director, John Cameron Mitchell, is more interested in honesty than modesty. He did, after all, create the character of Hedwig, to whom modesty is at best a foreign concept. And so, we see the gropings of numerous couples, gay and straight, as well as groups of god knows how many others—not there to titillate the audience, but to experience and share pleasure. We just happen to be watching. And learning.

The lesson of Shortbus may not be as crass as the lessons of porn (How many things can you do with whipped cream? Where do you place his legs for the best leverage?). No, Shortbus’s lesson is a lot more significant than that. Like the repressed therapist, who finally has an earth-shaking orgasm at the film’s you-should-pardon-the-expression climax, the audience experiences at least a momentary freedom from useless sexual inhibition. We see our own desires and struggles on the screen. Shortbus normalizes sexuality in a way that true porn couldn’t dream of doing. How many of us have actually invited the pizza boy in to share a slice? How many of us have had an orgy in a prison cell? Most of the sexual moments in Shortbus, on the other hand (auto-fellatio and sex parties aside—believe me; there’s plenty more), will probably look all too familiar.

As for my boyfriend, suffice it to say that he really enjoyed the movie. He seemed to find it … inspiring. Next week I think I’ll show him Brokeback Mountain. Maybe he’ll want to go herd some sheep.