by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
Sex is a fundamental part of the human experience.
I mean, I don't really have stats to back this up, but the vast, vast majority of people enjoy some form of sex with their favourite flavour of sexual partner. For most of us this affectionate touching of genitals is a central aspect of our lives and a thing we devote a great deal of energy and attention to. Sex, in whatever it's form, is a source of fun, intimacy, pleasure, heartache, sorrow, and with the right partner, love. It's kind of magical. It's also pretty fucking hilarious and silly and completely ludicrous. Sex is human and sex is important. (1)
Sex, done a certain way, is also how we make new humans. Which is pretty fucking central to human life.
So you might be able to understand that I can't believe we are so bad at portraying and discussing sex in our media.
And why I am absolutely flabbergasted that a boner jokes comic about people robbing banks after doing it is probably the most mature and honest portrayal of sex that I can think of.
There may be *SPOILERS* in this post for Sex Criminals Vol. 1
I think we as a society have a problem in how we portray sex in our media. And what I think it boils down to is that it is fundamentally dishonest in two opposing ways.
The first has to do with censorship: our media goes to enormous lengths not to directly depict sex. Sure, we talk about it endlessly on the page or in panel or on screen, but when it comes to the actual deployment of penis or vulva, we have to cut away or fade in afterward. We don't typically see normal, relatable characters having intercourse. And even when it comes to scenes surrounding sex, or most visual depictions of sex, we go to great lengths to obscure nudity in a way that is completely crazy. Like, we pretty much never see humans crotch genitals and women engaged in on screen depictions of sex wear a completely unrealistic amount of bra. Added all together it leads to this idea that sex is somehow shameful or weird and that nudity is somehow shameful and weird. Despite the fact that the majority of humans are engaging in some form of sex and everyone one of us is frequently naked! It's mad.
Now I respect that part of what drives this are actors not wanting to be publicly nude, which I totally get, but it remains super weird that nudity and sex, things that are so universally human, are so completely policed and driven off screen, panel, and page. Sex really gets the same representation as taking a shit, if you think about it. Something people do, but which is too icky to show you. Which is crazy! Imagine if we treated eating and food like this: constantly talking about it, obsessing over it, and then cutting away or skipping over in prose the actual experience of eating (2). It would be fucking crazy! My argument is that the weird censorship of sex we have in our media is a lot like doing exactly this. It's fundamentally weird.
The second major issue in our media is titillation: when our media does depict sex, it is in this crazy, toxic way meant to shock and titillate. Perhaps due to the weird campaign of sexual censorship, we operate under the idea that depictions of sex are thrilling, special, and naughty. As a result, or even maybe independent of this, media frequently uses sex and nudity as a way to create a sense of cheap thrills and transgression in media. Instead of showing normal people having intimate, fun, healthy sex we see crazy people pushing the ante into bizarre sex, or weird dehumanizing depictions of people as sex objects, or all the murdered sex workers in police procedurals, or, well, heterosexual pornography, which is almost always this completely soulless, mechanical fucking that just bums me the fuck out. Which all just goes to reinforce the point of censorship: sex is somehow weird and shameful and nudity is somehow shameful and weird.... except now ir's turbocharged!
Sex is either hidden from us out of a sense of decency or it is depicted as something gross that should probably be hidden from us out of a sense of decency.
Which is so fucking the opposite of my own, and I'm willing to bet most of your, sexual experiences.
And I think this is a problem.
Sex Criminals is a comic about two people, Suzie and Jon, who independently have the power to freeze time when they orgasm. While this isolates them romantically, it gives them the power of seclusion and the ability to get into all kinds of mischief. When Suzie and Jon eventually meet and hook up, they finally find themselves face to face with someone attractive, funny, and who also becomes unstuck from time when they cum. And so the pair do what anyone would naturally do if they found someone great who also could stop time with their genitals: they start dating and robbing banks.
And sexy, hilarious adventure ensues. And boner jokes.
Sex Criminals is a really fun comic.
It is also, and hear me out, one of the most mature and healthy portrayal of sex I've encountered in media.
I want to start by pointing out how crazy this is!
Sex Criminals, while a a lot of things, is definitely kind of a boner joke comic.
Sex Criminals spends a lot of its time telling jokes and many of these jokes are of a sexually explicit nature. From the hilarious and weird sex positions that the dirty girls know, to Cumworld and the highly annotated and ridiculous novelty sex toys, to the main villain of the first trade being named Kegel Face, it's funny inappropriate stuff! Sex Criminals is a comic that is willing to laugh like a twelve year old at how funny dicks are. Which, I can totally appreciate (3).
But the thing is, as occasionally juvenile as Sex Criminals is, it is the best portrayal of human sex I have encountered.
A silly, boner joke comic about people stopping time with their junk and robbing banks is the best.
And that is fucking crazy!
The most obvious aspect of sex criminals that I find so effective is the actual images used to depict sex between adults. It actually shows adults having sex! There are very naked people performing sex acts on panel in a way that is completely consistent with reality. They are as nude and genital having as real people and don't display any of the weird shame based censorship we get in most other media. Which makes everything feel real and like they are actually enjoying themselves. It's good stuff.
At the same time the art is very mature in its portrayal of these naked people: they are not depicted in a way designed to specifically titillate. (4) You don't see gratuitous drawings of breasts or money shots of vaginas or disembodied dick angles. You see naked people having sex and you see the appropriate amount of nudity and genitals that are consistent with people realistically doing it. Nothing is hidden, but nothing is highlighted either.
Now, I don't actually have my copy of the comic and can't actually check, but I think if you go and look at the first sex scene between Suzie and Jon you'll notice that you don't see her nipples and that you actually see Jon's penis before getting a clear look at her breasts. Now, this is a manufactured world, so this is clearly a choice by Team Brimper, but it isn't done in an overtly censorship based way: you see what you ought to see in the natural poses and perspectives the scene is drawn with. It's realistic sex without exploitation and it's great. (5)
This balance of accurate nudity handled without deliberate intention to titillate is precious and amazing and rare and alone makes Sex Criminals a remarkably honest and worthwhile bit of fiction.
But the honesty of sex criminals doesn't really end with how the story is portrayed, it is also present throughout the themes and fabric of the comic.
Like, sure sex is hot and titillating, but it is also intimate and weird and funny and terrifying and ineffably powerful and Sex Criminals, the boner joke comic, captures this complexity with more nuance than virtually any other media.
Take the premise: Suzie and Jon stop time when they orgasm. With the wrong person, this a curse, and having sex just serves to provide a moment of pleasure and then isolates them. When they find each other, that perfect sex partner, it's a magical experience that transfer them to a special little universe that is theirs alone: they become the only people in the world as everything else stops. What a beautiful fucking metaphor for intimacy.
And then they rob banks and boner jokes happen.
But even robbing banks works in the thematic framework. Sex feels dangerous and thrilling, like, well robbing banks. And the entire experience of having sex with that perfect partner feels a lot like being on the run, of having a secret life that feels completely unsustainable like it could suddenly implode. It feels like getting away with something amazing and maybe a little naughty. And sex criminals completely nails this sense of thrill, camaraderie, and transgression.
As much as I flippantly call Sex Criminals a boner joke comic, it really isn't. Well it is, but it's also one of the most honest, heartbreakingly resonant portrayals of a sexual relationship I have ever encountered in media.
And the boner jokes are great too.
As great as Sex Criminals is, and it is really, really great, it is fucking crazy that this comic about people robbing banks using magic sex powers is one of the most mature and meaningful portrayals of sex I've enjoyed in our media. Which is, I think, a really significant achievement for Sex Criminals and marks it as media that I cannot endorse enough. (One that is also, based on the fact that I can't hold onto my trade lobng enough to take pictures of it, is pretty universally appealing.) But it's also an indictment of everyone else: if a comic about sexual bank robbers can be this meaningful and perfect why is all the other media so bad at portraying sex? Other media really has no excuses anymore.
So I guess, read Sex Criminals and go forth and make better portrayals of sex in media.
Post by Michael Bround
(1) If sex isn't your bag, that's cool too. Asexuality is perfectly a-okay. The point of this essay isn't to shit on asexual people, but to point out that as a sexual person, I can't believe we can't portray such a central aspect of many people's lives with a bit more... humanity.
(2) The way we talk about and interact with food is also super fucked up. I could go on a whole thing here (I work in a diabetes and obesity lab, so I have OPINIONS), but in short, the shame, misinformation, and sheer insanity around food, which is also fundamental to the human experience is also fucking crazy. But! As disgusting and weird as our treatment of food is, we can still show relatable humans on screen enjoying meals in reasonable ways that are consistent with our real life experiences. Which, I think, is saying something.
(3) Sex is hilarious! I mean, it's life affirming and powerful and dangerous and intimate, but it is also funny as fuck. Which is kind of great! Part of my issue with media's portrayal of sex is that it's so hideously grim. It's okay to laugh and smile at and during sex. Just maybe not too much, it's distracting.
(4) I mean, it's still a little titillating. But sex ought to be a bit titillating. And pervy. And raunchy. But it should also be all of the other things too. Sex is more than smut, but it is also smut.
(5) It occurs to me that with my very Bingable name I've just written a paragraph about whether you can see nipples in a comic. So I'd like to take this opportunity to say hello to future prospective employers! Hi! Please hire me as a post doc!
Colour use in Sex Criminals #1, the reprint of the 4th reprinting.