I love Joseph Gordon-Levitt. So when I first saw a trailer for his directorial debut, Don Jon, which he also wrote and starred in, I was pretty jazzed and eagerly awaited opening day for months.
And it is, indeed, an enjoyable romp I recommend you see. It’s funny, but also sends positive messages to our forlorn youth. For example, the best person for you to share a relationship with is not necessarily the person you’re most attracted to; instead, it might be someone who you’re not initially attracted to at all, someone who might even be considerably younger or older than you.
What it gets wrong? As writer Luke Winkie argues on Salon, the film implies “there are right ways and wrong ways to make love.”
The central conflict of the film is that Jon is “addicted” to porn. In fact, he prefers porn to sex. The film seems to suggest that Jon’s enjoyment of porn is itself a problem. But suggesting that porn is wrong perpetuates a sex-negative culture, which according to sex therapist, marriage counselor, and psychotherapist Dr. Marty Klein, already plagues the United States. Morally acceptable sexual behavior is narrowly defined as heterosexual, monogamous sex that emphasizes intercourse and excludes kinks—the kind of “sexual health” Klein says Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous encourage.
I do agree it’s problematic that Jon enjoys porn more than sex. Yet, just as the film’s apparent denouncement of porn draws rigid boundaries for normal sexual behavior, so does the film’s solution to Jon’s alleged addiction, which Winkie aptly describes:
“Don Jon’s conclusion essentially says you can only truly enjoy sex if you’re treating it like a holy communion. There’s no aggression, or submission, or even a whisper of playfulness. We’re told to stare into each other’s eyes, take a deep breath, and have the kind of sex that won’t scare our parents.”
While Jon’s main argument for preferring porn to sex is that he’s able to completely “lose himself” in the former—meaning, he’s able to be completely present—he also basically says that real sex is boring. “Real girls” won’t do things that girls in porn do. Blow jobs are cursory, money shots are out of the question, and missionary is the only acceptable position—even the seemingly standard cowgirl is unchartered territory. What’s more, real sex lacks sufficient foreplay. Particularly with “dimes” like his girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), Jon says sex is limited to naked kissing culminating in missionary.
Jon’s illustration of sex and what “real girls” will and will not do is, of course, grossly generalized and untrue. To me, it seemed that Jon simply needed to find someone who was more sexually adventurous. Less inhibited. Someone who enjoyed foreplay and experimentation. Maybe someone who was a little kinky.
And considering that Jon made such a generalized statement, I half expected that Esther (Julianne Moore)—the solution to his porn addiction—was going to show him that real sex can be adventurous and fun.
But no. Esther teaches Jon that all he needs is the previously described “holy sex.” She proposes that real sex is boring because Jon doesn’t connect with the person he’s fucking. Not being attuned to the other person emotionally or physically, sex for him has really been not much different from fucking a hole.
Her argument certainly has merit, and sex undoubtedly is more enjoyable when you connect with the other person, but that’s only half of the equation. The sex she advocates, in fact, is no different physically than the sex he’s been having all along.
Loving or even simply respecting someone doesn’t magically make sex magical. You can love someone and be bored by sex with them because it’s monotonous. The fact that Esther teaches Jon—and the film teaches us—there is a “right way” to have sex ignores those people who have the necessary connection Esther speaks of but have an unsatisfactory sex life, who might even prefer porn. It shames people who want to be adventurous and the myriad people who have kinks.
It makes me think of that episode of Friends where Ross dates a girl who enjoys dirty talk. Ross feels incredibly awkward and uncomfortable about it. Yet, dirty talk can be an effective way to heighten sexual pleasure and engage people in the present moment. The funny thing is, dirty talk is one of the least kinky things you could do and yet, our mainstream culture treats it as a joke.
From ballbusting to diaper fetishism, erotic asphyxiation to sadism, countless people hide their kinks in fear of the shame our sex-negative culture would bestow on them. While ballbusting might not heighten the sexual experience for many of us, something as simple as dirty talk, role play, or even spanking might. People should be able to discuss what they enjoy without risking ridicule, and people should be unashamed of experimentation so that they can discover what it is they do enjoy. Because sex should be fun and uninhibited. I just wish Joseph Gordon-Levitt had allowed Jon to learn that.