Screening Sex

Screening Sex

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 424 Illustrations: 129 illustrations Published: September 2008

Author: Linda Williams

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Sex and Sexuality, Media Studies > Film

For many years, kisses were the only sexual acts to be seen in mainstream American movies. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, American cinema “grew up” in response to the sexual revolution, and movie audiences came to expect more knowledge about what happened between the sheets. In Screening Sex, the renowned film scholar Linda Williams investigates how sex acts have been represented on screen for more than a century and, just as important, how we have watched and experienced those representations. Whether examining the arch artistry of Last Tango in Paris, the on-screen orgasms of Jane Fonda, or the anal sex of two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, Williams illuminates the forms of pleasure and vicarious knowledge derived from screening sex.

Combining stories of her own coming of age as a moviegoer with film history, cultural history, and readings of significant films, Williams presents a fascinating history of the on-screen kiss, a look at the shift from adolescent kisses to more grown-up displays of sex, and a comparison of the “tasteful” Hollywood sexual interlude with sexuality as represented in sexploitation, Blaxploitation, and avant-garde films. She considers Last Tango in Paris and Deep Throat, two 1972 films unapologetically all about sex; In the Realm of the Senses, the only work of 1970s international cinema that combined hard-core sex with erotic art; and the sexual provocations of the mainstream movies Blue Velvet and Brokeback Mountain. She describes art films since the 1990s, in which the sex is aggressive, loveless, or alienated. Finally, Williams reflects on the experience of screening sex on small screens at home rather than on large screens in public. By understanding screening sex as both revelation and concealment, Williams has written the definitive study of sex at the movies.

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Porn Studies, also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”

A John Hope Franklin Center Book


424 pages
129 illustrations
6x9 trim size
ISBN 0-8223-0-8223-4285-5
paper, $24.95
ISBN 0-8223-0-8223-4263-4
library cloth edition, $89.95
ISBN 978-0-8223-4285-4
paper, $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8223-4263-2
library cloth edition, $89.95


“’Sex is too important to be left to the pornographers,’ writes Linda Williams in Screening Sex. This new study of cinematic eroticism is the entertaining result of her conviction. It ranges from mainstream Hollywood sex scenes to pure masturbation fodder, from explicit arthouse to chaste early cinema. And it never dodges the question a more timorous academic might be too afraid to ask: what makes screen sex sexy?” — Linda Ruth Williams, Sight & Sound

Screening Sex is an intelligent account of how ‘the very act of screening has become an intimate part of our sexuality’ (p. 326). Throughout the book Williams stresses that screening sex involves our ‘entire sensorium’, activating our flesh and our senses (p. 20). We are thus back at the beginning: sex in the movies can arouse, fascinate, disgust, bore, instruct and incite us. Linda Williams’ book helps us make sense of those spectatorial sensations and of the enjoyment they can bring us”
— Anneke Smelik, Journal of Gender Studies

Screening Sex excels at providing a descriptive account and synthesising a large volume of material, making it easily comprehensible and accessible to a varied audience. . . . Williams leaves the reader questioning and wondering about the future of screened sex. This book whets the reader's appetite for more. More sex. More films. More books. Just more. Williams seems to be right, cultural products that elicit our curiosity will always leave us wanting and her book, criticisms aside, is no different.” — Caroline Walters, Scope

Screening Sex is inspiring in its depth of research and fluidity of expression and is convincing in its argument that movies are continually offering us new sexual pleasures and knowledges, even if these pleasures and knowledges are always coming ‘too early’ or ‘too late.’ Williams has created that rare text that is both intellectually rigorous and a pure joy to read. This is a great accomplishment.” — Curran Nault, Velvet Light Trap

“[Screening Sex] retains a personal element that adds much to its appeal and cogency. . . . Williams offers a lucid and perceptive account. . . . It is an altogether worthy follow-up to the author's previous work in the field, Hard Core (1989).” — Philip Kemp, Times Higher Education

“[A] cogent and up-beat reflection on the intimate experience of screening sex.” — Beth Johnson, Feminist Media Studies

“[A] thorough exploration of the role of sex in cinema. . . . [Screening Sex is] not only highly informative but remarkably intimate. She takes a serious approach to the material here, but William is never maudlin. This effect of the book is so tantalising it should drive you back in a fit of rediscovery to the films discussed.” — Michael Dalton, M/C Reviews

“[I]nformative, insightful and entertaining. . . [I]nsightful analysis and an explanation of Williams’ own experiences make Screening Sex a significant and valuable book for students of cinema studies. . . .” — Scott McKinnon, Media International Australia

“[T]his is an insightful, articulate, and honest volume that gives serious thought to a subject that challenges the tenets of distanced, scholarly discourse. — Lucy Fisher, Film Quarterly

“What Williams achieves is admirable. Progressing from her groundbreaking work Hardcore, Williams, temperate treatment of pornography next to classic cinema begins to do the work of assimilating the genre into the mainstream. Furthermore, it tills the soil of film, in general, to show how very sexual it can be, even without explicit sex. Screening Sex should prove not only a landmark in film studies, but that of sexuality as well.” — Erik Hinton, PopMatters

“[Williams is] the (still young) grand doyen of academic film studies. . . . Screening Sex . . . . is just as serious, humane, and refreshing as her other works." — Lawrence James Hammar, Feminist Review

“[Williams] mixes her own experiences with insights from psychoanalysis, film history, film studies and cultural studies. She manages to steer clear from dense theorisation, thanks to her well-balanced and witty style.” — Frederik Dhaenens, Politics and Culture

“Densely detailed, clearly argued, and always literate, the book (including accompanying stills) is blunt and graphic. Highly recommended. Mature upper-division undergraduates through faculty.” — J. C. Tibbetts, Choice

“Linda Williams’s Screening Sex provides an excellent look at the depiction of sexuality in film. This book offers an insightful overview and well-founded analysis of the complicated relationship sex has with film and media.”
— Terri Suico, Journal of Popular Culture

“Overall, Linda Williams’s book Screening Sex is a comprehensive study of how screened sex acts, both simulated and non-simulated, have been used in moving images since the 1890s and how the display of these acts affects the audience. The book is fluid, well organized, easy to read, and very engrossing. Screening Sex would be a valuable addition to any library
or film studies department. The information in the book is also relevant to any courses or studies on the relationship between media and culture/society.” — Brian Day, Journal of Film and Video

“There is so much that is provocative and entertaining in Screening Sex. . . . [O]ne of the most important motifs of the book—and the one that may have the most authoritative effects on film studies—is Williams’s insistence that we look at the history of gay and queer sex in cinema in the same context and rhetoric as heterosexual sexual activity.” — Michael Bronski, Cineaste

“There's an impressive amount of research here, and Williams casts a wide net to draw examples from mainstream fare such as Casablanca and The Graduate, controversial titles such as Last Tango in Paris and Blue Velvet, foreign art films, and varied selections within the hard-core sector. She provides a close, critical analysis of the plot, treatment, symbolism, and technical approach of individual films in terms of their sexual content, discussing these elements in relation to contemporary culture and offering thoughtful commentary about the various components of the audience experience. This is an informed and thoroughly frank study of an expansive array of sexual themes on film, with numerous explicit film stills and graphic narratives tightly woven into the scholarly text.” — Carol J. Binkowski, Library Journal

“This is a highly original, speculative, personal volume by a significant scholar in cinema studies whose contributions to the area of feminist film theory, in particular, have already been widely acknowledged. This new work documents the continuing intellectual development of a major figure in the field and in spite of its flaws—or perhaps because of them—promises to play a significant role in generating further debate about the nature cinema in the decade to come.”
— Hilary Radner, Journal of American History

“This is undoubtedly an important book in an under-researched area. It . . . will prove interesting and informative for students of film and in related areas of cultural studies. It is well-researched, thoroughly documented and referenced and written in an accessible but still scholarly manner.” — Mark Welch, Metapsychology Online Reviews

“Williams tackles some dense theorizing with gusto and an appealing sense of humor that nicely fits her subject.” — Rob Hardy, Erotica Readers and Writers Association

"Williams is a smooth writer, and even her most scholarly arguments feel lively, though far more engrossing are the vignettes about her own coming-of-age as a movie-sex spectator. . . ." — Laura Kipnis, Bookforum

Screening Sex is a truly remarkable follow-up to Linda Williams’s groundbreaking book Hard Core. It reaffirms her place as the leading feminist scholar of the history and theory of on-screen sex. Not that it was ever in doubt.” — Jane Gaines, author of Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era

“Linda Williams is a terrific storyteller about sex, and, as she tracks the growth of her own cinematically mediated sexual consciousness, we go to the movies with her, imagining as though for the first time new encounters with explicitness, new sexual knowledge, and new spectatorial sensations.” — Lauren Berlant, author of The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture

“With Screening Sex, Linda Williams establishes herself as not only the preeminent scholar of cinematic eroticism, but also the most significant voice in cinema studies of her generation.” — Eric Schaefer, author of “Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!” A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1958


Availability: In stock
Price: $30.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Linda Williams is Professor of Film Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Her books include Porn Studies, also published by Duke University Press; Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson; Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film; and Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. Of Kissing and Ellipses: The Long Adolescence of American Movies (1896–1963) 25

2. Going All the Way: Carnal Knowledge on American Screens (1961–1971) 68

3. Going Further: Last Tango in Paris, Deep Throat, and Boys in the Sand (1971–1972) 112

4. Make Love, Not War: Jane Fonda Comes Home (1968–1978) 155

5. Hard-Core Eroticism: In the Realm of the Senses (1976) 181

6. Primal Scenes on American Screens (1986–2005) 216

7. Philosophy in the Bedroom: Hard-Core Art since the 1990s 258

Conclusion: Now Playing on a Small Screen near You! 299

Notes 327

Bibliography 379

Index 397
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist, 2008 Lambda Literary Awards

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4285-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4263-2
Publicity material