The 'Nymphomaniac' Rape Scene No One is Outraged About
Lars von Trier has not given us a documentary. He's crafted a fantasy.
By Christopher Zeischegg
It's not halfway through Lars von Trier's new film, Nymphomaniac, that a young woman named Joe (Stacy Martin) fellates a middle-aged railway passenger. Her blowjob is the finale to a game in which she wins a bag of chocolates for seducing the greatest number of men.
An older Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts the story as both an example of her sexual addiction and evidence of her sin. The blowjob itself isn't viewed as immoral. It's the context. Prior to ejaculating in Joe's mouth, the railway passenger explains that he's traveling home to visit his ovulating wife. The married couple have been trying – unsuccessfully – to conceive a child. It could have been the perfect night to turn their luck around.
It's for this reason that the railway passenger quietly repeats, “Please don't,” as Joe unbuttons his pants. But by the time his cock is in her mouth, he doesn't seem all that upset.
A reflective Joe expresses guilt, or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. But as an audience member, I didn't see the big deal. Even the film's “voice of reason” – a good Samaritan named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) – assures Joe that she simply relieved the passenger of his “load.”
I couldn't imagine a scenario in which oral sex from a young woman might be a moral affront to a heterosexual man. Not until a friend of mine brought up the idea that Joe was essentially a rapist. His argument was that if no really means no, and we apply the same standards to both men and women, then the blowjob was rape. Otherwise, we assume the passenger wanted it all along, which is basically victim-blaming.
Turn the scenario on its head, and I'd agree. A middle-aged man molests a young girl on a train while she quietly repeats, “Please don't.” Even if she gives in, it sounds creepy as fuck. However, the circumstances of life are not quite the circumstances of film. Particularly not a film that sexualizes a young woman and happens to be written and directed by a man.
Nymphomaniac isn't really porn. I actually think the film should be applauded for presenting us with an active, highly sexual, female protagonist. Joe may be self-loathing, but I can relate to her. I think this attests to an at least somewhat successful subversion of the male gaze.
But this is a movie that markets itself on explicit sex scenes. Whatever else Nymphomaniac is, it is also an exercise in voyeurism. When we see a man say “no” on camera and immediately thereafter place his erection in a young girl's mouth, there's a lot of baggage to go along with it. For men who get off on women, it's some highly privileged baggage.
Speaking as an ex-porn performer with eight years experience in front of the camera, I couldn't even tell you the number of times I was asked by a director to slightly resist the advances of a more “sexually adventurous” woman. There's a very good reason. A lot of men fantasize about the scenario. Some will even pay to jerk off to it.
Of course, sexual assault against women is a common porn trope too. And yes, some women fantasize about it. But the unfortunate counterpoint to this fantasy is a reality in which nearly one out of every five American women are victims of sexual assault.
I've yet to hear any startling statistics regarding male victims of unwanted fellatio. Prior to Nymphomaniac, the typical male experience of such a scenario is likely erotic and fictional, or so cowed by our culture’s “men can’t be raped” propaganda that they never came forward. But we haven't been presented with much to change that. Lars von Trier has not given us a documentary. He's crafted a fantasy.
It's akin to the action hero who receives a few bruises or cuts to his skin. His pain is not meant to reflect our own, it's simply cause for exhilaration. Even within the context of the film, the passenger's sexuality is not threatened. Only his marriage and offspring are put at risk – both of which can be read as the antithesis of sexualized, male ego.
We can't watch explicit, penetrative sex in a vacuum, at least not in 2014. As a formal technique, its history is almost entirely pornographic. The medium has taught men, as spectators, to ride this scenario to climax. And, as men, we're lucky enough not to have to deal with much of a negative real-world correlation. Yes, men are raped, but not to the extent of becoming a cultural epidemic.
Even if we are able to empathize with the passenger as a victim, it's another convenient example of male privilege. The scene will still be eroticized, so we may still take pleasure from it. Joe will suffer guilt all the same.
Luckily, Joe allows us to identify with her, which proves that von Trier has done something interesting. He makes us voyeurs and empathizers simultaneously. Even so, it's hard for me to feel the pain of Joe's blowjob. Because I'm a man, I get to sit back and enjoy it.