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I was lucky—well, lucky enough.
There is something that goes beyond self-scrutiny when you see yourself naked on film for the first time. Perhaps it is a sense of awe, to see your body in motion—that you, too, are an animated creature in your barest form. It is difficult to decide where to look first, to not have the luxury of staring at yourself in a still mirror, to have all the time in the world to pick and choose.
But on film, your quick carnality shocks you. Your legs and arms all akimbo, your chest and stomach exposed and unafraid, and it occurs to you that the only people who have seen you like this are your past lovers. And always, always, you will settle on your face and stay there, to look for the answers to questions and secrets that you did not even know you possess.
In 2007, I was in my second semester of freshman year at a liberal arts college in Boston. Facebook still forced you to write about yourself in the third person. I had yet to read Susan Sontag’s On Photography, or Judith Butler, or Jack Halberstam. Twitter was a verb that inhabited the realm of birds. The words “sex tape” conjured the image of Paris Hilton’s face cast in a night-lit green. I had been out as a lesbian for almost a year and a half, and living queer theory before I learned about it in a classroom, taught by an idealist adjunct professor.
In Canada, Amanda Todd was around nine years old; by the age fifteen, she would film and post a suicide letter on YouTube and hang herself after years of sexual exploitation from a man she met on the Internet who acquired a photo still of her baring her breasts.
I did not know of the existence of 4chan. I did not know that in junior year, I would read a thread on a now-defunct college gossip site and come across a post from a co-ed who had seen my tits on film and proclaimed them “jerk-off worthy,” who had actually used the word “tits,” something I wouldn’t do. I did not know that I would fold my computer with a calm ascribed to monks without want, and that my hands would feel so cold and useless. I did not know then and there, as a freshman, that I would agree to appear on screen naked and perform a sex scene with a boy. But I would soon.
At my college, appearing in a short film project was not a rarity—it was known for its film school. There was crossover between the film department and the acting department, for obvious reasons: Every film needed its star, and every actor needed a credit for a resume. But it was also not unusual for other students from other majors to act in front of the camera, kids helping out their friends, kids living out their latent fantasies, albeit briefly, kids doing something, anything, that would let their youth outlive them.
I am not an actor; my limits of talent are strict and narrow. At best, I am almost mediocre, but I acted in film projects when asked. This is how I came to speak to the director the short film I would one day star in. “You have a look,” Henry* told me. Even now, I am slim and eager with a young face that earns me suspicious, dart-like looks from bartenders and bouncers.
What Henry proposed was this: His short film would be about a couple on the verge of a breakup, and that the entire thing would be rotoscoped in post-production. Henry would trace over each frame with a matte plate, creating an illustrated world in motion, colors thrumming and vibrant. But there was one other thing.
“There’s a sex scene,” said Henry. I blinked. “You’ll have to be naked for it. Well, topless, at least.” I tilted my head. “But like, since it’s going to rotoscoped, it won’t be that bad or anything.” I considered myself as a cartoon, wandering through a universe that was not quite three-dimensional, where my name was not my own and I broke the hearts of boys and men.
“I’ll do it,” I said, not knowing why, without another pause.
Among my friends, I’m somewhat known for being a Luddite. It’s not that I have an active disdain for technology, only that the frills have never captivated my interest. I purchased my first smartphone a little over two months ago, the cheapest I could find, because my boss at the time requested I acquire one for work. Since then, I have actively tried to avoid downloading and using apps. I have never sent a Snapchat. I do not have an Instagram. And due to the limitations set by the lack of a data plan that preceded my smartphone, I have never sent anyone a picture of me naked.
My own history regarding the art of the nude selfie or sext does not preclude my opinion of them: The subversive effect of self-objectification can be a powerful one. But, to put it simply, the possible use of the naked body as currency is one that frightens me. The fact that the naked body can become an instrument of that violence—that it can become a weapon to the benefit of someone else—is perhaps the most terrifying prospect of all.
A few weeks later, I stepped into the studio on campus where we would film Henry’s movie, a cavernous room with a green screen that would give me a blight of color-induced headaches. There were two set pieces that would be used, a couch whose origin remained a mystery, and a large inflatable mattress with a single worn sheet to cover its plastic nakedness; Henry would draw the rest of the stuff into the frames during post-production, couches, televisions, the greyed waves of the Boston harbor, so tired from their journey. On the sidelines of a raised, wide platform were the crew, thick headsets ringed around their necks, four in total. I had seen some before around campus, and for a cold, brief moment, I wondered if they would see me in a different way on the street, as we passed each other by.
Henry had the distinction of being not only the screenwriter and director, but the male star as well. When we went through lines before we filmed our scenes, he told me to think of Wes Anderson movies. We sat on a couch, pretending to flip through channels on a television screen that did not exist. We paced the slatted docks of the Esplanade, pretending to hear the intonations of seagulls. And then there was the bed.
On the day we filmed the sex scene, I brought the kimono my mother had given me years ago, when we had visited Boston on a trip to visit an uncle years before, and Henry dismissed most of the crew. Only the girl who held the microphone gaff and the cameraman were left to witness this; they averted their eyes while I left my clothes in a stilted puddle, save for my underwear, and sat on the mattress, arms crossed against my chest. In a corner, Henry did the same, my improbable mirror. I lifted the sheet, and then we began.
I remember that it was winter and that the studio was cold; it made my nipples point and ache. I remember I knew that every actor or actress that I had ever heard speak about the awkward craft of the sex scene was right. I remember the apologetic jab of Henry’s half-erection against the inside of my left leg and that I promised myself I wouldn’t mention it, in an act of small compassion. I remember thinking of the boys that I had kissed in high school, and how after kissing them I would go home and brush my teeth until motes of blood pooled in the spaces between enamel and flesh, trying not to think of the girls I loved in secret.
And I remember, most clearly, the omniscient and dissolute eye of the camera as I grunted and moaned, pretending this was something I was capable of feeling.
Months later, Henry knocked on the room of my dorm and told me he had something to show me. In the interim, I would mention as anecdotal party fare about the time I had done a sex scene with a boy, of all things, until I found other, better stories to replace it. Henry had finished the project. He wanted me to watch.
In his dorm room, Henry dimmed the lights and opened a file on his computer. The screen brimmed with our faces, shaded and bordered with what Henry had traced and colored. When we came to the sex scene, my breasts were a pale apricot, sometimes washed with rose. I looked at myself commit a simulation of the most primal act besides murder. This act, which I only enacted with women, which with them looked and felt so inherent and true. I watched the thing that dictated the core of what I am, and saw it play out in an alternate universe, one where I had a different name, a different urge, a different kind of love. I watched, and closed my eyes.
I can only assume that Henry debuted the movie in a screening for class, which was to be expected. In the weeks that followed, a handful of people, mostly boys, approached me and told me they had seen my boobs, without the social nicety of a “Hello!” or “How are you?” Almost all of them I had never met before. They came with smiles lined with smug surety, with the ability to unleash a secret. When this happened, I braced my arms against my chest with an instinct that surprised me and uttered things like “You’re not the first” or “Well, you did!”
Beyond that first wave, there was little else that followed, save for two years later, when I would read the post about my tits, too ashamed to tell a soul, praying that none of the people I knew had seen it. I had seen my participation in Henry’s film as a finite episode, something done and forgotten in the space of one semester. But I had forgotten about the act of dissemination and how it creates a memory that, like a post on the internet, lasts forever. That for some, I would be remembered for a heteronormative performance that so distinctly breaks from the core of my queer identity. That in a small and tidy post, hidden deep in the annals of the Internet, there is an evidence of this that will last forever.
Things could have turned out very differently if this incident had happened a few years later, or if Henry had posted a video of this film on his Facebook, which, like now, was not an uncommon thing to do. There could have been an onslaught of tweets and subreddits and campus gossip posts. My ownership of my body could have been stolen with a violent, digital tug. The iota-like fraction of disgrace and guilt I experienced could have been exponentially continuous, hounding me from city to city and year to year with the unnerving vigor of a stalker. I was lucky; well, lucky enough.
Even though my generation was the first to grow up with the Internet as a constant companion, we were some of the last to experience the vestiges of a life privately lived. And while it can be said that the Internet has been a cultural connective force, it has given us enough social distance to be cruel to one another, replacing brute force with psychology, both equally damaging. This is nothing new, as well known as a celebrity’s sex tape. And so I rage at the way a female body can be shamed into death, the way turning personhood can be rendered an object with the veil of a palm-sized screen, the new ways we drive each other into the dark, and remember a file that might sit at the bottom of a box in Henry’s childhood home, claiming an old part of me, frame by frame by frame.
Photo via easyflic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)