Where Have All the Sex Scenes Gone?
Hollywood’s annoyingly puritanical Intercourse Discourse
The saying used to be that sex sells. Well, it hasn’t been selling at the box office, and many filmgoers are calling for an end to sex scenes in movies altogether.
All this sex talk has been in the news lately after You actor Penn Badgley mentioned on his podcast “Podcrushed” that he will no longer perform sex scenes in films if he can help it, because he wants to stay faithful in his marriage. He said he felt like he got to a point in his career where he no longer wants to be a romantic lead all the time, and, given how many seasons of You he’s already filmed, he felt like it was a reasonable ask. He also siad he knows that for a show like You, which has a lot of sex scenes by design, he knew it wasn’t an option to eliminate all sex scenes. So he requested to have the least amount of intimate scenes possible, especially since he is now older than many of the costars that would be playing his romantic interests.
That’s certainly his right, and he is definitely at a point in his career where he has the power to make such a request. It’s a personal decision. Liam Neeson apparently supports it.
This stance on sex scenes is not new among actors. Christian actor Kirk Cameron goes so far as to have his wife act as a stand-in for whatever actress he works with if there’s a kissing scene. Other actors and actresses have staunch policies against nudity. Most recently, You People stars Jonah Hill and Lauren London allegedly did not film a kissing scene because of COVID protocols. Again, these are personal decision. And we should mention that most every major Hollywood production has intimacy coordinators and contracts, and likely feature a lot of behind-the-scenes conversation about how to film such intimate scenes.
But, as always, the online reactions to Badgley’s comments have been censurious at best and outright puritanical at worst. Insead of focusing on what is a personal decision for Badgley, many on social media think that his decision should be the standard for all entertainment.
Some people are straight-up adovcating for a return to the oppressive days of the Hays Code, which was always about making money and never about protecting the country’s morals.
I know we’re all just about sick of this discourse but what is going on with people pic.twitter.com/TvXOPY7nrp
— Brandon Streussnig (@BrndnStrssng) February 13, 2023
What do these people even have to complain about in today’s blockbuster climate? If the average moviegoer wants to see anything resembling sexuality in a film currently theaters, they only have two options: Magic Mike’s Last Dance, or the recent re-release of Titanic, a film that is 26 years old.
There are many factors for this lack of sex at the movies. The erotic thriller, once a booming subgenre, is all but dead, a casualty of the death of the midbudget adult drama. The risk of censorship in bigger markets like China makes it more profitable to have celibate celluloid. The aftermath of the #MeToo movement has made many filmmakers wary of even including such scenes.
None of the Top 10-grossing films of 2022 have anything close to a sex scene (Top Gun: Maverick has a heavily-implied scene, but it’s quick). In order to see anything resembling sex on screen in a major American blockbuster, you have to go back nearly two years to 2021’s Eternals (a very chaste scene, but by Marvel’s standards it may as well be pornography). Before that, it’s A Star is Born in 2018, and even then, it’s all brief. Most mainstream Hollywood films are already sexless. Those complaining about seeing intimate scenes are whining about something that’s simply not there.
The argument that this type of filmgoer makes is that sex scenes don’t advance the plot. But do they need to? Movies are so much more than plot delivery systems. A sad side effect of 15 years of Marvel movies is that American film culture has taught a majority of its audience that movies are not artful experiences that have the potential to reflect vast swaths of the human condition; instead, they are reference-laden puzzle boxes. God forbid a movie includes anything that resembles a “plot hole” or a scene that exists purely for characterization. (RS Benedict’s excellent essay “Everyone is Beautiful And No One Is Horny” has much more to say about how the MCU treats sexuality.)
The issue here is not that an audience member can’t like sex scenes in a movie; it’s that people who are getting up in arms about something that they don’t like want to force their standards on everyone else, which never ends well. (Notice Badgley never said he wanted to get rid of all sex scenes in all of Hollywood altogether.)
Folks are throwing around words like “consent” to describe the experience of watching a movie. Why are we using language associated with sexual assault to describe feeling uncomfortable about a constructed image?
— Racquel Gates (@racquelgates) February 14, 2023
A possible explanation for this more conservative trend is that today’s young people are having less sex than previous generations, according to studies. Gen Z has also spent a majority of their lives online and are more aware of how damaging the pornography industry is, but this latest round of discourse implies that many young folks equate any filmed depiction of sexuality to pornography. Conversely, romance books have been having a huge moment in pop culture precisely because of younger readers.
But sexuality is an important part of the human experience, and how we relate to it, or don’t, is a subject worthy of exploring through film as long as they do it with respect to everyone involved in making those scenes. Penn Badgley set a boundary for filming those scenes, but he didn’t force that stance on anybody else. Everyone celebrating his decision should do the same.