Why Is Hollywood Shying Away from Sex?

'50 Shades Freed'Credit: Universal Pictures
Sex used to sell, but Hollywood seems to have forgotten that.

What's the last movie that turned you on? Yeah, we're getting right into it today.

Now, I'm not talking about how you watched Dressed to Kill on HBO Max and had to take a walk around the block after. I mean, when was the last time you went to a theater for a current release and actually felt like Hollywood was making a play at your sexuality?

For millions of people, I'm assuming the answer lies somewhere inside the 50 Shades trilogy, Magic Mike, or maybe even Spring Breakers. One was a massively popular book and the other was an arthouse extravaganza. 

'An Affair,' dir. Je-yong Lee
The truth is, Hollywood used to make erotic movies and erotic thrillers to lure adults into the theater. These movies used to make money. They dominated the 1990s and might have been responsible for a lot of readers' conceptions or, depending on their age, possibly the making of their kids. 

Yet unless there's a massive book or an indie hit, Hollywood has largely shied away from sex in films. In fact, research by writer Kate Hagen says, "Only 1.21% of the 148,012 feature-length films released since 2010 [according to the IMDB database] contain depictions of sex. That percentage is the lowest [of any decade] since the 1960s. Sex in cinema peaked in the 1990s, the heyday of the erotic thriller, with 1.79% of all films featuring sex scenes. That half-point decline is massive in relative terms, considering almost four times as many films have been released in the 2010s as in the 1990s."

'The Graduate'Credit: United Artists

So What's Going on with Sex in Hollywood Today? 

We talked about this a little in our erotic thriller article and our article about movies for adults. Hollywood is at an impasse.

Theatrical distribution is important for studios to make money. They're public companies that want to keep shareholders happy, which means they need to prioritize movies that make the most money. Right now, that's just tentpole ideas and four-quadrant ideas. Those movies are usually very expensive, so other genres and titles are being left by the wayside. For every superhero movie and large intellectual property, we're seeing adult titles slip away. 

If you want to go even more in-depth, you can check out this article from BBC that tracks sex in Hollywood over the last century. 

'Magic Mike'Credit: Warner Bros.

There's also the theory that the availability of pornography via the internet downgraded appetites for movies for adults which featured sexuality, but I think that gets almost totally debunked by 50 Shades being such a hit. What's happening here, in my opinion, is that Hollywood's transition into these bigger titles and hyper-focus on sequels has all but eliminated their desire to make movies aimed at capturing adults' hearts and minds. 

International markets are also a reason sex is hard to find. While Hollywood feels Puritanical at times, and Europe feels like open season, the rest of the world has strict mandates. We saw The Eternals, a pretty innocuous Marvel movie with a brief and chaste "sex scene" taken out of distribution in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and a few other countries. Hollywood is no longer concerned with just American audiences—they want titles with legs, so to speak. 

'Industry'Credit: BBC

Another big issue is television. Shows like Game of Thrones took the mantle for sex scenes (that proved controversial later). We even saw erotic thrills in shows like The Americans and streaming on Bridgerton.

Of course, a lot of what's talked about here is heteronormative sex. While we haven't seen queerness embraced totally by Hollywood, there are a number of TV shows (Industry, Sex Education, Mindhunter) that have no problem incorporating all sorts of LGBTQ+ points of view.

Movies have yet to really dig in here, with the MPAA being a major force as to why not to since those movies usually get rated harsher than ones featuring straight characters. Though some films, mostly indies, break through. 

All of these things add up to less sex in movies, and that's pretty sad. Not only does it take a profitable avenue off the market, but it neuters a part of the human experience that's incredibly cinematic and fits inside every genre. The only way Hollywood comes back to these titles is if someone just writes and directs and makes them. And they make money.

I could see streaming being a big player here in the future. Adults want movies they can watch on a night inside after the kids go to bed. But for now, Hollywood has turned its back on these kinds of films.

Perhaps the next big one is around the corner. Let us know what you think in the comments.       

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