Are Sex Scenes Dead? How We Watch Sex on Screen in a "Post-Vitalist Culture"

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire'Credit: Pyramide Films
Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things about sex on-screen.

The era of the erotic thriller promised us something exciting about watching films that were “made for adults,” asking us to watch late at night, away from everyone else because this was going to be sensual. But as we look at sex in cinema, the erotic air has gone stale.

In an interview with Variety, Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven noted that American culture has taken a “general shift towards Puritanism” in cinema and everyday life. 

Verhoeven isn’t the only one who noticed the lack of sex in cinema. John Cameron Mitchell, whose movie Shortbus captured audiences with its depictions of unsimulated sex, declared “a certain sex panic in the air,” while Playboy writer Kate Hagen reports that the percentage of feature-length films depicting sex is at its lowest point since the 1960s. 

Could it be that sex has moved from the big screen to the small screen, appearing in TV shows made for adults? Or maybe there we haven’t figured out a way to use sex scenes to push a story forward.

The New Yorker writer Alexandra Schwartz and three critics, Naomi Fry, Vinson Cunningham, and Doreen St. Félix, try to navigate the future of sex on screen in a recent piece, asking who is and isn’t allowed to have sex in cinema and TV. 

'Sleeping with Other People'Credit: IFC Films

Where Did the Sex Go? 

We are living in the blockbuster age of cinema. Most films in theaters are these big superhero films or films that cater towards family-friendly, big-budget entertainment. The decline of the mid-budget adult drama has created an environment that makes us look around, wondering why everything is so clean.

How we are watching movies has changed the content of movies. Instead of making sensual thrillers that are geared toward adults to watch with other adults, we are watching movies and shows on our phones and computers in public settings. A bit awkward for sex scenes.

'Eyes Wide Shut'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

As Cunningham puts it, we are living in a post-vitalist culture. People are less interested in sexual content, preferring emotional connections to push stories forward. Romance is no longer the ultimate motivation for living. We can see this shift most obviously in children's films like the Oscar-nominated Encanto and how the love triangle exists between secondary characters while the main character is trying to bring happiness into her family's lives. 

Another element of this shift is that people are no longer boxed in by their desire to perform their gender roles. I’m not saying, “Sex is dead because we crave emotional connection more,” but when sex and romance are used to shock rather than show human connection, the sex is viewed as unwarranted.

I’ve always had an issue with sex scenes that were displayed for a spectacle like Verhoeven’s Benedetta, which displays a 17th-century nun who wants to find a connection with God but also wants to have sex all the time. It is fine for the nun to want pleasure, but I think the sex is unnecessary and doesn’t serve the story.

'Benedetta'Credit: Pathé Distribution

What Do We Want to See from Sex on Screen?

With anything that happens on screen, there has to be a reason for it. There is weight in physical contact, and using sex to channel human connection can heighten the story being told. 

What do we want to get from sex scenes? What is sex on screen for? 

Making people horny is no longer enough—we have the internet for that. Cunningham writes “you have to try to stylize and sort of auteurize the act.” 

Brokeback Mountain uses Ennis Del Mar's (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist's (Jake Gyllenhaalsexual relationship to show the audience a story about love in the face of violence. The sex scenes unveil Ennis' complicated relationship with his queerness, unable to separate his desire from his fear. The film captures the frustrated, repressed passion through violence and romance through compassionate observation. 

'Brokeback Mountain'Credit: Focus Features

Then there are shows like Euphoria that have sex scenes that are disconnected from the plot, but still have weight in the show’s story. There are many conversations around teen shows that glamourize underage sex, creating moments that are either too realistic or completely unrealistic that borders a line between meaningful sex and unnecessary porn. Half of the internet celebrated this past week because we didn’t have to see an unnecessary penis this last episode. 

But on that note, a taboo is being broken when a penis is shown on screen, challenging the male gaze that has focused on women’s bodies for years, but we are not looking at frontal nudity through a progressive lens. Instead, we are asked to look down at the penis, see it, and humiliate men and their sexuality.

And then, we have to ask ourselves why we are only seeing white men naked on screen. 

“If we are going to position the [full-frontal phenomenon] as progressive, we’re still not at the point where seeing a Black man naked on a television show would be acceptable. Because the culture, or, to be more precise, the image-makers, are not yet ready to touch that third rail,” writes St. Félix.

Black male sexuality onscreen has been tamped down, establishing a negative narrative about who is allowed to have sex on screen. 

'Euphoria'Credit: HBO/A24

Euphoria does offer a conversation about how we look at sex. St. Félix writes, “One thing about Euphoria is that sex is rarely ever attached to pleasure. [I]t’s always operating on that high-octane level, you never see two people having sex just for the fun of it.”

There is no purity to the sex because the show refuses to allow anyone to have a healthy sexual relationship. 

When it comes to showing desire, ask yourself what desire looks like to you. In Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the act of looking becomes the most erotic element of the film. Yes, the film has a sex scene, but it is the build-up to that moment of who is penetrating who with a stare that gets you excited. 

Sex and sexuality aren’t something to be ashamed of. It is an exciting aspect of freedom that can transform a person and their relationship with another person. Our sex views are complicated, and when writing or directing a sex scene, ask yourself if you are looking at the truth of sex in American culture. Sex is a moment of vulnerability, describing a character through their actions and reactions at the moment for the audience to further understand the character’s state of mind. 

The way a sex scene is displayed on-screen shows the function of sex in the narrative. There is a lot of room for humiliation, self-discovery, or a moment for a character to drop their act for a moment of pleasure. Write sex that works for you. Don’t do it for the spectacle of nudity on screen, but for the narrative you want to tell. 

What was the last great sex screen you saw on screen? Let us know what it is in the comments below!      

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2 Comments

Sex scenes are almost always redundant. The fact that the characters did have sex is enough to move the story forward. How exactly they had sex is gratuitous.
Paul Verhoeven is someone who likes to shock. That is a trait that all young artists have and he is not young.

March 3, 2022 at 2:22PM

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Pavel Tsvetkov
Producer/Director/Writer
187

I think it more has to do with post-metoo and of course the overall Disneyfication of adult cinema. The weight of a well placed sex-scene is hard to replace. It is not redundant. It is not gratuitous. Of course there is plenty of bad sex scenes (I'm looking at you Cold mountain), but I would not reject the action genre because of a bad action film.

March 6, 2022 at 7:54AM

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