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Among its many purposes, art is about exploring the human experience. Sex is such a key part of the human experience that – medical intervention aside – it’s required in order to even have the human experience. People spend significant portions of their lives either having it or yearning for it. What kind of repressed, unfeeling creature would want to rule out artistic depictions of it not just for themselves, but for everyone?
Every couple months, someone speaks up on Twitter and re-activates the tiresome discourse that sex scenes are unnecessary and gratuitous, don’t add anything, make people feel uncomfortable, and should be banished from screen entertainment. Thus reignites a massive debate, usually centring around the sexlessness of Marvel films, because those are the only movies mainstream audiences watch anymore, and usually based around a notion of sex scenes derived from watching bad movies. Usually somebody says “if you want to watch sex, just watch porn,” implying, “you PERVERT.” It gets ugly.
There are plenty of bad sex scenes out there, and many reasons why bad sex scenes get made. Fear of censorship; embarrassment and shame; an unwillingness to be honest; poor communication in the creative team; a lack of experience, even. But just because many movies have bad sex scenes, that’s no reason to tar the entire form. You could make the same claim about chase scenes, or sports scenes, or comic banter, depending on what movies you watched. But we don’t feel embarrassed watching chase scenes, sports scenes, or comic banter, largely for the same reason writers don’t feel embarrassed writing them. Chases, sports, and banter aren’t personal in the same way that sex is, so they’re more common in films, we become more used to them, we shrug bad examples off more easily, and the whole cycle continues.
But the very fact that sex is personal is what makes it such a potentially strong subject of cinema. It just has to be executed well. Not the sex itself – crappy sex is something cinema could see more of – but the scenework and dramaturgy. Sex scenes can, and should, do more than they currently do.
Sex scenes can advance STORY
When I say “sex scenes can do more,” I don’t mean “more explicit stuff,” although for the right audience there’s no reason not to do that either. The biggest complaint typically seen in these debates is that “sex scenes don’t advance the plot.” For starters, cinema has more to offer than simply “advancing the plot.” If you want plot, read a Wikipedia summary. For emotion, excitement, entertainment, action, and art, watch a movie. But sex scenes can contribute to storytelling in myriad ways. On a basic, functional level, they’re central to stories about characters trying to have children, and there’s a lot of drama that can come with that. Sex can be used to deliver exposition in a way that’s more interesting – and in some cases, more natural – than just sitting down and talking. And of course, countless stories revolve around characters sleeping with one another, and how that affects them and other people in their lives. Your life has probably had twists and turns caused by sex, too.
But story is more than just deployment of plot information. Story is character, and luckily…
Sex scenes can show CHARACTER
Character is developed through literally every action someone takes. You see a different aspect of a character in whatever they do – how they behave in a restaurant, how they drive, how they talk to their parents versus their friends – and given how walled-off sex tends to be from the rest of our lives, stripping characters down (literally) to that intensely private version of themselves can only enrich an audience’s view of them. Maybe they have issues with physical intimacy – or maybe physical intimacy is the only kind they’re comfortable with. Maybe their sense of humour flourishes in a sexual situation. Maybe they’re freaky and weird; maybe they’re affected by guilt or shame or trauma; maybe they put on a facade of confidence during sex; maybe that facade is broken in the silence afterwards. It’s hard to imagine not learning anything about a character in a sex scene that’s written with character in mind (as opposed to merely satisfying the plot point of “they bang”).
What’s more, sex tends to involve more than one person (though much of the above could apply to masturbation scenes too, in different ways), so…
Sex scenes can develop RELATIONSHIPS
Though not all relationships involve sex, many do, and having characters “get busy” can be a way of showing relationships deepening – or not, depending on the characters and the nature of their relationship. For some relationships, it raises the stakes and sense of commitment; for others, it’s a casual thing. Sometimes it brings people closer. Sometimes it pushes them apart. A relationship dynamic can be illustrated through sex, via power dynamics, the ways in which each partner strives to please (or be pleased), and the ways in which they communicate – or don’t. Things that happen during sex can complicate relationships, and the guard-down, intimate nature of it means that when something goes wrong, it can go really wrong. For couples and groups, sex can be a source of joy, pain, catharsis, fun, and connection. It can create empathy between characters, and thus also between those characters and the audience.
Indeed, it’s the range of potential expression in sexual activity – nearly as broad as the range of expression in life itself – that gives it such (usually squandered) potential for onscreen drama. So I plead with filmmakers to understand that…
Sex scenes can be UNIQUE
Part of the reason sex scenes get such a bad rap is that in mainstream cinema, the fucking things all look and play out in nearly the exact same way. But sex is a wildly and beautifully varied thing, a cornucopia of weirdness and self-expression that often gets forgotten about because filmmakers are afraid to explore things that challenge their (or their audience’s) preconceptions. Granted, most people probably have relatively ordinary sex, but perhaps there’s some cause and effect there regarding media depictions of it. Independent cinema has depicted a wide range of sexual behaviour over the years, especially outside North America, but mainstream Western cinema really has not. Plenty of sex scenes; not too much weird shit. There’s room to explore, and showing people something new might inadvertently introduce them to something they’re interested in (as happened, albeit problematically, with a certain blockbuster trilogy of trashy erotica adaptations). So get some roleplaying in there; get characters engaging in adventurous sensory experiences or fetishising unusual things. It’ll make the characters more distinct, the movies more memorable, and the audiences more worldly. Fewer and more ordinary sex scenes only serve to stigmatise.
And on that note…
Sex scenes can be EMPOWERING
Historically, there’s a straight, male-focused bias to sex scenes in Hollywood – due as much to the disproportionate influence of straight males in Hollywood as the tendency of the MPA to give harsher ratings to anything outside that norm. That undue predominance of the male gaze has a lot to answer for as to audiences’ view of what sex scenes are and can be. It takes concerted effort to counteract this sort of thing, but the potential results are worth it. Sex scenes written and directed and performed with a different intent can reclaim and celebrate the female experience of sex. Or the queer experience, the transgender experience, the non-monogamous experience, the experience of people outside the bounds of conventional beauty. For people with sexual identities or preferences outside Western social norms, seeing those identities depicted onscreen in a welcoming or celebratory way can be incredibly validating. For people trapped inside those norms, it can even be liberating.
But sex scenes don’t have to change the world. They can also just be entertaining:
Sex scenes can be FUNNY
Sex is way funnier than we give it credit for. In Hollywood, it’s typically choreographed to be serious; in commercial porn, it’s choreographed to be hardcore; in real life, it isn’t choreographed at all, and that’s something that you rarely see in filmed sex scenes (in porn or in films). We fuck up sex all the time, and if you claim you don’t, you’re literally a fucking liar. We have accidents, in multiple senses of the word. Old injuries flare up while we’re trying to get it on. We say and do dumb things in misguided attempts to sound sexy, and if we’re on a good wavelength we laugh about it. Or we intentionally say or do funny shit; senses of humour don’t evaporate with the removal of clothes. And we’ve all had crappy sex; there’s so much in the way of identifiable, very very funny material to be drawn from that well of experience, should filmmakers lean into it.
Or lean away from comedy and into art:
Sex scenes can be ARTISTIC
We hear a lot about “artistic validity” of sex scenes, particularly when actors discuss whether or not they’re willing to do them. This can be taken two ways. One is in terms of dramatic or narrative significance, which is what this article is all about. But sex scenes can also be visually innovative, and “artistic” in the classic sense of the word. To most, that mostly suggests tasteful nude photography and soft-focus closeups of fingertips dancing along an indeterminate patch of skin. But sex can be shot with as much variety as anything else. It can be beautiful. It can be thrilling. It can be horrifying. It can even be abstract. It just takes some imagination and creative risk-taking to think outside the box of how we perceive sex scenes “should” be depicted onscreen.
And with all this in mind, let us not forget:
Sex scenes can be SEXY
A corollary to Roger Ebert’s “cinema as empathy machine” thesis is the fact that cinema is an emotion machine, too. We go to the movies to feel something, whether that’s excitement or joy or sadness or amusement or terror or even anger. Why have we so stigmatised the notion of films appealing to that other, equally primal emotional centre, arousal? We’ve so thoroughly banished onscreen sex to the realm of pornography that it’s seen as a sin to try to make the audience feel something in their nether regions as well as their head and heart. Movies are constantly described as “sensory overloads” when they’re loud and colourful and fast-paced, but there’s another sense out there, and I’m not talking about Smell-O-Vision. What’s wrong, as Spinal Tap would say, with being sexy? Is it the fact that sexiness is subjective? Comedy is subjective, and there’s no shortage of that. Or are we afraid people will lose control and start jackin’ or jillin’ it in the theatre? Because that’s not a problem with content, that’s a problem with people.
Accordingly, it’s important to remember:
Sex scenes can be ETHICAL
There’s an ongoing discussion about the porn industry, and whether porn can be ethical. “Ethical porn” tends to revolve around many of the ideas mentioned above – representation, realism, artistry – as well as considerations as to safety, consent, pay equity, and who controls the means of production, so to speak. All of these issues apply to regular film productions as well, and examples abound of actors being exploited onscreen and, tragically, off. There is also a theory that depicting sex onscreen is inherently exploitative, especially given the societal context into which said depictions are released, and that anything that can be read as pornography will be.
But the answer to these issues is not to simply declare a moratorium on dramatising what is, again, a fundamental part of the human experience. To do so makes the world a worse place; it’s a wind that blows in the same direction as outlawing sex work (making seeking help fraught with legal peril) or banning it from online transactions (forcing sex workers into murky, scammy alternatives). The public won’t become better-informed in darkness. The (admittedly idealistic) solution is to write better sex scenes, hire better people (including intimacy coaches!) to make them, and give them a conscious purpose beyond obligation or gratuity. And maybe that purpose is gratuitous! There’s nothing wrong with that either, as long as everyone involved is on the same page about it and audiences have the tools to read it as intended. Easier said than done, all of it. But better to try than not to.
To sum up:
Sex scenes can be BETTER
I’m not about to say every actor should perform in sex scenes, or every director should direct them, or every movie should include them, but there should be nothing stopping them from happening when the cast and crew have a shared vision for them. There just needs to be more thought at every stage of the process. The industry needs greater transparency and accountability to protect talent. Creatives need to free their minds and produce more interesting material. Censors need to unshackle themselves from conservative Christian values. The general public needs to be taught a healthier understanding of sex itself. And audiences need to open their minds, too, to the potential for sex scenes to do more than what they’ve tended to do in mainstream cinema.
And if after all this, sex scenes still seem pointless and uncomfortable for you? The good news is that they’re clearly labelled on ratings stickers. If they’re simply not for you, and there’s a hundred valid reasons why that might be, you can avoid them. But there are audiences out there who are ready for better sexual content in film. They just might not know it until they’re shown it.