Where Did All the Sex in Movies Go?
2020 was a great year for movies—but a terrible one for movie sex. Our Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon break down how Hollywood has become even more lame and prudish.
Kevin: I had to type something in my email search window today that I thought I would never type: “Marlow + sex.”
Marlow: I’m so sorry!
Kevin: I couldn’t remember how we got onto the topic, but somehow we had started talking about, for as spectacular a year as this was for cinema—if anything, the pandemic and release delays kept away all the blockbuster bloat—it was a strangely tame year when it comes to movie sex. Were we talking about it because of The Very Horny Bridgerton Christmas? Was it because of that tweet that went viral and sparked all that discourse that said, “Sex scenes are unnecessary in film/series. No plot point has been driven by a good sex scene or has there ever been a film made better by a sex scene?”
Marlow: That tweeter clearly hasn’t been watching television for quite some time! Although don’t get me started on Bridgerton, which as someone on Twitter perfectly described, was like an R-rated version of a Taylor Swift music video.
Kevin: Either way, here we are having that discourse about the last year in movies, which seemed strangely sexless. I’m racking my brain for the most memorable sex scenes I saw, and it turns out they were all in queer films. That big sex scene in Ammonite between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, for example, was one of the most fascinating ones I’ve seen. It was placed at a perfect climactic point (heh) in the film, and was blunt and frank about sex and pleasure in a way that I had never seen before, and certainly not in a same-sex love scene. It was so extremely carnal and cumbersome. In lieu of moody scoring there was just bed-creaking, heavy breathing, and the wind outside the window.
Marlow: It’s fascinating how the only memorable artfully-done sex scenes I can think of in recent years are in independent queer films, whether it’s the intimate beach handjob in Moonlight, or Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer’s romantic humping in Call Me by Your Name, or Rachel Weisz spitting into Rachel McAdams’ mouth in Disobedience, or any number of scenes in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’m curious why that is?
Kevin: I talked at length with Winslet and Ronan about it and the conversation that it caused—obviously you get two actresses of this caliber in a sex scene and people are going to talk nonstop about it—and they were glad that instead of continuing the same discussion about sex in movies it was pivoting it in a new direction: one that considered agency, queerness, and pleasure instead of pure audience titillation. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing now? Instead of constant and gratuitous sex in movies, scenes that may be more explicit, but which actually mean something... in spite of what that tweet said.
Marlow: Right. When we talk about “pure audience titillation,” I’m thinking of the way the big sex scene was staged in Blue Is the Warmest Color, which seemed like it was designed for the pleasure of the creepy director and people like him (that is, straight men). So I do think these sex scenes are at least less male gaze-y than they’ve been in the past.
Kevin: Which not only makes them more interesting, but also hotter. Sorry straight men!
Marlow: I see no lies. One of the sex scenes that really stuck out for me this year was in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, where we see Mads Mikkelsen’s lost middle-aged teacher reconnect with his wife on a family camping trip. It’s a wonderfully intimate sequence, as she begins to cry toward the end of it, so shaken by how much they’ve missed one another and his renewed presence, that he in turn is overcome with emotion. Although it’s not what anyone would call “sexy.”
Kevin: It’s interesting that while we might struggle to come up with “hot” scenes we used to think about in big studio films—remember when it used to be like a gross contract between ticket buyer and director to have one sex montage of A-listers rolling around in carefully placed white sheets in every R-rated movie?—there has been a fascination with sex in movies this year. A measurable one, in fact. There was a documentary that came out over the summer called Skin: A History of Nudity in Movies that provided as much of an occasion as any to do a State of the Union of Movie Sex, and then there was You Don’t Nomi, about the cult fascination with Showgirls—a fascination that is inextricable from its comical, explicit sex scenes.
Marlow: As far as the “gross contract” goes, I’m reminded of when that director claimed Halle Berry was paid an extra $500,000 to go topless in Swordfish (Berry denied it), or for that matter the insane sequence in that same film where Hugh Jackman’s hacker is forced at gunpoint by John Travolta to hack into a system in 60 seconds while being fellated by a random blonde woman. But I digress. Love me some Showgirls! Cristal Connors forever, darlin’. And I will never forget that pool-seizure-sex scene! I hope Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan are both recovering OK. Perhaps that’s what gave his Sex and the City character erectile dysfunction.
Kevin: But if there’s one way to gauge something as vague as what society is interested in at a given moment, it’s the Netflix Top 10 list. And there was a point this summer when the two most popular movies on the streamer were Love, a film about the complications of sexual relationships that opens with its lead character getting jacked off and jizzing into the camera, and 365 Days, a steamy, practically soft-core Polish film about kinkiness and Stockholm syndrome.
Marlow: Apparently that was filmmaker Gaspar Noe’s erect penis in Love (he’d also flashed it during the S&M nightclub sequence in Irreversible), but Love came out back in 2015. People were pretty horny this summer during lockdown.
Kevin: What I’m getting at is that there’s an obvious truth, whether or not we’re too bashful to admit it, that movie audiences like watching sex scenes in movies. Again, look at those Netflix hits. So it’s interesting that there’s been a lack of sex in new films to accompany that. I’m trying to think of scenes from this year: When Aubrey Plaza and Chris Abbott get interrupted by a blunt object in Black Bear? The brief (but hot) gay sauna scene with Andrew Rannells and Matt Bomer in The Boys in the Band? The very psycho-twisty sex scene with Jude Law and Carrie Coon in The Nest? I’m sure I’m missing something, but I may not be...
Marlow: …I don’t think you’re missing much! Maybe the scene between Kristen Stewart’s Jean Seberg and Anthony Mackie’s Hakim Jamal in Seberg? That was quite passionate, with Stewart’s Hollywood actress straddling Mackie’s Black Panther-activist (in a leopard-print robe, no less). Although the sexiness is dulled given how they’re being monitored by a racist FBI agent, played by Vince Vaughn. I think it’s rather disappointing that the most risqué movie sex scenes this year were relegated to schlocky direct-to-video-quality fare like 365 Days or Fatal Affair, with Omar Epps and Nia Long.
Kevin: There’s this bizarre notion that I thought was going away, but seems to be circling back again, that a movie can’t have good, fun sex and still be serious—or, vice versa, it has to be so serious and “arty” that it’s practically inaccessible.
Marlow: Couldn’t agree more. These are the same Skinemax-quality projects where NSFW sex scenes have always lived, and in 2020 there should be far more sex in mainstream cinema. It may have something to do with the MPAA, the ratings board/lobby that has long harbored a puritanical attitude toward onscreen sex—famously explored in This Film Is Not Yet Rated—viewing it as far more detrimental than onscreen violence, however wrongheaded that may be.
Kevin: I’ll never forget that they tried to give Blue Valentine a NC-17 rating because it showed a woman receiving oral sex. Heavens! Fetch my pearls so I may clutch them!
Marlow: That was nuts. The MPAA really hates female pleasure. It’s generally such a weird, shadowy cabal of Bible-thumping moms and dads, and the fact that they have any say in governing what we see is infuriating. It seems like most of the genuinely hot sex this year didn’t happen on the big screen, but rather the small screen, with shows like Normal People, White Lines (although this was pure Skinemax-level trash), P-Valley, and The New Pope.
Kevin: And Elite! And Bridgerton! And Industry, which is a great example of how the depiction of sex on screen is changing. The scenes were explicit, equitable in terms of male and female nudity, and subverted the power perspective we’re used to seeing.
Marlow: Everyone, go see HBO’s Industry! An under-the-radar gem.
Kevin: Most interesting was, for as realistic and quote-unquote “risqué” the scenes were, how unsexy they seemed. To go back to that first, ridiculous tweet I mentioned, those scenes weren’t about titillation but about revealing things about the characters’ relationships and how they behave... even if sometimes the behavior was pure horniness. They proved that sex in storytelling does mean something. It’s actually necessary! Anyway, those are my thoughts about the year in sex. Sorry, mom.