Movie Sex Scenes Aren't Dead, But They're Definitely Evolving
If you've been watching movies since you could buy them on VHS, you may have noticed they have far fewer sex scenes than you used to see. You're not imagining things. According to one writer's research of the IMDB database, only 1.21 percent of the movies released in the decade since 2010 contain depictions of sex, down from its peak of 1.79 percent in the 1990s, the heydey of the "erotic thriller."
The alleged death of the sex scene in cinema has been routinely bemoaned in the media ever since. Critics and casual observers alike have wondered aloud why movies have become so chaste, often invoking the serial scapegoats of the #MeToo movement and the novel ubiquity of internet porn.
While those current events have undoubtedly played a role, they've also shouldered an arguably undue portion of the blame. Invoking disruptive new tech and hot-button debates may make for good clickbait, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The reality, in this case, is fairly mundane: If moviemakers are killing the sex scene, it's only because corporate interests and changing tastes have deemed it necessary.
Either way, sex scenes aren't exactly dying—they're evolving.
It's time for a set change
As studios consolidate and become intolerant to the financial risk of unknown IP addresses accessing their movies, they're more likely to favor productions geared toward all-ages audiences that by default exclude sexual content.
This also ties into the current paucity of rom-coms and classic mid-budget thrillers, historically the go-to venues for steamy movie scenes. Think 1993's "Indecent Proposal" or director Paul Verhoeven's "Basic Instinct" from the previous year. Consolidation has also wiped out dozens of scrappy indie studios with the erotic imagination for films such as the kinky cult hit "Secretary," starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Such a climate has fostered a culture where sexuality is further stigmatized among filmmakers, beyond what's already baked in by the Motion Picture Association (MPA). As a result, pop culture's splashiest sex scenes these days tend to come from TV, particularly streaming giants.
Streamers like Netflix aren't only the de facto site for must-see TV, they've also become the new nexus of adult entertainment while Hollywood pours money into Disney flicks. These days, indie auteurs such as Sam Levinson can sell their work to HBO or Hulu with far more ease than a legacy corp like Paramount.
Plus, the ability of streamers to operate without Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight is a boon that enables the successes of prurient hit series such as "Bridgerton" and "Sex Education."
But aside from their new life in "TV Land," sex scenes are now more carefully choreographed than they've ever been, thanks to intimacy coordinators such as Meagan Schroeder. A theater artist based in Montreal, Schroeder felt called to intimacy coordination to ensure the safety and well-being of her fellow actors, whose work can be emotionally and physically grueling. But the same procedural guardrails that ensure an actor's safety also make for a more interesting scene, Schroeder said.
"Sensuality is such a unique expression that when I get an actor's boundaries, that automatically creates a diversified story because I'm merging their boundaries with the character's boundaries, which creates really dynamic shapes," she explained.
Even with these encouraging adaptations, television isn't quite a safe haven for sex scenes during the ongoing reckoning of our collective sexual politics. Now there's less tolerance than ever for seeing sex on screen that appears gratuitous or ethically icky, even in theory.
The graphic sex and copious nudity on HBO's "Euphoria," for instance, is performed by legal adults, but many people are still troubled over how they perceive the show to be hypersexualizing teenagers. Meanwhile, actual teenagers are having less sex than ever, an experience that's potentially impacting the way they want to engage with sex in entertainment. If the dating reality shows aimed at Gen Z are any indication, this cohort seems to think less is more.
Sex scenes on screen aren't the only type receiving closer scrutiny by consumers and corporate entities.
Harley Laroux is the author of several dark romance and erotic series, including a kinky novella called "The Dare" featuring some incredibly edgy scenes, like knifeplay. That story was ultimately banned by Amazon for reasons the online retailing giant never clarified.
If moviemakers are killing the sex scene, it's only because corporate interests and changing tastes have deemed it necessary.
"It was honestly a terrible experience going back and forth with Amazon just to get them to give me a specific scene they had an issue with," Laroux said. "I was familiar with the guidelines and knew the novella didn't violate any of them."
It was a shocking setback for Laroux, who abruptly lost an entire income stream with no recourse whatsoever. The incident is emblematic of the extent to which the interests of capital and shifting social mores have converged to whittle down nuanced portrayals of sex in our entertainment.
Perhaps the cinematic sex scene isn't dying so much as it's enduring major growing pains. Our "horny on main" internet culture is proof positive that we're still publicly excited over sex scenes, however wary we've become of corporate censors and other internet trolls.
As long as writers have their way with their words, they'll use them for erotic art. Whether or not society makes space for it is another story.