Where Have All the Sex Scenes Gone?

On the cultural and commercial forces conspiring against onscreen horniness

October 3, 2021

While I was watching Malignant—the new horror film from James Wan, one of the genre's most popular directors at the moment—on HBO Max, a pair of thoughts leapt into my head unbidden.

The first had to do with the film's lurid violence, its obsession with penetrative bloodletting, and then, finally, its shift into truly gonzo bloodshed. Bones splintered, blood spattered: I may have cackled quietly to myself a handful of times as things ramped up. Though Malignant largely lacked his visual panache, the carnage—combined with the film's thematic preoccupations with identity, siblings, and parentage—made me think "this feels like a Brian De Palma film, in that I'm not entirely sure what's going to happen next."

The second thought was an immediate answer to the first: "Well, I guess I am entirely sure that there won't be anything approaching a De Palma-esque sex scene. Not in a mid-budget picture for a major studio in the year 2021."

Sure enough, the closest Wan gets to sexy in this movie is having a mousy crime scene investigator flirt harmlessly with a detective trying to solve a serial killing while the detective's older partner rolls her eyes and reminds them they're on the clock. It wasn't surprising: a confluence of cultural and commercial factors render anything steamier than this off limits.

But it was a little depressing.

It was another HBO Max movie that recently brought all this to mind: One evening in search of something new, I stumbled onto 10 to Midnight, a classic (or maybe a "classic") Charles Bronson feature made by the exploitation-friendly label The Cannon Group. It was, like Malignant, a little bit bonkers, something akin to Friday the 13th by way of John Wayne Gacy. Bronson played a hard-ass cop who wasn't opposed to violating a few civil liberties if it meant keeping people safe from a serial killer who stripped nude before doing his evil deeds on similarly nude coeds.

It's not a good movie, exactly, but it is pleasingly disreputable. There are lots of movies released these days that one could describe as "not good, exactly," but very few that are as transgressive as 10 to Midnight feels today. When I included it in my newsletter for the Bulwark as that week's assigned viewing, I felt as though I was pushing the boundaries at least a little. It's not the sort of movie people are supposed to watch anymore; it's certainly not the sort of thing you should recommend to polite company.

A friend texted to ask why such movies—the low-budget sleazefests like 10 to Midnight that have disappeared along with the mid-budget shockers like Species and the high-toned erotic thrillers in the vein of Basic Instinct—are so rare now. The answer is twofold.

First off, there's the commercial factor. It's expensive to release movies in theaters, and I don't mean because of production budgets: Anything opening wide requires a low-to-mid-eight-figure ad buy, at least, more if you really want to pop on that opening weekend. The increased cost of advertising means fewer films get released in general, and those few need to be home runs, not singles. And it's harder to hit a home run with an R-rated movie than a PG-13-rated movie.

(Congrats: You're caught up on the last 30 years or so of the theatrical exhibition business.)

A PG-13 movie isn't just easier to sell in America; it's also easier to sell overseas—particularly in China, where films forbid all sorts of things. Ghosts, weirdly. Depictions of homosexuality. And nudity is a no-go too. So, if you want to try and recoup any of your investment in the Middle Kingdom, better make sure you're not going to have too many nude scenes to cut out.

Indeed, discomfort with sex lines up nicely with the rise of the comic book movie and the sexless action flick. Writing all the way back in 1976—practically a hedonistic paradise compared with now—Pauline Kael highlighted the rise of the cop movie and the ways in which police partnerships subbed in for real romantic relationships. "It doesn't have the hidden traps of the relationship between man and women, or between lovers of the same sex," Kael wrote in "Notes on Evolving Heroes, Morals, Audiences." "Two human beings who are sexually and emotionally involved cause pain to each other, and it takes more skill than most writers and directors have to deal with that pain."

Why bother showing men and women connecting emotionally and sexually when you can rake in billions by having Steve Rogers and Tony Stark punch aliens—or, occasionally, each other?

Commercial factors aren't the only reason for the shift. There's a critical and cultural component as well.

Like time, Twitter is a flat circle. If you're on the social media service long enough, you'll see the same tweets go viral, the same arguments flare up, the same rebuttals be offered, the same dunks thundered home with Dr. J-like authority. One such circularity on Film Twitter, our modern Cahiers du Cinéma, goes a little like this: A Zoomer will say with supreme confidence that no movie has ever needed or been improved by a sex scene, which will receive tens of thousands of likes and retweets from similarly puritanical Letterboxd scholars. This will, in turn, result in an exhausted Gen Xer or Elderly Millennial or even the occasional Boomer to screenshot the offending tweet and retort, "How could modern movies be any more sexless, you freaks have already won, no one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever even contemplated sex, every birth that has ever happened in that realm is virginal."

My cohort of The Olds is correct, of course, but it often makes me grimace a bit. Because the Zoomers are simply living in the intellectual world we made for them. What did we think would happen when we spent decades screaming about The Male Gaze and how film's treatment of women inherently objectifies them?

Briefly: "The male gaze" is a critical theory promulgated by Laura Mulvey suggesting that the patriarchy and its cinematic extension was, by its nature, kinda creepy. "The extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation. Although the film is really being shown, is there to be seen, conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world," Mulvey wrote in her classic essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative in Cinema." "Among other things, the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire on to the performer."

In short: We (that is, men) are conditioned to make and watch and force upon society movies with nudity because it's the only socially acceptable way we can act like a Peeping Tom.

There's something to this idea of cinema as voyeurism. Allow me to again reference the work of Brian De Palma, whose Dressed to Kill opens with an extended sequence of a woman in a shower. It is a private moment, a moment of ecstasy we are illicitly looking upon. But it is also a misdirection, a dream sequence, an effort by the woman in question to conjure up sexual feeling for the man who has climbed atop her and is thrusting away. Far from objectifying this (admittedly attractive; she's played by Angie Dickinson, after all) woman, De Palma is creating empathy with her by putting us in her head space, showing us her desires, her needs.

Still, the suggestion that the male gaze is the be-all and end-all of cinematic sexuality has had perverse side effects, one of which is the sort of puritanism we see from the Zoomers and others uncomfortable with onscreen nudity. Every generation gets the scolds it deserves, and there's something refreshingly old-fashioned about this brand of bowdlerizers. As Camille Paglia (no fan of male gaze theory, she; "utter nonsense from the start … the 'victim' model of feminism applied wholesale to works of culture") put it in Sexual Personae, "sex has always been girt round with taboo, irrespective of culture. Sex is the point of contact between man and nature, where morality and good intentions fall to primitive urges."

As such, we see mild freak outs now and again when a writer or an artist injects an "undue" amount of sexuality into their work. The most amusing of these, by far, was when the New Yorker's Anthony Lane found himself under fire for, well, you'll see:

Take your seat at any early-evening screening of Incredibles 2 in the coming days, listen carefully, and you may just hear a shifty sound, as of parents squirming awkwardly beside their enraptured offspring. And why, kids? Because Mommy just leaned over to Daddy and whispered, "Is it just me, or does Mrs. Incredible kind of look like Anastasia in 'Fifty Shades of Grey?' You know, the girl in the Red Room, with the whips and all?" And Daddy just rested his cooling soda firmly in his lap and, like Mr. Incredible, tried very hard to think of algebra. As for how Daddy will react later on, during the scene in which Helen and the husky-voiced Evelyn unwind and simply talk, woman to woman, I hate to think, but watch out for flying popcorn.

As the Cut noted, Lane has a long history of doing the unthinkable—specifically, noting that the women who grace our biggest screens, be they animated heroines or flesh-and-blood Scarlett Johanssons, are also, frequently, very attractive—but there's something especially absurd about getting offended on the behalf of a cartoon subjected to the Dread Male Gaze, crueler a villain than any faced by Elastigirl and her family of superheroes. Just as there's something deeply weird about the lengths to which critics will go to avoid saying that, say, Anya Taylor-Joy is one of the most interesting women to look at on screen because she has something akin to the almost-alien beauty many supermodels have. Just as there's something odd about how it only really becomes appropriate to talk about how sexy actresses are after they pass a certain age.

The only time it really becomes acceptable to talk about sex onscreen is when there's too much of it. Hence the sad decline of Game of Thrones, a series that for its first four or five seasons came under withering fire for the frequent way in which it mingled sex and violence and set scenes rife with expository dialogue in brothels, leading to the rise of the amusing-but-degrading term "sexposition." Chastened by critical uproar, the show's creators pulled back a bit. But when a program about "tits and dragons," as guest star Ian McShane once colorfully put it, jettisons half that equation, decline becomes almost inevitable. People say the show lost the plot because they didn't have George R.R. Martin's source books to guide them, that the last couple of seasons were deeply unsatisfactory on a storytelling level.

Allow me to suggest that, perhaps, the real problem was that audiences started paying too much attention to the silliness of the plot in general because they didn't have other, ah, distractions on the screen.

There are undoubtedly other factors adding to the decline in onscreen sex—the rise of instantly accessible and increasingly degrading pornography reducing the need for titillation in a public setting; the increasingly personal-yet-communal nature of nudity in the form of the shared selfie—and it's not like it has disappeared entirely from feature filmmaking. But such movies, like Sydney Sweeney's The Voyeurs, are often relegated to streaming (Prime Video in that case) or VOD, as in the case of Julia Fox's PVT Chat.

And that's too bad. Sexiness and tawdriness are both fundamental parts of the human experience and should be celebrated and explored on the biggest screen possible. There shouldn't be any shame in watching onscreen shamelessness.