The question of sex scenes’ value is one that’s been posed for years. On Film Twitter, the discourse is renewed every few months, with some people arguing that cinema doesn’t need sex scenes anymore. In truth though, sex scenes have already begun to disappear from films, which makes the need for them even greater. Sex scenes offer up tender moments of intimacy, and give way to themes that wouldn’t be achieved if said films were devoid of sex. They also allow people to find themselves within cinema, resulting in sexual awakenings and acceptance. With superhero films dominating box offices in recent years, it feels like cinema has become somewhat sexless. Erotic thrillers don’t exist anymore, and even romance films are hard to come by. Instead, screens are monopolized by explosions and adults in spandex who barely have any chemistry. But luckily, there are still some films (and TV shows) wherein sex matters to the characters and is used to translate something unspoken to the audience. In an age when sex scenes have become less common, what do these scenes even look like anymore?
People who say sex scenes add nothing to film clearly haven’t seen Barry Jenkins’ 2018 release If Beale Street Could Talk. The film follows Tish and Fonny, young lovers whose lives are turned upside down when Fonny is sent to jail. Before this, though, we get to see the two fall in love. While they have sex for the first time, Nicholas Britell’s now iconic score piece “Eros” plays. When I saw the film in theaters, I was brought to tears. As Tish clutches Fonny’s back, she looks up at the camera so intently it’s like she’s looking through it. Ultimately it felt like she was gazing at me, watching this scene, stunned in my seat. The film breaks the fourth wall: Tish looks at the camera poised above her and it’s as if she is looking at God, or us. Without this scene, we wouldn’t be able to understand how important this moment is in Tish’s life, or how it ultimately bonds her and Fonny forever, as she soon becomes pregnant.
While they’ve been slowly abandoned, sex scenes do obviously still exist to some degree. But their minimization raises the concern of who gets sex scenes and who these scenes are for. More often than not, it’s straight white people whose intimate moments are shown on screen, with queer people and people of color being left out; as recently as 2018, Hollywood saw a jarring lack of major studio films with queer characters. While queer representation still has a ways to go, however, sex scenes in general have become almost shunned. According to reporter Stephen Galloway, this is simply because Hollywood is “no longer in the business of making mid-budget character dramas that might or might not include physical bonding.” This makes sense, as cinemas are more dominated by children and teens than ever before. In a piece for The Guardian Edward Helmore quips, “Include sex and you’ll get an ‘R’ rating, and that means no kids: that’s not going to bring in a four-quadrant audience.” With family-friendly films bringing in the most revenue, film executives know it’s senseless to put something like the erotic French film Stranger by the Lake (2013) in chain theaters.
There are plenty of erotic moments in recent films—that arm move Henry Cavill does in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, anyone?—but blatant sex scenes remain few and far between. Weirdly, though, television seems to be going in a different direction. We all know Game of Thrones wasn’t shy about nudity or sex (throughout its eight seasons there were a whopping 79 nude scenes), but other television shows aren’t shying away from intimate scenes either. There’s a particular scene in HBO’s Sharp Objects in which the main character is being undressed by a man she’s going to have sex with. She’s riddled with self-harm scars, and as he undresses her, his fingers trace over the words she’s carved into herself. Her voice trembles as she asks, “you readin’ me?” Before the scene, we’d never seen her allow anyone to look at her so intimately.
Hulu’s Normal People, which came during the spring of 2020 when people were yearning for physical affection, similarly makes sex an integral part of its narrative. With each intimate scene, we’re shown how protagonists Marianne and Connell have changed through the years we spend with them. Nothing about it feels showy, either; they’re just two people having sex. Something else of note is that during their first time together, Connell murmurs, “If you want to stop, it won’t be awkward. Just say.” I was shocked when I first heard this, wondering—was this the first time I’d heard someone explicitly discuss consent during a sex scene? It’s moments like these that give way to some of the most delicate handling of intimacy in recent years. Sex means a lot to Marianne and Connell’s relationship, and if the series hadn’t displayed it so thoroughly and graphically, we wouldn’t be able to understand them like we now do. By showing us the way they have sex with each other, compared to how they have sex with other people in their lives, Normal People’s main themes become fully realized.
While Hollywood has in a way become “sexless,” intimacy has also grown beyond just sex. It can be a lingering gaze, or two hands moving closer together before they finally grasp one another. Little moments like this translate the unspoken intimacy that sex scenes once displayed, yet in a more languid way. But we still need sex scenes. When having sex, characters are at their most vulnerable; by omitting these scenes, we aren’t given as deep a look into their psyche. Hornaday writes that “It’s as if Hollywood—fixated on families, teenagers, and global markets—has given up on American adults as anything more than arrested adolescents interested only in revisiting the distractions of their youth.” Movie executives don’t see the common adult viewer as someone who would even enjoy sex scenes anymore. Instead, they merely see movie-goers as excitable children who clap and cheer when an explosion happens.
It’s clear that cinema and television are traveling two different roads when it comes to sex and intimacy. Film is utilizing a quieter approach, while television is going all out (one of the sex scenes in Normal People lasts for nine minutes…nine!). This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that streaming services can afford to take more risks, while films getting theatrical runs realistically must stick to the script. With kid-friendly superhero films running rampant, cinema just isn’t being given the flexibility to explore sex. So maybe we should get used to quiet moments of intimacy—moments in which the ghost of a touch seems to say as much as sex scenes used to.
Luckily, there are plenty of bold television series that aren’t afraid to offer different perspectives on what sex can mean. Erotic thrillers, dramas, and miniseries are on the rise, and with more directors pivoting toward television, it’s hard to not be intrigued by what’s next for sex and intimacy in the medium. Hopefully, executives will soon realize that sex still sells; hopefully, erotic films will soon find a home in the mainstream again.
By Kaiya Shunyata