Okay, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex.
Making movies is a tough business, one that’s crushed the spirits of many an eager creator. Before you even get into the petty bureaucracy of it all, the basic act of film production requires thousands of hours of achingly detailed planning and execution. Getting a simple shot of two people talking can be tough enough, so imagine the logistics of a good old fashioned sex scene. You’ll struggle to find an actor who thinks filming a few minutes - or seconds, let’s be real - of fucking is the best part of their job. Who wants to be the poor sod who has to get naked in front of the director and extended crew on a cold set under harsh lights? Being directed in sex must be mortifying - what happens if the director starts criticizing your technique?
Yet, as the age old adage goes, sex sells. And so, it must and will appear in as many movies as the archaic American ratings system will allow. Then again, we don’t really see sex that much in films these days. If you want to reach that ever-profitable demographic of teen boys and their beleaguered parents, it benefits you to keep all the hanky-panky to a minimum. Just cut the token heroine’s neckline down an extra inch and it’s the same desired effect. Even the supposedly erotic movies, whose entire point for being is to show off the fucking, have those passionate moments greatly downplayed. For all the talk of the ground-breaking displays happening in the Fifty Shades trilogy, what audiences actually saw was pretty tame, and it wasn’t as if the book was de Sade to begin with.
The MPAA are still surprisingly stern when it comes to sex in film. Endless scenes of buff dudes shooting faceless extras can be a PG-13 as long as there’s no blood, but a few thrusts and some bush will land you in the NC-17 bracket, essentially maligning your movie to general audiences. Blue Valentine infamously got slapped with the rating because of an oral sex scene (it was eventually lowered to an R on appeal). Boobs tend to be okay for an R but dick shots are a rarity (once again, Fifty Shades couldn’t even be bothered to do that right). It’s an even bigger problem if the sex scenes aren’t monogamous or heterosexual. As detailed in Kirby Dick’s documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, films are more likely to be rated stronger if the sex in question is between two men or two women. The content itself doesn’t have to be any more graphic, but the message is clear: Queer representation must be sexless, or it’s ‘deviant’ to the masses.
The problem with cinematic sex, at least these days, is that it seems determined to reject pleasure from the entire concept, particularly female pleasure. Women receiving oral sex is astonishingly rare in mainstream Hollywood cinema, much less the concept of foreplay. Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in cinema has its critics, but it reminds us of how women are viewed by the camera too frequently in cinema, and how that ties into depictions of sex. If the default mode for women in film is sex object, it removes sexual pleasure from the equation. The conquest of a woman becomes a prize for the male hero, a sign of his virility and masculine achievements. There is the expectation of sex - usually off-camera once the curtains close - but there’s little question of what will happen. It’s just a prize, the thing the dude gets when he’s done his hero work. These female characters are designed to be sexually appealing but not necessarily sexual themselves.
A lot of the time, the experience is harder for the women on-screen than anyone else. There have been too many horror stories of actresses who were put through the wringer by demanding male directors, their sex scenes twisted into something truly distressing. Maria Schneider was 19 when she made Last Tango in Paris (her first major role), and she described how she felt ‘humiliated, and to be honest… a little raped’ during the production’s infamous sex scene. This line of work requires an immense amount of emotional and mental labour, and if the director dismisses those concerns in favour or their own notions of ‘sexiness’, it’s no wonder women get hurt and maligned in this manner.
Our culture’s understanding of sex remains skewed towards bigotry in many aspects: Women are either sluts or virgins; black women in particular are coded almost as exclusively sexual; Asian women face fetishized notions of ‘inherent submissiveness’, particularly towards white men; racist depictions of Native American women as overtly sexualised dolls remains a stain on the nation and has suffering ramifications to this day as Native women’s statistics for rape and sexual abuse are some of the highest in America; women who don’t conform to societally mandated notions of gender and sexuality are forced into states of asexuality because to exhibit natural desires is too scary for the world to accept (and asexual women don’t fare any better). It’s a game nobody can ever win, and its problems are consistently reinforced by our pop culture, that simply regurgitates what it knows best.
Pop culture often prefers to make sex a caricature, to ensure it’s ‘safe’ for the masses. It exaggerates things we know about the deed, things we know to be true, to beyond the point of recognition. Sex can often be funny and joyful but making it comedic turns it into an act of acrobatic buffoonery; Sex can help us enact powerful fantasies yet seeing that on-screen, we’re more likely to bear witness to cringe-inducing performances of faux-solemnity; Sex can be mundane or a bit dull, something you just do because hey, the bed’s there so why not, although we’re more prone to seeing dull sex scenes by way of shoddy directing and a lack of chemistry.
Television is faring better than movies these days. Shows like Outlander manage to find ways to not only create good on-screen sex but make it thematically appropriate. We’re still subjected to the occasionally unnecessary brothel visit, but progress has been made. There’s no easy answer to what makes a good movie sex scene, so I don’t blame anyone for getting it wrong when they dare to do it. The formula eludes us but maybe that’s because there isn’t one staid set of rules for such an endeavour. It’s so easy to make sex bad as well. Think of every terrible movie you’ve seen where the fucking elicited more laughter than anything else in the film, from the pseudo-shark attack of Showgirls to the belly button exploration of The Room. You need good direction and a strong clear vision, but you also need actors with the chemistry and that can’t be manufactured. You need characters the audience want to believe in, who we want to see go at it like woodchucks. The sex has to be worth something, although some well-done gratuity now and then never hurt anyone.
It’s worth a shot, though. The better and fairer cinematic sex is, the happier we can all be.
What’s your favourite movie sex scene? Let us know in the comments. Keep it safe for work, though. If you can.