What’s happened to all the sex in cinema?

February 8, 2024

Oh how I loved being a horny teenager. And while my teenage years were mostly spent having sexual fantasies about the generally sexless Lord of the Rings-franchise, I did grow up in a time where everything around me was hella horny. The 90’s. Wild Things, Cruel Intentions, Eyes Wide Shut, Indecent Proposal, Risky Business, Basic Instinct… The 90s were not shy about showing horniness and a gratuitous titty here and there. The decade brought us so many iconic sex scenes, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll remember spending Friday evenings on the couch with your parents and sitting in silence, not making eye contact, while Richard Gere is steadily thrusting on top of Julia Roberts. They’re the hottest people you’ve ever seen. He gently caresses her breast. You look at a corner of the screen and quietly hope for it to be over soon. It’s a rite of passage. But I also remember those scenes being a very safe first encounter with eroticism, very different from secretly watching Sexcetera late at night after bedtime, at zero volume, so my parents wouldn’t hear. 

I started thinking about this subject when Netflix recently suggested Indecent Proposal, and I do love a 90’s moment. Not even two minutes in we get Woody Harrelson passionately going down on Demi Moore. I realized this is something we don’t really see anymore – especially in big releases starring A-listers. 

So where did all the sex scenes go? I tend to I blame every single problem of the world on capitalism, and in this case I think I might be on to something. Go to your local chain movie theater and you’ll notice that most things are based on a certain IP: Star Wars, Marvel, DC – Avatar, even. The mid-budget movies that attract a more niche audience have made way for the event movie: a movie that’s so expensive to make that it has to appeal to every single person, all around the world, because the studios have to get as many asses in seats as possible to make their monster profits. And when you try to please everyone, well… 

Not only the movies have been devoid of sex, but it’s a trend we see correlate with other forms of media that Gen Z consumes. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok are completely sex-free to an extent where you can’t even say the word. 

I recently saw a TikTok by a woman who appeared to be in her twenties, who said she was deeply upset when she went to see Oppenheimer, because she wasn’t expecting it to feature sex and nudity. She felt traumatized because she didn’t consent to it, nor to her boyfriend seeing Florence Pughs naked breasts. Knowing all this, it makes sense that social media platforms are full of people – mostly Gen Z – who were absolutely SHOCKED by Emerald Fennell’s – fairly mediocre – erotic murder drama Saltburn; it featured straight-up sex. Horny, bloody, dominant, cum-slurping sexy sex. And although I wasn’t a fan of the film, I do appreciate it being one of the first in a long time to really bring back sex in a way that’s fun, and not necessarily a cautionary tale. Or a weird representation of sex by someone who seemingly never has had sex before, in the case of Oppenheimer.

And all that is not to say sex scenes have disappeared from movies altogether. It’s just that most sex scenes I’ve seen in recent years have been… Jarring. Mostly thanks to the good people at A24. I would argue Beau Is Afraid has one of the most memorable sex scenes of all time, but if anything it makes you never ever want to have sex again. The Midsommar one is, you know, interesting if you happen to have a breeding kink. Kristoffer Borgli’s upcoming Nicolas Cage film called Dream Scenario has an absolutely toe-curlingly awkward sex scene in it. The one that did get me going was Robert Pattinson furiously masturbating to a mermaid figurine in The Lighthouse, so case in point: A24 is turning us all into little freaks.

The reason I’m passionate about this subject, I think, is because I might be a little worried that the only representation of sex the younger generations encounter will be the hairless, sweatless, emotionless, step-mommy, anal, buffalo-bodied content that kids have access to on Pornhub. Like with comedy, I’m afraid sex has become so abundantly accessible through the internet, that studios have decided we’ve progressed past the need for it in cinemas. Maybe I’m just sentimental and becoming one of those mid-life people who never wants the world to change – who thinks that my nostalgia is the only valid nostalgia. The world is changing, and cinema might assume a different role in peoples lives. But when I look at the responses surrounding Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan in Saltburn, I do take comfort in that teenagers will always – always – be horny.

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