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Voices: Is there still a place in movies for sex scenes?

Sex is... well, weird. Isn’t it? The whole thing – not just our individual kinks and preferences. Not just the faces we make, or the things we end up saying in the heat of the moment. Sex is weird because it’s the closest thing we have to a cultural basilisk: a subject that for some reason we don’t seem able to acknowledge or look at, for fear of causing some great, intangible harm, even though it dictates a not-insignificant proportion of our behaviour and motivations.

I remember going to an academic conference at university about the aesthetics of pornography, and every presentation – all of which, I’ll remind you, were about pornography – was prefaced by some variation of the phrase: “Obviously, I don’t actually watch this stuff myself.”

It’s one of those statements that’s always stuck with me as being especially cowardly. The time for prudish behaviour was before you decided to include a slide called “The ontology of oral sex”. This isn’t “The phenomenology of Ingmar Bergman”, this is a conference – about sex.

I was reminded of that same kind of clinical self-denialism when Twitter went discourse-crazy over the past week as it debated whether or not there’s still a place in movies for sex scenes.

It’s one of those arguments that pops up about once every six months: should we still have sex scenes in films when they don’t do anything to move the plot along? Aren’t they just exploitation for exploitation’s sake? Aren’t they sort of outdated, in an era when you probably have your favourite NSFW subreddit open in another tab as you read this (that’s right, we all know)?

It’s a fair point. Sex scenes are one of those things that directors would cram into their movies in the 80s and 90s, hoping to lure in those whose only recourse for sexy content was finding an errant Playboy magazine in the woods. Do you have any idea how many bad movies I watched in my teens because the content description contained the words “brief nudity”? So many wasted Friday nights watching Channel Five detective thrillers with the volume turned down to one.

We have a new element to consider, too, and that’s that in Hollywood, the production of sex scenes can often be problematic. It feels like every week we get a new horror story about some actor describing their trauma on the set of some film that, up until that point, we might have (wrongly) assumed was just a bit of sexy fun.

Last month, the stars of the 1968 Italian adaptation of Romeo and Juliet sued Paramount, because they were 16 at the time when their nude scenes were filmed. The 50th anniversary of Last Tango in Paris reignited discussion of Maria Schneider’s real-life humiliation during the film’s famous rape scene. Even the more lighthearted accounts often describe a level of awkwardness some actors would probably prefer not to be contractually obligated to endure.

On the other hand, it does sort of feel like we’re living through a bit of an overly sanitised cultural moment, where sex on screen has become so “safe” and so sanitised that it can feel... well, bland. Boring. Even interchangeable. I’ve seen this referred to as the “Marvelfication” of cinema, whereby you can make a series of 50 movies and the most sexual contact that happens is a chaste kiss between a forgettable blonde and a man named Chris.

There’s a lot of blue sky between not being exploitative and being totally sexless, yet it feels as though we can’t have the one without the other. Being completely uninterested in sex has become a sort of online badge of honour; an almost literal kind of virtue-signalling, where we assure our contemporaries of how right-on we are by swearing up and down that we’ve never had an erection in our lives.

That’s fine; there are plenty of people out there who genuinely have no interest in sex, and I both respect and envy them. But I can’t help but assume that most of us who proclaim chastity are actually... well, lying. The internet doth protest too much, methinks. Loudly proclaiming how little interest we have in sex – when it’s one of our key evolutionary impulses – doesn’t ring quite true, to me.

Who cares if a sex scene doesn’t move the plot of a film along? Who cares if it’s only in there to appeal to the lowest common denominator? Maybe we can be the lowest common denominator for five minutes. Let us feel something other than constant online outrage for a moment.

I believe this whole discourse is part of a wider issue of how we talk about sex – and sex media – in general. Pornography is a multibillion-dollar industry because its customer base is “most people”. Every person in your life could probably identify at least one porn star by sight. And yet, like the professors at that university conference, we stubbornly pretend that it has nothing to do with us, that we’re ignorant. Fake Taxi? What Fake Taxi?

We appear to have taken a cultural step backwards into pseudo-Puritanism, and it’s the young and the liberal – the one-time vanguards of sexual liberation – who seem to be leading the charge online. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that social trends come back around every few decades to test us, but right now we appear to be willingly digging up the same old stigmas we rid ourselves of in the 1950s. Is it enlightening? Is it progress? I’m not sure.

I’m not saying we need to return to an age of gratuitous nudity, or that we should dismiss very valid concerns about how sex on screen (be it big screen or private browser) is filmed, consumed and handled. Andrew Tate has much to answer for.

But we need to start being honest with ourselves about how we actually feel about sex; and more importantly, we need to stop shaming people who are. Not everything needs to be a committee meeting. Not everything needs to have some grand political or social goal. We should feel freer to put our hands up and say, an interest in sex is OK. It might even be healthy. That sexuality for its own sake might just be the most normal thing in the world.

Not that I’d know anything about that.