Why Less Sex in the Movies is a Good Thing

Happy Valentine's Day! It's time to get together with that special someone in your life and spend money you don't have on garish rituals that would probably be much more romantic if you didn't feel compelled to commit them out of obligation to a calendar and/or greeting-card manufacturer. I mean! It's time to get together for a nice dinner and a movie -- hopefully one with some intimate, even sexy moments between the characters onscreen. If you can find one. Which might be difficult. Thank goodness.

The very deficit Manohla Dargis lamented in yesterday's NYT -- that of "serious or serious-enough movies, domestic and imported, in which sex mattered as much if not more than violence" -- is one I think a lot of people consider a relief. That's not to say the cinema of violence is any more culturally redeeming or gratifying than the cinema of sex, or that there's often much for adults to cheer about in, as Dargis' describes them, "corporate blockbusters aimed at teenage boys, with their sexless superheroes and disposable pretty women smiling on the sidelines." But it is to say that there's a very simple reason movies contain less and less sex: It's jarringly, miserably awkward -- awkward for actors, awkward for filmmakers and ultimately awkward for audience members.

Right? Can you really sit in a movie theater and watch explicit sexuality depicted without thinking, "Hmm. I wonder how the complete stranger next to me, or behind me, is judging my reaction to this. And how am I judging him/her?" After all, the communal experience we celebrate in filmgoing necessarily confers screen intimacy to the viewer; horror films resonate among opening-weekend crowds because subconsciously or not, that community is essential to the enjoyment of the experience. Knowing one's not alone in the face of graphic violence, torment, mortality and/or oblivion provides a reassurance that we don't instinctively seek as sexual creatures. We are not "neo-Puritans," to use Dargis' term; we are just selfish, repulsed by the idea of sharing (let alone evincing) anything close to arousal.

Obviously it wasn't always this way. T&A was once as integral to the slasher genre as masked killers themselves. But the context of such prurience -- sex as a prelude and perhaps even a catalyst to violent death -- is pretty outmoded today. Jaded younger audiences don't recognize that morality, and studios and filmmakers are smart to evolve (devolve?) to the purely visceral pleasures of bloodshed and flesh-rending. We don't have to wonder what our neighbors think of the ghastly demises in the Saw franchise, for example, because to the extent those viewers make up a support network of sorts, the absence of sex (mundane human behavior) adds a further degree of removal from the inhumanity onscreen. This is truly the movies' New Intimacy: Unknotting sex and violence for a generation for whom violence is fantastically sexy enough. And we don't have to squirm with discomfort over nudity that's so gratuitous as to be insulting.

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  • Strawberry Pain says:

    Agreed. I think one of the sexiest scenes I've witnessed is from the Last of the Mohicans. Hot, passionate, arousing, but the camera never leaves their upper torsos, and their clothes never leave their bodies (onscreen).
    There is something undignified about our show-it-all mentality, which reaches beyond the screen and into our voyeurism and garish displays on Twitter and Facebook, our support of paparazzi rights to invade a public figure's life at any cost or risk, and our desire for disclosure of all information even if there is danger to others by the exposure (looking at you Assange). I hope the pendulum is swinging back in the other direction, where we stop feeling the need to broadcast everything and see everything.

  • Don says:

    "Why Less STV Editorials Are A Good Thing"
    This little article is patronizing at best and pathologically repressed at worst. Quite frankly, STV, this piece says a lot more about your personal sexuality-related neuroses than about the realities of sex in film.
    Let me destroy your little thesis - no, not everyone wonders if they're being judged when they're sitting next to a stranger during a sex scene. Some of us assume we're sitting with people who see it as two characters having sex - nothing less, nothing more. Sex is a part of life and when it comes to some characters, it's an integral part of WHO they are. The problem with your idea here is that you assume that the only possible response an audience can have to a sex scene is titillation or disgust, but a sex scene can also bare the character's soul or the loving intimacy between two beings, or any other number of things.
    Becoming self-conscious about what you're watching happens to people when 1) the sex is completely divorced from plot or tone of the film 2) they're repressed about watching ANY of it in the first place because they have an infantile idea of the implications of the act (does this one sound a bit more like you?).
    I can confidently assure you that while I watched the Blue Valentine "oral" scene, I wasn't thinking "oh wow, they're naked and pretending to fuck, I wonder if my seat-mate has a hard on, this is awkward city". I was too busy thinking "Oh, shit. There's no going back. There's no repairing this marriage." So kindly refrain from including me and others like myself in your merry band of repressed filmgoers.
    You may think you're the voice of reason looking back on the more "creative" days of "less is more", but it all depends on the genre and the specific movie. "Less sex in film" isn't any better of an idea than "more sex in film". It all depends on what's right for each individual movie. It's true, The Social Network gains effectivity from the lack of explicit sex scenes because it belongs in the tone of the film and in the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. The Dreamers wouldn't work as well without it.
    By the way, your comment about the Sean Parker post-coital scene is very telling. You claim that it was sexier for its lack of nudity, I'll point out the idea behind it wasn't to titillate you and that your point of view doesn't make you any more moral than a garden-variety porn watcher, you're just responding to a different fetish.

  • Well, if we can agree on nothing else, this much is certain: One of us clearly needs to get laid.

  • Cupid says:

    Some of us really do like sex in movies, get highly aroused by it, are not bothered in the least to be sitting next to total strangers while we get wet at the sight of it and want to see more sexuality on screen (and less violence). It's unclear why less sex in the movies is a good thing from your writing, except that it's something that you would personally like to see less of in a world where Aussie gunslingers trump "emo-fascists." Happy Valentine's Day, Stu.

  • Smarmy Fierstein says:

    Is it anything about the context, or the director's skill, or something? Because I seriously loved "The Dreamers," but I also became extremely uncomfortable during the Julianne Moore-Mark Ruffalo scenes in "The Kids Are Alright." And I am not sure I understand what Peter Greenaway is all about.

  • zooeyglass1999 says:

    I like sex. Plain and simple. However, I don't really like seeing sex depicted in movies that are not pornography.

  • Fair enough, though in my defense pretty much anything trumps Blue Valentine, whose emo-fascism was predicated less on the sexuality (which bored me more than anything else) than on Gosling and Cianfrance bludgeoning the audience with all that Broody White-Guy Angst.

  • CDingo says:

    You suck.Just because you're a prude doesn't mean the rest of us agree.American movies are 99%boring formulaic marketed crap, and the declining theater attendance means they sure want something. Since the Eighties, sex in cinema has been on the decline, and so have the in theater audiances.Make of it what u will.

  • Trace says:

    It always seems that the comments section at Movieline is much more enlightening than the original articles...

  • KevyB says:

    I think the problem here may be the fact that when the sex seems real, then it can be uncomfortable. Nothing's worse than watching a movie where a couple just had sex and they have a bunch of clothes on. Or when they are doing it under the covers. That immediately takes you out of the movie. Everything in a movie needs to feel real or none of it will feel real.
    It's the example of The Kids are All Right that's most troubling. We most DEFINITELY needed to see them in bed. The scene showed us what Julianne Moore's character wanted, something she wasn't getting from Annette Bening's character, which we learned from their earlier passion-free sex scene. Not every scene in a movie is required to further the plot. Sometimes they're required to further the character arcs. Had the characters just been shown kissing, would we have understood her passion or her recklessness? No. It would've looked like she was falling in love with him, which is not what was happening. Sometimes sex is important to what's going on.