Why aren’t we still watching movies for the sex?
It seems America’s #1 favorite topic ever, sex, will be taking a backseat to violence and talking animals in Hollywood movies. According to Vincent Bruzzese, film research expert of Ipsos, a firm which analyzes scripts for major studios, Hollywood isn’t looking for sex scenes anymore when pitching future blockbusters. He claims, "Sex scenes used to be written, no matter the plot, to spice up a trailer. But all that does today is get a film an adult-only rating and lose a younger audience.” He admits that sex scenes have sold so poorly in the last two years that, "Today such scenes are written out by producers even before they are shot.” When I first heard this, I didn’t quite believe it. Of course sex in cinema is still as ubiquitous as ever. Then I thought about it, and realized it isn’t that common in movies that actually do well.
Let’s compare the box office gross profits (granted, they had different budgets) of Shame (2011), the sex-filled examination of sexual addiction, and Oscar-darling Silver Linings Playbook (2012), which follows the life of a recovering sex addict but does not, in fact, include a sexy scene. Shame grossed roughly 4 million, while Silver Linings Playbook brought in 127 million. The difference between them is not only that my editor despises one of them, but that Silver Linings Playbook has become more palatable to the 2013 mainstream climate. The zeitgeist favors both family-oriented films and flicks full of special effects and gun violence, which are cheap to produce, over realistic, provocative depictions of human sexuality. Sex scenes require rehearsing, clearing of no-nudity clauses, the development of chemistry, and the hiking of R ratings, whereas CGI takes a computer and some imagination. The latter will time and time again have a wider audience. In 2012, out of the top 20 grossing films of the year, only four included any sex scenes, and only one of those, Ted, was R-rated.
And the resounding trend I see on the internet’s “Best Movie Sex Scenes” lists* is that they all feature movies that are mainly over ten years old. In fact, the last movie to top the box office that included a truly hot and heavy love scene was Titanic (who could forget that smudged hand print on the car window?), but that was a depressingly long sixteen years ago.
Adrian Lyne, director/provocateur behind such films that top these lists like Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, and 9 ½ Weeks, credits his lack of artistic output to Hollywood’s diluted treatment of sex in the last few years. He claims that real, raw sex has been sequestered to art films: “Would Fatal Attraction get made at a studio today? Not in a thousand years.”
Actually going to films in the theater (the thing that box office statistics actually reflect) is a rare and celebrated event. And, if cultural prognosticators and Hollywood insiders are correct, we’re mostly going with our families and close friends, people who we don’t necessarily want to watch somebody reenact cunnilingus next to. If we’re not all rushing to the theaters in droves to pull a Paul Reubens, then the market will act accordingly. So, Hollywood is watering down and trimming the fat on our sex scenes, and we’re hardly going to notice or complain. That’s because the instantly gratifying and instantly watchable source for our sex scenes can be found on TV and in porn. They satiate our prurient needs and we don’t even have to leave the house.
While Hollywood films have been cleaning up, instances of sexual gratuity, thanks to HBO, Showtime, AMC, and the like, have increased exponentially. This infographic from Wired illustrates how sex on TV is slowly becoming not only a substantial alternative to cinematic sex, but also, an integral plot-driving force on smartly written shows. These are companies that know their target audience is mature, and thus, they are able to produce sexually explicit and rousing content that reflects a reality a placated, family-oriented audience is not ready for.
If Hollywood sex is going the way of the dodo, this might say more about the American family’s relationship to violence and visual stimulation than its relationship to sex itself. We may have now become a culture that feels safer watching a city be bombed to death with their mom than they feel safe watching somebody feeling pleasure next to their mom. Here’s hoping that in the future, mainstream Hollywood’s lack of sexual depictions, be they plot-driven or gratuitous, becomes so glaringly apparent, that we no longer find subdued, second base representations tasteful as much as outdated. Only then will the highly-grossing arthouse, gritty scenes that once engaged our imaginations and our sexuality come back onto our movie stubs.
*If you're feeling flaccid and mopey about modern Hollywood sex scenes, take a gander through Nerve's Hollywood Sex Scene Database.