Are sex scenes ‘unnecessary’? Do they really have to just… show everything?

It’s a sentiment showing up increasingly in the past few years, but it’s hardly surprising. A widespread sanitising is taking place in film and culture, and perceptions are being shifted. We are experiencing the era of the sexless film.

Yet sex in cinema can have purpose, meaning – are we really doing a service to our sensibilities by placing limitations? Intimacy on screen taps into our innate sense of the emotional and the romantic. It can inform character pathology, contemplate politics of the body. The conclusion of that being ‘unnecessary’ is short-sighted and further defines our window of permitted ideas.

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The depiction of sex is something of a free speech issue. It’s no coincidence that the Hays Code, the strict studio guidelines meant to preserve the “moral standards” of the filmgoing public, crumbled with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Studios exerting such a tight grip on what an adult majority could see and what filmmakers could express for decades is now beyond belief, but this self-censoring still exists. The Hays Code came into action from fear of government intervention, but today’s censors come purely from a profit motive.

Studio cuts are still exhaustive, in most cases. The need for a lower age rating, and thus a wider pool for admittance, is paramount to a studio’s financial expectations. The teenaged weekend crowd proves to be highly lucrative, but it results in everyone consuming the same farce. And even then, young people still aren’t happy.

A study by UCLA found that 47% of young people wished to see less sex on screen. Write it off as the preciousness of a younger generation if you must, but the reasoning is more damning towards the creative decisions of major studios than it is the act of sex on screen. The study gives the overwhelming sense that young people are tired of tropes and cliches, that a man and woman on screen together being an automatic narrative fill-in for sex or romance is played out. Young people want to see different dynamics, and rightfully so. It’s a progressive mindset hungry for new ideas, not one of prudish conservatism.

Sex in cinema can follow a moment, a cultural thread, our progression with sexual politics. Its usage can imply far more than the erotic. Whole forms and aesthetics have materialised through its portrayal. The films of Russ Meyer, known for the ‘nudie cutie’ flicks of the 1960s, are campy softcore fare at first glance but start to directly comment on the liberatory attitudes of the era. 1968’s Vixen! might set itself up as mindless sexual exploits but it concludes as a treatise on revolution, gender, class, and war.

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In an ideal world, film would function as a secure space to experiment with ideas that are left in the shadows. We’ve seen the effect of this manifest in many different countries, across many different cultures. Japan experienced the trend of pinku eiga (pink film), a wide-ranging genre that deals explicitly with sexual themes. It allowed Japanese cinema to ponder and consider the subject within a safe framework, where it would be otherwise shameful in a socially conservative society.

Films can and should explore complicated emotions, and dive shamelessly into what we find difficult to discuss. To cannonball into the extreme side of the spectrum, there’s Irréversible. The 2002 film by Gaspar Noé shows lead character Alex raped and beaten unconscious in an underpass, captured by an endlessly disorienting nine-minute-long take. The scene is horrifyingly brutal, and intentionally so.

It is easier to write off this brutality through some moral filter than it is to consider the affect and understanding the scene creates, and the complexity we face with something so horrific. We’re forced to wrestle with our anxieties, experiences, the scorn shown towards women’s bodies, and the pathology of men who commit such unimaginable, soul-crushing acts. We see a stark reminder of sex and its relationship with power.

The Herald: Gaspar Noé's Irréversible puts the viewer in a brutal, uncomfortable place, raising questions about sex's relationship with power and the immediate impact of filmGaspar Noé's Irréversible puts the viewer in a brutal, uncomfortable place, raising questions about sex's relationship with power and the immediate impact of film (Image: StudioCanal)
Of course, sex in cinema does not always hold depth or meaning. Plenty of sex scenes are gratuitous and designed to stimulate the most basic instincts. In a sense, these are the sex scenes that are “unnecessary”, but should basic desire put us on the path of basic thought?

There is already a concerted effort to make us less film literate, to consume entertainment, and be profit drivers without consideration. Without the necessary tools to analyse what a film is doing and why, the ‘sex scene’ is thus a flat universal concept, with no nuance or wider implication. It’s just sex. Unnecessary.

But ideas are hard to contain, and sex is a fact of life. It’s imperative that we explore this side of our humanity through the art we create. If not, we might just be denying the very things that make us human and, well, alive.