Why Do Movies Have Sex Scenes?



Okay! No, no, it’s okay, we can talk about it, it’s not impossible.

Okay, we can talk about this. I don’t tend to talk about sex much, except in these kind of broad senses about orientation or whatnot, not because I don’t like sex or anything, but because I’m still holding a lot of churchboy damage that makes me uncomfortable describing this stuff in particularly ribald ways.

Don’t worry, we can get there, I’ll just need to take some uh


Meet me below the fold!

Okay, so why do we put sex scenes in movies (and tv shows, and anime, and everything where we can put stuff that’s even a little like a sex scene)?

Sex scenes, for this discussion, refers to a scene, depicted in the medium in question, where two (or more, or less, I guess) characters engage in some kind of sexual activity, in a way that the audience is invited to pay attention to it. This can be two characters in a movie having sex with one another, or it could be, say, two characters having sex in an unrelated scene, which serves to highlight something about the world. The purpose of the scene isn’t necessarily specific, and indeed, it kinda needs to not be for this conversation.

The question, on twitter last month was kind of a Ross-style ‘why do we even have sex scenes in movies.’ It was framed as if sex scenes are strange, and don’t serve any kind of purpose, and their presence was a confusing mystery.

Oh, and this is, of course, assuming an allosexual audience engaging with work from allosexual creators, which, largely, is how the world assumes it works. The idea that there are no ace people isn’t consciously part of this conversation, it’s just structurally there, the way acephobia is in so many things in our cultural space. The acephobia of media tends to be in more the assumed sexuality of all things – that every metaphor is a sexual one, that every form of romantic expression is part of a hierarchy with ‘penis-in-vagina boots-knockin’ at the very top, and up there being a dark doorway that leads to the naughty wrong fun sex that maybe obliquely gets mentioned but is never what good characters do. Even g-rated shows that don’t have any sex in them still often allude to the idea that sex is inevitably part of relationships, and body compatibility is seen as fundamental to this (like, check out The Little Mermaid, where the idea of a mermaid and the king of a coastal kingdom sharing a relationship is regarded as impossible while their bodies are incompatible, despite the obvious ways they could do that).

And like, sex scenes in movies can do a bunch of things. You can use them to show how characters relate to one another in that space, there’s a lot of emotional bluster and braggadacio that simply doesn’t work when you’re actually fucking. In Enemy at the Gates there’s a colossally uncomfortable sex scene that’s meant to be about showing this intense emotional relationship between two people that overwhelms their common sense but also kinda forgets that they’re literally next to other sleeping people and implies that Rachel Weisz was just frotting her partner on her stomach. In The Matrix Reloaded there’s this scene where uh, it’s kind of implied that Neo and Also Probably Neo, Really, are fucking in time with the very rhythm of the city, and that kind of says that they fuck like the world dances, and that’s really important?

It’s a confusing movie.

But that’s not reaaaally the question, is it?

Ultimately, though, the question itself feels fantastically naive. Not really naive – not actually unaware of why these things are put into movies, but it has that Big Brane Thonk overture of someone who wants to try and come up with an even Hotter Take. It presents an incandescent vision of media studies that wants to take a few further in order to blaze new ground in Public Discourse About Movies, and it will seem so clever, and so brilliant, provided they can get people to get past the question being so obviously answerable by anyone not pretending to be a complete dumbass.

Sex scenes are in movies because movies, as made, are capitalistic products and sex scenes tend to be a thing that draws an audience, especially if they’re really well made sex scenes, and they can be one of those things that draw audiences for repeat viewing, and also, even if they weren’t products under capitalism, you’d still get people making movies with sex scenes in them, because people tend to like them. They tend to be something with an appeal to an audience. Hey, check out these hot people, doing something that a large portion of the audience is going to think is hot. Enjoy that. And now we’re going to move on.

The thing that really sinks in my brain about this whole discourse is that there’s this feeling about it in this very… TVTropesy way. The idea that stories are broken down into these pure blocks of storytelling mechanisms, that everything is just part of this rocket sled progress towards the point of the movie, and that every bit of the movie has to be part of this perfect formulation, and without any of those other things, the movie would be better, creates this sort of vision of media as these singular, purposeful, specific constructions.

And they’re not.

Media is messy, and it’s untidy, and it’s full of these jarring bits that don’t necessarily work and it takes immense and extraordinary discipline for every single component of a work to work together tightly let alone perfectly.  Our reactions to media are ambiguous and noisy, but so to is the making and also the process of transmission.

And that’s okay.

Back to top