Not one, but two shower sex scenes take place in Michael Mann’s 2006 adaptation of Miami Vice. For Jamie Foxx and Naomie Harris, a hard day’s work ends with tender lovemaking, their bodies glistening beneath the showerhead. Later, the film’s star-crossed lovers, Colin Farrell and Gong Li, cap off a rapturous night in Havana by canoodling as they rinse and repeat. Although these scenes aren’t essential to the film’s plot of undercover cops trying to bring down an international drug cartel, I can’t imagine Mann’s brooding, trigger-happy crime drama without the electrifying passion and evocative romance to balance out its steely, macho posturing.
Anyone with a pulse knows that in most contexts sex can make a movie a lot less dull. Desire, after all, fuels the cinematic experience; it pulls us into the screen like voyeurs. Yet on social media a not-marginal opposition to sex in the movies has taken off among some film buffs, whose quibbles go hand-in-hand with a more general decline in sexuality on the big screen. Their rationale? That most steamy scenes are gratuitous and don’t meaningfully contribute to the story.
But is a movie necessarily better because it delivers a fat-free narrative stripped down to its essential plot points? Sex scenes come in all different shapes and sizes, some more evidently “useful” to the narrative than others. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese share one glorious night of passion that leads to the conception of future resistance leader (and franchise mainstay) John Connor. Lady Bird uses its heroine’s dreadfully disappointing first time to impart the hard lesson that the world does not play out like a teen-girl fantasy. But there are also moments of intimacy in films that illuminate the dynamics of a relationship, or lend palpable insights into a character’s state of mind.
A troubled housewife played by Julianne Moore suffers through the act like a sex doll in Todd Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece, Safe. Her limp body and expressionless demeanour convey her utter lack of desire, hinting towards the breakdown to come. Other sex scenes communicate feelings that dialogue never could. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s controversially realistic romp in Don’t Look Now expresses, in its raw, gritty and occasionally unflattering execution, the hunger and hesitancy of making love for the first time after a shared tragedy and long period of celibacy.
Cinematic sex doesn’t need to be simmering with quietly revelatory meaning, either. It can be stupid or embarrassing, just like our everyday sexual experiences, or wildly, impossibly romantic, like the fantasies we invent in our heads. Why turn up your nose at the unhinged absurdity of Elizabeth Berkley gyrating like a fish out of water in the deliciously over-the-top Showgirls, or Timothée Chalamet self-pleasuring with a peach in Call Me By Your Name?
Puritanism about sex on screen reminds me of watching movies with my intensely Catholic mother, and the inevitable groans from the opposite side of the couch whenever a “perfectly good movie” was “ruined” by sex and nudity. “Why’d she have to get undressed?” “Why’d they have to show that?” In stereotypically American fashion, displays of vicious, bloody violence or spectacular destruction are fine by her, but sex? That’s a pointless gratification of the baser impulses; titillation for titillation’s sake.
Personal hang-ups aside, the combination of increasingly risk-averse studios and the arbitrary moral code of the MPAA ratings system has diminished contemporary Hollywood’s interest in and understanding of sex. An obsession with delivering a dependable product, and the level of control that goes into shaping that product into its milquetoast final form, might explain why today’s most popular movies – namely tentpoles and reboots – are practically devoid of anything resembling a hot moment.
Exiled from the multiplexes, the boldest cinematic depictions of sexuality today tend to reside on premium cable or streaming channels. One immediately thinks of Game of Thrones and similar programmes criticised for their excessive love scenes, yet the past year’s leading television shows, such as Normal People and I May Destroy You, have shown the potential for authentic depictions of sex by exploring the nuances of consent.
The blockbusters follow a one-size-fits-all approach where anything remotely capable of offending could be given the axe. Consider the evolution of comic book movies: 20 years ago a rain-soaked, upside-down makeout session between Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane was the image that even those who neglected to buy a ticket came to associate with the entire franchise. Today, as the Spanish film-maker Pedro Almodóvar has observed: “Sexuality doesn’t exist for superheroes. They are neutered.”
Yet there are reasons to be wary of the ways in which Hollywood presents sex, including the countless behind-the-scenes horror stories involving actresses pushed beyond their comfort zones, or outright abused in the pursuit of realistically erotic material. These precedents have led to positive industry-wide changes, such as the rise of intimacy coordinators who advocate on behalf of actors and help choreograph sex scenes. And from today’s cultural perspective, the misogynist frameworks of once popular movies such as Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction feel woefully out of touch.
It’s true that sex scenes were born in an era that centred on the desires of straight white men. The sexual prowess of such men, once uncritically celebrated, might now register as creepy or villainous. Yet the joys of horny cinema needn’t only cater to the straight male gaze. A new generation of film-makers, from Barry Jenkins to Isabel Sandoval, are widening the lens of sexual experience on screen through films that centre the experiences of women, queer people and people of colour with a degree of empathy and care. My only hope is that a female director of colour might one day be given the money, freedom and exposure to make a movie with as many arbitrary and gratuitous sex scenes as she sees fit, and that it becomes impossible to ignore.