Watching a sex scene in a movie or TV show with family members is probably one of the more uncomfortable things we are subjected to as consumers of media. There is no greater dread than the anticipation of a sex scene in a movie; sometimes it’s easy to predict when the scene will take place, but more often they catch us completely off guard, and neither scenario is better than the other. While there may be families who openly talk about sex and rarely feel discomfort around the subject at all, it is generally not the easiest topic to discuss. In an ideal world, the movies and television we watch would be more mindful of this fact.
Lahari Bucchammolla, a psychology major and senior at Virginia Tech, explained why these scenes can be so uncomfortable for her and her family.
“I do feel uncomfortable watching sex scenes with family,” Bucchammolla said. “I think this may be due to how stigmatized sex is in my family. We don’t really talk about it because we think the others don’t have it, which is obviously not true.”
Americans as a whole undoubtedly tend to shy away from the topic of sex, and this is a habit that has endless unhealthy implications: Young people grow up scared to ask questions about sex and can start to view the act as a scary, forbidden thing that should only take place for procreation, and might feel shame if they choose to have sex for pleasure as a result. If the general feeling is that the topic of sex is not open to conversation, then people who engage in sex might be ill-prepared to protect themselves from STIs, pregnancy or even from the complicated feelings that can accompany the act.
It’s important that we become more open to sex as a society, but we have a long way to go. And since we struggle to talk about sex, it’s baffling that it’s portrayed so graphically and frequently in the media we consume. Of course, there are ratings attached to all media that indicate what we should expect before we sit down and watch. The PG rating is guaranteed to be devoid of graphic sex scenes, but once people get to a certain age, we gravitate toward these movies less and less, and frankly, most movies worth watching these days are PG-13 and above. However, during family movie nights, I am guilty of selecting a PG movie over a more tempting R simply to avoid the discomfort felt during one of their inevitable sex scenes.
To be clear, I am not coming from a conservative standpoint, and in many cases, neither are the countless others who would prefer less graphic nudity and sex in films and shows. It’s true that these moments have their place in the media: Sex is integral to human life, and it’s nice that we have the option to see it depicted artfully and sensually, which pornography monumentally fails to do. But plenty of today’s sex scenes border on pornographic, which is problematic. There’s no reason why a bare back or a dimly lit allusion to the act can’t replace entirely nude, baring-it-all sex in media.
Sex scenes might not even be the best way to suggest emotional intimacy. TikTok users have started a trend showcasing this fact by posting montages of media clips where the main love interests embrace one another with captions like, “Proof that hug scenes hit 100 times harder than kiss scenes.” Intense make out scenes are not necessarily more romantic than a passionate embrace, and a close shot of a stretched hand might be more sensual than a real hookup. Just because a movie is rated R for violence and language does not mean graphic sex is necessary to round out the mature nature of the film. If there is romance in the movie, then its culmination can be a tender hug, a fiery kiss or just mutual loving words.
Promoting the idea that sex is how people show their interest in one another can be dangerous because it fails to acknowledge the ways in which people move at different paces. It’s especially troubling when sex is portrayed so explicitly among minors, as it is in the show “Euphoria” and others.
“Teenage dramas are oversexualized by having older actors and sex scenes,” Bucchammolla said. “Sex is not necessary in teenage-focused TV shows or movies or advertisements, especially if it’s not promoting safe sex.”
The frequency with which high school students are having casual sex in “Euphoria” is hardly reflective of reality, and can lead younger people to stress about the rate at which they are moving with a partner. This pressure to conform to a perceived reality is harmful for young people, and the nudity of actors who have long put their teenage years behind them can cause young people to compare themselves and their bodies to those of grown adults.
That being said, high school sexual relationships can have a place in media, but they should be done thoughtfully. Daisy Edgar-Jones, who plays Marianne in the show “Normal People,” highlighted in an interview with Nylon how the show did a good job of showcasing healthy sex.
“It shows a depiction of sex that is very real in all its forms,” Edgar-Jones said. “And I think particularly in their first time scene, the fact that Connell was very concerned about consent and they use protection — it's very rare that you see a scene that is both beautiful and tender and sexy, but also has those elements in it.”
Edgar-Jones, whose role in Normal People was her first major role, felt comfortable with the nudity in these scenes, despite being a younger actress with a lot to prove. It goes without saying that many actors do not feel this way, and are considerably more uncomfortable filming these scenes than the audience viewing them could ever be.
“You can’t help but feel exploited,” said Claire Foy, an actress who spoke of her experience shooting several intimate scenes while filming the series “A Very British Scandal.” “It’s grim — it’s the grimmest thing you can do. You feel exposed. Everyone can make you try to not feel that way but it’s, unfortunately, the reality.”
Because sex has become so commonplace in shows and movies, it has become increasingly harder for female actresses to get hired for roles that don’t require nudity. While some actresses may feel comfortable with nudity, there are plenty of others who are anxious about taking off their clothes for not only directors and various on-set personnel to see, but also the millions of people watching these scenes on screen.
"It's hard to have a sex scene, period,” said Mila Kunis to reporters about her intimate scene in “Black Swan” with coworker and friend Natalie Portman. “It doesn't matter if it's a friend, a male, a female. You're with 100-something crew members, lighting you, repositioning you, there's no comfort whatsoever."
It’s especially troubling, too, that female actresses are expected to be nude at higher rates than male actors. Research conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative proved this disparity: In 2016, only 9.2% of male actors were nude or partially nude on camera compared to a whopping 25.6% of female actresses (these statistics were obtained by looking at the year’s 100 top-grossing movies).
So, if Americans are unable to talk about sex to begin with, and filming nude sex scenes can be traumatic for actors, then why is it that they are so common in media? Perhaps it’s less about realistic depictions of sex and more about objectifying women’s bodies.
Female actresses are often pressured into roles that require nudity by male directors, which points to the power structure that exists when newer actresses want to get their foot in the door of the industry but feel uncomfortable with nudity: They worry that if they don’t accept the role and all that it entails, they’ll be blacklisted, labeled a prude or uncooperative, and won’t get another similar opportunity to start their career.
Benita Robledo, an actress and director, spoke about her horrific experience with director Michael David Lynch in an interview with the Washington Post. When Robledo informed Lynch that she felt uncomfortable with full-frontal nudity, he allegedly assured her that they would shoot the particular scene with nudity and without, and that during final cuts, Robledo would be able to “give her approval on the final version.”
Despite Robledo’s clear opposal to the nudity in that scene, Lynch moved forward with the nude version for the film’s initial screening.
“Once you are on set, the only thing that’s precious is the director’s vision,” Robledo said on the mentalities of directors on set. “It’s all that matters. Everyone is hustling to make that work; grips, wardrobe, everyone. If you’re not playing along, then you’re the a--hole.”
Robledo’s experience is one of countless others, and this coercion and lack of consent in the industry is a dark side to on-screen nudity that consumers often fail to consider. When we watch these sex scenes on screen, we might enjoy them, or we might rather wish we were anywhere but in front of that TV. We think about the artistry and sensuality of these scenes and not the awful behind-the-scenes of filming them. We think about the discomfort we feel watching on-screen sex in the company of others and not the profound discomfort of the actors involved.
Intimate movie and TV scenes, however, can offer a natural segue for healthy and necessary conversations around sex to take place among families, which is certainly a benefit.
“I think for people who are more sheltered and don’t have parents that talk to them about sex, especially safe sex, there can be a positive effect of the prevalence of sex in media,” Bucchammolla said.
It can be argued that sex has a place in media in the same way violence, language and drugs do. For many of us, seeing violence, explicit language and drugs in media allows us to understand parts of the world that are unfamiliar; for many others, they’re topics that really resonate and can help us understand our own minds and the people around us. However, when actors as well as viewers experience awkwardness, and possibly darker emotions as well, it’s hard to rationalize the pervasiveness of graphic sex and nudity in the industry.
To ensure more comfortable family movie nights, less male power in the film industry, and more agency for actors, particularly those just starting out in the industry, it’s important that nudity and graphic sex have a substantially smaller place in today’s media. For everyone’s sake, it’d be nice to scale back, at least just a little bit.