Study reveals decline in sexually explicit scenes in Hollywood films

Matt Patches
is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

There has been so much time committed to yelling online about sex scenes in movies and TV — whether they’re gratuitous, whether they’re fundamental to a realistic portrayal of life, whether they’re titillating fun, and whether they offend Penn Badgley’s wife — that the discourse has now entered meme territory. But passionate defenders of hot-and-heavy drama might be right to make a ruckus over what they deem culturally valuable: According to a new study, the depiction of doin’ it in mainstream Hollywood movies has fallen dramatically over the last 20 years.

In a study conducted for The Economist, data researcher Stephen Follows looked at the 250 top-grossing films of each year since 2000 to plot out the amount of sex featured in major studio output (with a focus on positive encounters versus acts of sexual violence). What he found was a 40% drop in sexual content over the last two-plus decades. Another breakdown illustrates that the stat is directly linked to the amount of sex in major releases, rather than a shift by studios to dial down nudity and be more suggestive. Follows’ data-crunching found that nearly 50% of films released between 2019 and 2023 were void of sexual content, compared to around 20% in the early 2000s. The drop, he found, was particularly notable in action movies and thrillers produced in the window.

Sex hasn’t disappeared from the movies — Emma Stone just snagged an Oscar and stuck it to prudes everywhere for her role as the sexually awakened Bella in last year’s highly explicit Poor Things. The film was even a hit by arthouse standards, grossing $34 million in the United States and $117 million worldwide. But that total doesn’t even put it in the top 50 highest-grossing films of 2023. Sex in movies is becoming an indie pursuit. (Though kudos to Oppenheimer for both being a gargantuan hit and including a scene in which its main character utters “I am become death” as he is mounted by his lover.)

What’s behind the apparent tightening up of Hollywood’s self-imposed chastity belt? Follows lands on a conclusion that feels right: There has been a major cultural shift in how we talk about and consider sex. A greater focus on consent, gender representation, the male gaze, the on-set practices required for screen simulation, and the fine line between gratuitous and indecent have all created intense scrutiny around nudity and depictions of intimacy to the point where allowing them in films may not be worth the effort for studios (who, as we know, are in the business of profit, not art). The last 20 years have seen a shift toward a more global business, which also means appealing to global censors who decide if films can even open in a given country.

In previous research, Follows found that there has been a dramatic rise in on-set intimacy coordinators in the wake of the #MeToo conversation, as well, but any correlation to the actual depiction of sex feels dubious. The answers seem simpler, illuminated by Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri’s breakdown of the most important sex scenes in movie history. The list is littered with films from a category that was alive and well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but is now going extinct: the mid-budget drama. As the movie business blew up into four-quadrant blockbusters, studios lost the thread on creating buzz through the grounded human element. Sexy thrillers like Out of Sight, romantic dramas like Love & Basketball, or R-rated filmmaker-driven odysseys like Boogie Nights became rarities. The Marvel Way became THE Way — and the Marvel Way doesn’t even do kissing all that right. Sure, intercourse discourse might turn marketing a movie in 2024 into a minefield, and intimacy coordinators might argue for whether a sex scene is “needed” to tell a story, but Hollywood was stripping sex scenes from its output well before “Gen Z” started asking questions.

There are actors and filmmakers who will still fight to put sexuality on screen, producers who will gamble on its inclusion, and studios brave enough to put these movies out, but even truly bold movies in 2024 wouldn’t pass Follows’ test. Challengers, a throuple drama lauded for making audiences tingle, is explicit in its sexuality but not so much in the sex — beyond some impassioned kissing, the deeper contact is only implied. Note: The movie is still hot as hell, but for sex-scene advocates, it’s not the juice. And few movies on the 2024 release calendar will deliver. Unless Despicable Me 4 is hiding a really big secret, it’s going to be another year of minimal physical contact at the movies.

For well-polished graphs and a deeper look at the dataset, head over to Stephen Follows’ website.


Source: Polygon

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