Brand New Key: A Look At The Evolution of Sex in Cinema

I remember the first time I saw a sex scene in a movie. I was nine years old; it was the summer of 2003. My parents were relatively protective of what I watched, but not overtly. I was at my friend’s house, who was my age. His older brother decided to watch Die Another Day, which was released in 2002, the first James Bond film I had ever seen (and to this day, one of my favorites). At this particular point in the movie, James Bond (then, Pierce Brosnan) meets Jinx (Halle Berry) on a beach in Havana. Bond quickly woos her with a line about animals feasting and the scene fades into the following sex scene.

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Every person who has ever watched a movie has likely seen some sort of sex scene. This is a widely accepted form of softcore pornography. Softcore pornography, often referred to as soft porn, simulates sexual activity but shows no actual penetration of any kind. Its purpose is to be sexually arousing in its depiction but only through simulation and implication. Usually, no sex has taken place between the actors (though full and partial nudity is common).

Throughout history, culture (specifically film) has evolved greatly from the silent film of the 1920s. The Motion Picture Production Code, the moral guidelines of the film industry between the 1920s and 1960s, restricted the use of language, sex, drugs, alcohol, and other suggestive topics. Through the intervention of a growing culture, foreign influence, and courts, the codes were retired and replaced with the current MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) rating system.

The spreading of information is important, even vital, to freedom and to culture. I am a free speech absolutist. People have the right to spread whatever information they so desire. However, that is not to say that the growing use of sexuality is not a problem.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, an obnoxious number of teenagers (usually male) would grow excited at the sight of breasts on the screen in movies such as American Pie. They would crowd around the television and quiet each other down until the young woman was undressed. Then they would hoot and holler, sometimes rewind and rewatch, and then move on. This form of sexual proclivity became habitual for some, satisfied with the rush in this relatively and comparatively innocent scene.

Enter 2013: the year of release for movies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, Nymphomaniac, and Blue is the Warmest Color. The Wolf of Wall Street received an R rating, but only after dodging an NC-17 rating by cutting down on the sex and nudity. Cutting down? Anyone who has seen this movie is aware of how explicit it is. Blue is the Warmest Color, released in France, received an NC-17 rating in America due to its language and graphic sex scenes, including non-simulated lesbian sex. Since the release of these movies, actors Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) have, no doubt, become the subjects of fantasies held by men and women everywhere. Nymphomaniac, released in Denmark, details the very graphic journey of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacey Martin. For the scenes of younger Joe, Stacey Martin had a “porn double” and prosthetic vagina. Yes, this movie (which depicts actual hardcore sex scenes) features a famous porn star from Germany and a fake vagina to prevent the 22-year-old Martin from “feeling anything.” Each one of these movies were nominated for prestigious awards (Academy Awards, Cannes Film Festival, Nordic Council Film Festival) and even won a few.

The difference is obvious; at one time, a nip slip was all it took for a movie to be “crossing a line” or to become the highlight of a teenage boy’s movie collection. Now, films featuring actual sex scenes receive highly-prized awards and Fifty Shades of Grey is a mainstream cultural phenomenon.

That is not to say that other decades have not played host to graphic “revolutionary” sex scenes, such as Coming Home (1978), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Don’t Look Now (1973), Titanic (1997), Wild Things (1998), et cetera.

The depiction of sex in movies is becoming increasingly more mainstream and even respected (being labeled as risky, adventurous, and so on). The increasingly inappropriate use of sex in the cinema industry is a problem because it is, more or less, a form of pornography. Pornography is becoming increasingly more acceptable, with some even endorsing the idea of pornography as “no big deal” and just a form of sexual expression. Here’s the thing, though: pornography is a big deal. PornHub, one of the biggest porn distributors in the business, placed an advertisement in New York’s Times Square last October featuring two hands forming the shape of a heart and the phrase “All You Need Is Hand” (an obvious masturbation implication). The billboard outside the DoubleTree Hotel disappeared as quickly as it went up, as the DoubleTree objected strongly enough to convince City Outdoor, the owner of the billboard space, to remove it. The marketing campaign itself, however, has not disappeared. PornHub produced a parody to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” after hiring the Gotham Rock Choir (a choir featuring both men and women).

Porn is finding its way into mainstream culture. It is estimated that 12% of all websites on the internet are pornographic, 35% of all internet downloads are pornographic, and that 40 million Americans view porn regularly. The average age at which a child first views online porn is 11. Because of this, there is an argument to be made that porn is something people are watching anyway; therefore there is no harm in advertising it and showing it in a movie.

Again, the problem is porn. Porn is harmful, and not even to just oneself. Porn has been proven to damage the brain (it’s similar to a drug), warp the idea of sex, ruin sex lives, make one violent, leave one lonely, destroy families and relationships, and damage love. It is often forgotten that love is not just an emotion or feeling, but a choice (or more so, a choice to act). Love without action is worthless. It takes sacrifice, appreciation, and selflessness to love someone. Hardcore and softcore pornography is purely selfish in its purpose (that being self-pleasure). A great resource for further exploration of the damages of porn is Fight The New Drug.

Image courtesy of Fight The New Drug

Image courtesy of Fight The New Drug

This is, in my opinion, not an issue of free speech. I do not suggest regulating the porn industry into extinction, eliminating sex scenes from movies, or trampling on artistic expression. Consumers can consume whatever they choose. However, rather than advertising PornHub’s screwed up interpretation of love, why not advertise the fact that the most common role for women in porn is a 20-year-old portraying a teenager or the fact that over 624,000 child porn traders have been discovered online in America alone?

Pornography, be it hardcore or softcore, is a problem in the world. Sex scenes in movies is a form of softcore pornography, and therefore, it is my opinion that consumers need to start reaching out to producers. Dialing back to the 1930s is not the answer, but Blue Is The Warmest Color should not have been so widely embraced as a piece of art but rather rejected as the cheap indie film that it is. The sex scene I saw in Die Another Day was hardly graphic. The scene itself is not inherently evil. It’s what sex scenes in movies lead to. Sex scenes in movies lead from softcore porn and hardcore porn, and as explained, pornography is not a good thing. Advertising using sex is a lazy ad man's solution for getting attention. Sex is a part of being an animal, but what makes sex special for us is the fact that we’re humans. It’s more than just physicality and anatomy. It’s love, passion, and connection. This form of love does not belong on a screen, big or small.

Dylan Schouppe