In the early weeks of 2023, one of the major issues in film discourse centered on the area of sex scenes. On Letterboxd, Film Twitter, Film Tiktok, and other places where the current cinema is discussed these days, it seems everyone has an opinion about sex in the movies: There’s either too little of it or too much.
Now, it’s clear that Hollywood movies don’t have quite as much sex as they did in decades past, for quite a few reasons, such as the disappearance of genres like the erotic thriller, the Russ Meyer-style sex farce, and the teen sex comedy. Simultaneously, we’ve seen the rise of the superhero genre, which doesn’t tend to feature a lot of nudity or sexuality. Like everything else these days, this also gets blamed on “wokeness.”
The truth is, there are plenty of places to still see sexuality in movies, and no I’m not only talking about Pornhub. Sex is plentiful in indie films and foreign films, as well as TV series, especially of the streaming variety. And beyond all that, the cinema of 2022 and 2023 isn’t exactly without sex, as critic Noah Gittell pointed out:
Of course, a lot of those movies weren’t seen by many people. And beyond that, a lot of the sex in those movies was either same-sex, involving nontraditional bodies, abusive/nonconsensual, or otherwise different from what audiences have come to expect from mainstream movie sex scenes- i.e., male-gaze-inspired material meant to feature hot young women.
Even so, if a sex scene is what you want, you can probably find one within ten seconds on your web browser, without even needing to utilize an adult website.
Of late, though, the opposite argument has begun to emerge: That in fact, there are too many sex scenes, and that including them in cinema at all is somehow unethical.
Actors Against Sex Scenes
This latest discourse centered around the news that actor Penn Badgley, star of the Netflix show You, had announced that he would no longer appear in sex scenes with women on screen, out of respect for his wife.
“It’s important to me in my real life to not have them,” he told Variety. “My fidelity in my relationship. It’s important to me. And actually, it was one of the reasons that I initially wanted to turn the role down. I didn’t tell anybody that. But that is why.”
We already had a controversy, just a few weeks ago, in which actor Neal McDonough claimed that he had been “blacklisted” earlier in his career due to his own refusal to perform sex scenes. In that case, it was somewhat questionable, since McDonough appears to have worked pretty much nonstop, in very prominent roles, even during the time he was allegedly on a blacklist.
With Badgley, the response was mixed, from those arguing that the actor has no problem drawing the line at playing a serial killer, and those speculating that the no-sex-scenes pledge must have originated from the actor having been caught cheating. (For the record, I tend to have no objection to an actor, whether Badgley or McDonough, choosing to no longer participate in such scenes. And the rise of intimacy coordinators appears to have had some success in easing the discomfort many actors have with on-screen simulated sex.)
But the Badgley story also led some to claim that on-screen sex is, itself, somehow wrong. It’s been often argued that sex scenes are always “gratuitous” and “never advance the plot.”
One Twitter user stated that “I’ve always felt it weird that as an audience, we’re exposed to intimate moments the characters haven’t consented to sharing… Making the viewer an accidental voyeur at best, leaving us guilty of some form of sexual crime (I’m not sure which exactly) at worst.”
This has itself led to a huge backlash, from those noting that puritanism, previously long associated with the old and conservative, has begun to migrate to the younger and more liberal. And there certainly may be something to that.
Know the Code
As a result of this, there’s suddenly discussion that those raising such objections are de facto wishing for the return of the Motion Picture Production Code, or the Hays Code. That was the official censorship regime, enforced by Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s.
The Code not only blocked overt sexuality from movies, but also a lot of other things: Profanity, drugs, miscegenation, homosexuality, and even evil triumphing over good. That last thing has often come up of late in depiction/endorsement battles, as it appears some moviegoers need to have their hands held and be told that bad things people in movies are doing are actually bad.
One Substack post on a site called The Mystic Sisters, published over a year ago, even went so far as to argue that the Hays Code was a good thing because it made the movies of old “classier” than those of today.
An Argument with No Constituency
Now, it should perhaps go without saying that bringing back the Hays Code would be a very, very bad thing. It would make movies way worse, in all sorts of ways, while also stifling creative freedom.
“Stop Romanticizing the Hays Code, You Ahistorical Dorks!,” Pajiba’s Kayleigh Donaldson argued in a much-shared post last week. “The Hays Code was awful. It was sexist, racist, homophobic nonsense that set film back decades and reinforced a lot of cruel moralizing that weakened the gaps between art and faith, thus ensuring decades of culture war bullshit.”
This is all, of course, true. But another thing is equally true: There is no chance at all that the Code will come back, mostly because no one with the power to do so has any interest in doing it. The studios don’t want to do it, nor do filmmakers.
Of all of these arguments against sex in Hollywood, or that the Hays Code returning wouldn’t be so bad, they all have something in common: They come from Twitter, TikTok and Letterboxd accounts with not particularly large followings. Such statements seem almost entirely to originate from younger people, non-professional writers, who are relatively new to the habit of film-watching and maybe not so familiar with the Hollywood history of a quarter-century ago.
These episodes illustrate one of the worst things about Twitter: No matter how bad an opinion is, someone on Twitter probably has it, and is willing to share it. Therefore, it gets elevated by those with larger audiences.
Even that Substack, which argued directly for Hays-style censorship, is relatively obscure; I had never heard of it until that piece made the rounds.
Nobody within Hollywood appears to be in favor of a formal ban on sex scenes, or any of the other things a New Code would entail. Neither does any film critic, writer, or commentator with any major audience or influence.
If A.O. Scott was taking to the pages of The New York Times to agitate for Hays Code 2.0, or some group of major directors signed a letter demanding such a thing go into effect, that would be one thing. But they’re not, and there’s no sign that they will be.
In fact, a real-life movement to bring the Code back is something that just plain doesn’t exist. Pajiba cites a Sight and Sound column by Jonathan Ross in which he argues for “gore guidelines,” but in that column, Ross comes right out and says “I’m not pining for the Hays Code,” and seems instead to be arguing for a British version of something like the MPAA rating system.
Whether the movies of today have too much sex, or too little, is something that will likely continue to be argued about indefinitely. But thankfully, those arguments will take place in a Hays Code-free environment.