Are Sex Scenes Gratuitous?
Gen Z says yes. And frankly, I agree with them.
A new study says that a majority of Gen Z, which is defined as people age 13-24, would like to see less sex in movies and on television. Forty-four percent also felt that “romance in media is overused,” and 39% would like to see more depictions of aromantic and/or asexual characters.
Not surprisingly, among older folks, the results of this poll caused much mockery. Yet another example of how Gen Z is socially stunted! some said. And: Moral Puritanism is on the rise again.
But here’s the thing: in this case, I agree with Gen Z: It would be more interesting if we had more stories where the central relationship is platonic — friendships and the like.
As for sex on movies and television — and in books — well, it often is gratuitous. Totally so.
Years ago, I edited a website devoted to fantasy-themed entertainment projects, and once I quickly threw together an article discussing all the nudity and sex scenes in the eyebrow-raising Starz TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
It ended up accounting for half of my website’s traffic for the entire year — and a hefty percentage of my traffic for every year after that.
In other words, I learned that some people really like sex and nudity on TV.
Thank you, Captain Obvious, right?
One of the questions I discussed in my article was: Is all the nudity and sex in the show gratuitous?
I answered: No, it was part of the show’s tone, and it mostly furthered the plot.
For years, this was the correct cultural response to the question of sex and nudity in books, movies, and TV shows: It’s only okay if it’s not gratuitous — if it deepens the character or furthers the plot. In recent decades, it even became a cliché when an actor or actress — usually an actress — said in an interview that she was okay with the sex or nudity in a project because it was “important to the story.”
But when it comes to fictional sex and sexuality, attitudes have been shifting for a while now — in the opposite direction as Gen Z.
Lately, many older folks are fine with gratuitous sex and nudity. In fact, they want more of it! Most of the articles about the recent Prime Video movie Red, White, and Royal Blue, based on the break-out hit gay romance novel, openly celebrated the movie’s five different sex scenes.
And this newfound honesty is a good thing, right? People clearly love sex and nudity, so why not embrace and celebrate it — and maybe strike a blow for sex-positivity while we’re at it?
Or not. I’m all for promoting sex as natural and normal, but I’m not really on board with this pro-sex sensibility — in part because I’ve come to see that sex in books, movies, and television already is mostly gratuitous, at least in America.
And like Gen Z, I don’t find it all that interesting. If you want gratuitous sex and nudity, why not just watch or read porn?
Wait, I’m saying I don’t find sex and nudity interesting?
Eh, not the kind I see in American movies and on American TV, and in many novels.
In American media, sex is almost idealized — a complete fantasy. It involves perfect lighting, perfect (young) bodies, and perfect sex. It’s always the best sex ever, with the two characters both equally and rapturously satisfied.
Which is, of course, not the reality of sex at all. It’s also not very interesting on a plot or character level. It’s always the exact same development: the characters are totally connecting, and/or the less sexually experienced character is finally coming into their own as a sexual being.
In short, these scenes aren’t really about character development or plot.
They’re about hotness. And they’ve become total cliches, exactly like Gen Z says.
I’ve struggled with this in my own books. My most successful literary character, Russel Middlebrook, is known for being incredibly self-aware and self-conscious. But I knew that when it came time for him to finally have sex, people didn’t want awkwardness.
In The Order of the Poison Oak, he has sex with Web Bastion, who turns out to be an exploitative lout. But Russel discovers that later — I portrayed the sex Russel has with him as exciting.
And when Russel finally has sex with his boyfriend, Kevin Land, in The Elephant of Surprise, it’s romantic. And then later, when they have explicit, graphic sex, in The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, it’s (hopefully) very hot.
In short, like Gen Z, I’ve come to see that maybe it’s time for a change.
Frankly, idealized sex not only isn’t that interesting, it’s also not even very hot. The least sexy movies of all time are, of course, the Fifty Shades movies, which are ridiculous and boring on almost every level.
So maybe it’s time to try something new — like, say, the recent Emma Thompson movie, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, about the awkward, faltering relationship between an aging woman who feels unattractive and the hustler she hires to satisfy her sexually.
But full disclosure: the movie is about self-acceptance, not hotness. That’s the thing about sex and nudity that actually develops the characters and furthers the plot. It isn’t always all that attractive.
We could also take a cue from foreign movies and show the natural eroticism of sex, as in Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Les Roseaux Sauvages (1996), or anything by Pedro Almodovar. American media could trying showing characters acting like actual human beings.
What a concept, huh?
(But if we do take the more “natural” route, can we please stick to sex? At some point in the last few years, writers in Hollywood decided that it was interesting and “edgy” to show characters on toilets. It’s really not. Yes, we all go to the bathroom, but I was under the impression that we all learned this in the second grade.)
Finally, America can try the less-is-more approach of older movies, which were filmed in a time of different sensibilities and Hollywood censorship, requiring much more of a reliance on nuance and subtext. If you can’t tell exactly when Humphrey Bogart has sex with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca — or Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen! — well, that’s on you, not on these incredibly sexy old movies.
And, yeah, we can also try telling stories with non-sexual relationships, just like Gen Z wants. That sounds pretty interesting to me too.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author. Check out his other newsletter about his travels at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com.