If you were to time-travel back to the ’90s and tell marketing executives that sex no longer sells, you would be laughed out of the building. But in the year 2023? It’s common knowledge that sex is not as profitable as it used to be. If you’re wondering why you might be seeing a lot less sex scenes in film and TV in the coming years, you might have Gen Z to thank for that. But will a shortage of sex in cinema liberate us from the shackles of exploitation? Or will it simply send us back to the dark ages of conservative censorship and religious repression—a development that would ultimately cheapen the depiction of sex and turn it into something forbidden?
According to the 2023 Teens and Screens report, which was conducted by the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, around 51.5% of adolescents would prefer to see less sex and see more content depicting platonic friendships and relationships. Despite this damning news, it barely scratches the surface of a largely sex-negative culture that has rapidly developed online amongst our youth. This wave has even led to the coining of the term “puriteen”.
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A puriteen is a teenager or young adult who finds an emphasis on sexuality to be intrusive, wails against age gaps in relationships, and finds the presence of kink at Pride a tad excessive. Statistics suggest that Gen Z is also less sexually active than previous generations in general, and I blame that on our relationships primarily taking place on screens and a general fear for the future. But the most prevalent form of puriteenism is a general repulsion toward and distaste for the presence of sex scenes in movies and TV. This has been seen through Gen Z’s criticism of racy shows such as Euphoria, The Idol, and even that one sex scene Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer.
An 18 year old just told me the sex scene in Oppenheimer made them uncomfortable so they had to stop watching it, and proceeded to tell me it was a bad movie because of the sex scene?
— lot lizard ✧ (@thicfigtattoo) November 7, 2023
What does a world without sex scenes actually look like? You don’t need to go back too far in time in order to find out. From 1934 to 1968, major motion picture studios in the United States abided by a set of rules and guidelines known as the Hays Code. This code dictated what was considered acceptable and unacceptable content for motion pictures made for a public audience. Film curator Chelsea O’Brien tells the ACMI that the code “prohibited profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic, or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape. It had rules around the use of crime, costume, dance, religion, national sentiment, and morality.”
If you’re a puriteen, you might find yourself nodding in agreement. Who wants to see gratuitous rape scenes or an excessive use of nudity that has nothing to do with the plot? However, the Hays Code manifested in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect. It forced motion pictures to present couples as sleeping in separate beds, as seen in the hit show I Love Lucy. It restricted the depiction of pregnancy and childbirth in cinema. Mocking or criticizing the Christian faith was strictly prohibited. The word “virgin” was also banned from scripts. In short—the Hays Code led to a snowball effect of unbidden restrictions on artistic expression. It was also implemented after the spicy and provocative landscape of 1920s cinema, which often depicted women in positions of power, autonomy, and domination. For the next 30 years, the Hays Code put a stop to that, bringing women right back into the kitchen and stripping them of the freedom to authentically express their womanhood.
While Gen Z is certainly not advocating for an outward ban on sex in cinema, it’s important to remember how fast one thing leads to another and how far filmmakers had to come to even be able to depict sexual themes at all. In the years that followed the downfall of the Hays Code, cinema experienced a sexual reawakening. If you think racy sex scenes quickly became excessive—as seen in shows like Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, or True Blood—it probably has to do with the fact that we, as artists and consumers, had been deprived of sex for so long. Maybe filmmakers had to go buck wild in the ’90s and 2000s just to bring us back to a healthier and more balanced barometer.
However, Gen Z did not grow up during a period of sexual repression in cinema; they grew up during an era that was trying to make up for lost time. They may not have experienced this “sexual revolution” firsthand, because for previous generations, seeing Allie and Noah finally hook up in The Notebook (2004) or Jack and Rose have sex in a steamy parked car in The Titanic (1997) reminded many of us that sex could be passionate, wild, amorous, and downright spiritual. Seeing cowboys Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger bang in a tent and fall in love in Brokeback Mountain (2005) showed the heteronormative world that gay sex was real, romantic, and that it mattered.
These too-hot-to-handle sex scenes arrived at a time when porn was becoming widely available on the internet, making it easier than ever for adults—and even minors—to access violent, graphic, and sometimes even grotesque depictions of sex with the click of a button. And while I’m not one to kink shame, it’s usually women and queer folks who suffer from these depictions the most in their personal sex lives. It’s thanks to the more artistic expressions of sex that appear in film and TV that many of us even understand that sex can actually be sweet, respectful, emotional, funny, relatable, and romantic. Without these cinematic sex scenes, many of us would only get our sexual education from pornography. And that would mean most of us might think a normal session of sex involves ejaculating on a woman’s face when really it doesn’t have to.
Point blank: Sex is an integral part of our stories and identities and it will never not be—so why shouldn’t we be able to express ourselves about it? Sex can influence your self-esteem, bringing rise to feelings of power, passion, ambition, and the most exalting form of contentment when done right. It can also be associated with pain, embarrassment, and trauma, making it all the more important to be able to talk about it and heal through honest expression.
If sex was exclusively reserved for porn and shunned in other forms of media, would cinema be able to accurately capture the way sex elevates our consciousness and impacts our overall lives? Or would it take the magic away from sex and turn it into something rote and purely exploitative? Let’s not forget the very real possibility that we backslide into the same outdated and horrific perceptions of sex, gender, and femininity that used to run rampant when the Hays Code was still in effect.
During a time when it’s never been easier to hire an intimacy coordinator to facilitate the production of sex scenes with ease, consent, and respect—and the fall of Roe v. Wade is rapidly harming our hard-fought understanding of sex and bodily autonomy—I personally don’t want to see the sex scene go. I want to see the sex scene become something better than it has ever been; something more creative, liberating, and authentic than we’ve ever known.
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