Once widely understood in the world of film marketing, the phrase “sex sells” seems to no longer be a guarantee. A recent study by the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers found that 47.5 percent of adolescents surveyed said that “sex isn’t needed for the plot of most TV shows and movies.” Amid wider discourse about the presence of sex on screen, many have attempted to understand why Generation Z has begun to cause cultural shifts regarding the acceptance of sex on screen and the impacts of increased negative attitudes regarding the presence of sex in films.
First, this is not the only area in which Gen Z seems to be trending toward what seems to be ambivalence or negativity toward sex. A recent study found that the number of people who had recent casual sex declined between 2007 and 2017, with men going from 38 to 24 percent and women from 31 to 22 percent. With 29.6 percent of adolescents reporting that they look for relatability and circumstances that mirror their own in the films and TV that they watch, perhaps the increasing irrelevance of sex has spurred Gen Z to reject it from the content we watch.
It is not just that the audiences have changed, though. In the wake of the streaming revolution and COVID-19, which upended film releases, studios are often seen as increasingly wary of projects that do not have universal appeal and cannot play to all audiences, limiting the appearance of sex and sexual desire in films in constant quest for PG-13 ratings. Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which last July has grossed a total of $29.55 billion across its projects, are increasingly massive parts of the cinema landscape, with massive budgets to boot. In the words of Sunny Teich and Raqi Syed for Salon, “astronomical budgets ensure that these kinds of films must target the largest possible global audience and shy away from controversy.” With Marvel movies and other franchise films being “your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen” according to Martin Scorsese, you’re increasingly unlikely to find films that are explicit about sex and sexual desire on the big screen.
With increasing ambivalence from studios toward projects that do not have existing intellectual property to rely on to guarantee major profits, a victim of the MCU and other franchises has been the theatrically released mid-budget, implicitly adult, film. Defined as films that “don’t have the extravagance of larger-budget movies or the quirky minimalism of independents,” mid-budget films were once box office staples and incredibly influential, with thrillers like “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), dramas like “Whiplash” (2014) and comedies like “Neighbors” (2014) all generating massive returns on their relatively low budgets as compared to today’s top films. Not all showcased explicit sex, but they were nonetheless adult — the kind of films that your parents would watch once you fell asleep. Films that were deeply invested in sex and its dynamic, erotic thrillers such as “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction,” still had major box office success. While similar films now often appear on streaming services and are less likely to appear solely in theaters, the act of visiting a cinema to watch a film is decidedly different than picking what’s on your Netflix home screen. The longevity of the mid-budget adult film has also shifted, from maintaining their presence in theaters for several weeks to falling into the content abyss of the home screen of streaming services.
It is not only that the avenues for sex to be represented have narrowed with the loss of mid-budget adult film, but the propagation of incredibly sex-negative and censorship-heavy social media platforms that have made anything that openly features sex or sexually suggestive material seem to be out of the norm. Social media platforms are quick to take down sexually suggestive content, with comments like “wanna have sex [followed by an eggplant, water and peach emoji]” and sexual imagery making your Instagram liable for suspension. With fewer avenues to engage in sexually suggestive material, it seems all the more shocking when sex does appear on screen. This potentially repels people from depictions of sex due to their plain irregularity, preventing audiences from seeing how they change the ways that we interact with cinema and how they impact their respective film plots.
But despite warning signs that we could be in the final days for sex in cinema, multiple sexually explicit recent releases such as “Saltburn” tell us differently. The release of films like “Poor Things,” “How to Have Sex” and “May December” led one film expert to claim that this could be the “sexiest awards season in years.” These films all explicitly show and deal with sex, showing the ways in which sex may appear on screen in a shifting cinema landscape. Sex has been reframed “for a contemporary sensibility. It is now often there to shock, amuse or confuse, rather than to titillate or denote romantic love.” Films that deal with the messiness of sexual desire and its intrigue like “Saltburn” have become cultural phenomenons, inspiring as much fan fiction as horrified reaction videos.
The changes that have occurred in the representation of sex on screen are a testament to their survival. Art has never been stagnant and has always changed in response to developments in society and culture. So just as the creation of cinema changed how the arts represent humanity, cinematic representations of sex will no doubt continue to shift in response to the sensibilities of a post-#MeToo, post-Roe and post-streaming world.