Since When is Consent in Film Unsexy?

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love and basketballNew Line Cinema

In light of the #MeToo movement, conversations are being started that no one ever expected to have. Much of the backlash has claimed that growing conversations of consent and sexism in the industry will hurt storytelling. Some argue that a film must have a feminist spin to be sexy (which doesn’t sound like a bad thing) and that agents and managers are saying that the time is wrong for stories that are too overtly sexual in tone.

When people say #MeToo movement threatens “Sexy Hollywood Movies” it really threatens the broad spectrum of what sexy can be. A glance, the brush of a leg, a sigh, the small of her back, the broadness of his shoulder – what can be sexy is as diversified as men and women are. Suggesting that the #MeToo movement will end sexy because the only acceptable type of sex that can be depicted is “feminist” marginalizes the desires of everyone. And honestly, why does the depiction of characters who engage in loving, passionate, and intimate sex threaten “sexy”?

The claim that #MeToo or more pointedly, feminism, is threatening sex and sexuality is as old as the movement itself. Because women are voicing their opinions does not make the desires of men obsolete. It just means we want characters who engage in scenarios that are diverse enough to reflect our wants and needs, which are not single serving.

The first documented sex scene in film history starred Austrian-born American film actress and inventor Heddy Lamarr in Gustav Machaty’s 1933 film Ecstasy. Although Lamarr appears nude in this film, what makes it titillating isn’t the nude scenes. Machtay’s decision to achieve intimacy during the sex scene, not by showing sex but by focusing on Lamarr’s beautiful face as she achieves orgasm built a platform for many to follow. Spike Lee achieves this perfectly in his 1989 film Do The Right ThingMookie (Spike Lee) rubs ice cubes all over his girlfriend Tina’s (Rose Perez) body after she tells him it’s too hot for sex. The result is a too-hot-too handle scene that gets the blood flowing without having the characters engage in the physical act of sex. Recent films that have also successfully employed this tactic include Shakespeare in Love, Deadpool, Wonder Woman and Love & Basketball.

Similarly, classic film is filled with moments that are all tension and buildup, but there’s no sex. There’s not even any buildup to the idea of sex. But the tension and romance between the main characters is sexy anyways. There are so many films like this it’d be impossible to name them all.  All That Heaven Allows, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and The Philadelphia Story pull this off in ways that made them iconic. More recently, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi employs these tactics to create intimate sexy scenes that are sex free.

thelma and louiseMGM

There are also sexy and consensual films, one of the most notable of which is the encounter between J.D. (Brad Pitt) and Thelma (Geena Davis) in the 1991 film Thelma & Louise. The foreplay between the two is a kind of play that engages the viewers and creates a level of intimacy between the two by building tension in this game. And not only that, J.D. is the hypersexualized character, which is a role stereotypically filled by women, but instead of emasculating Pitt, it morphed him from a nobody who almost wasn’t cast as J.D. to a superstar. Likewise, this friendly, playful seduction occurs in many other films and doesn’t trivialize the experience of the characters. In Adventureland, they might be some of the only people left on Earth, but before they consummate their relationship, James (Jesse Eisenberg) asks Em (Kristen Stewart) if they’re going to have sex and she replies, “Yes. I think we are.” In this same way, films like Meet Joe Black, Atonement, Sleeping With Other People, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Real Genius.

In these sex scenes, there’s a framework that makes them relatable, if not wholly tantalizing by being able to demonstrate the humanity of human relationships and how they’re personified by communicating. In Edgar Wright’s 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World there’s a particularly intimate scene where consent is turned down and Scott (Michael Cera) is in bed with Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and she tells him she changed her mind. Even though the two do not have sex, what Wright creates is a scene that is relatable, loving, and empowering for both characters. This is nice. Just this. It’s not just that consent is sexy. It’s that it starts a conversation where two parties have to talk about what they’re about to engage in at some point. It’s a taste of reality that is relatable and can be sincere, loving, and fun.

Finally, there is romantic sexy, which doesn’t even have to employ sex at all, as long as it’s established two people are very deeply in love, even though they don’t or can’t admit their attraction.  This is personified in Michael Mann’s 1992 film, Last of the Mohicans when Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) tells Cora (Madeleine Stowe) to stay alive and he will find her. It is such a poignant display of love without ever getting into the nuances of their relationship. Theirs is a love and desire that is beyond time, place, and even sexual encounters. Some might call this a “Disneyfication” of romance, but why is that an insult? Romance is a turn-on and an unbreakable bond between two people with the world keeping them apart.

batman returnsWarner Bros.

The same goes for Tim Burton’s follow up to his 1989 smash hit, Batman Returns. Selena (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Bruce (Michael Keaton) are star-crossed lovers who discover each other’s alter egos while attending a masquerade ball…. unmasked. They kiss at the end of the scene, but their incompatibility is the focus because they are controlled by their alter egos, Catwoman and Batman. This sort of thing also occurs in Out of Sight when Jack (George Clooney) and Karen (Jennifer Lopez) get stuck in the trunk of a car together while Jack is escaping from prison. There’s an ease and familiarity in this scene that works as though the two have already had sex–even though this is their meet cute. There’s also the infamous clay scene in Ghost, the “I’ll be having what she’s having…” scene in When Harry Met Sally, and the fade out in Before Sunset when Celine (Julie Delpy) is dancing in her kitchen while Jesse (Ethan Hawke) watches and she tells him, “You’re gonna miss your plane,” and then the camera fades out implying less than we want and more than we need. The idea of sexy doesn’t have to be sexual to be sexual. In Broadcast News Jane (Holly Hunt) directs Tom (William Hurt), the station’s new anchor through his first night at the newsdesk via earpiece. The two working together as one perfectly, leading him to exclaim, “That was like great sex!” when they’re finally off-air. 

It’s not that #MeToo will neuter sex scenes. It’s that the movement is asking for an array of tastes to be considered. Because realistically, sex doesn’t have to be sexy. Sexy can be any variety of things, and maybe, if anything, the #MeToo movement is vocalizing something that Hollywood’s already been doing for as long as it’s been around, catering to the good taste of all people.

We’re just covering the tip of the iceberg of sex in film here! What are some of the most memorable film sex scenes? Any that feature LGBTQ+ and more diverse stories? What are some of your favorites? Leave them in the comments below!


Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.

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