We Won — Sex Is Back On-Screen

When I first became an editor at Autostraddle back in September, I announced my presence with a piece titled “We Need More Sex Scenes.” I wrote about the history of sex on-screen and why the trend away from sex and sexuality in film and television was troubling.

Well, seven months later, I’ve returned with good news. We won. Sex is back on-screen.

There were hints of it last summer with Passages, Ira Sachs’ fabulous tale of toxic bisexuality, but one independent film shot in Europe felt like a mere exception. The real excitement came from a group of films during awards season that centered sex for a variety of purposes: Saltburn, Poor Things, All of Us Strangers, and May December.

These four films alone show different possible uses of sex on-screen. Saltburn is a work of pulpy delight where fluids represent power. Poor Things frames sex as discovery, a way to lose one’s innocence and learn about the world. All of Us Strangers has sex as romance, a sultry reprieve from the melancholy of life and death. And May December centers around sexual abuse, its moments of sexuality a twisted response — and attempt to make sense of — that violence.

While it may have been snubbed at awards season, May December was still noteworthy for being a Hollywood film that approached sex and sexual violence with compassion and complexity — something usually reserved for films abroad such as the British film How to Have Sex released this year and the French film Last Summer coming out in June.

And we haven’t just seen an increase of sex on-screen as a way of grappling with serious subject matter. This year, we’ve also seen sex scenes used for fun. And the best part? Most of it is queer.

Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls was a full-blown sex comedy with sex scenes ranging from comic to romantic. It’s a film all about sex and sexuality and dildos. Then, of course, there’s Love Lies Bleeding, Ross Glass’ delicious Kristen Stewart-starring neo-noir that pulses with eroticism. It has toe biting, protein shake licking, and so much desire.

A lot can be done with explicit sex scenes, but, ultimately, the sexlessness of 2010s cinema wasn’t just a matter of nudity and penetration. It was a lack of sexuality, sensuality, and chemistry. Tomorrow Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers comes out in theatres and it’s noteworthy for being one of the sexiest films I’ve ever seen while not having any explicit sex scenes. It’s a film conscious of its withholding, the most delicious foreplay with tennis as its payoff. It, too, is part of this trend — even if most of its nudity is just in the locker room.

Most of the sex on-screen has moved back to the cinema, but there are also exciting developments on TV. Mary and George felt like a throwback, a costume drama filled with all kinds of sex and sexuality. And the recent series Baby Reindeer — largely directed by Weronika Tofilska, the co-writer of Love Lies Bleeding — examines how sexual abuse impacts its protagonist’s sex life. It includes the important representation of encounters that are not abusive — and are even tender — but are heavy with the echoes of abuse.

Some of this sex is hot, some of it is painful, some of it is both. I’m just happy to see all these different expressions of sexuality on-screen. But I’m not writing this piece to gloat — I’m writing it to get greedy. Because the other notable aspect of Baby Reindeer is that one of the characters in some of its sex scenes is a trans woman played by trans actress Nava Mau. These moments are focused on her partner’s attempts to work through his PTSD and shame, but they’re still a welcome exception. The fact is, even as varied queer sex increases on our screens, there’s still a void of sex involving trans people.

Since trans people make up a small percentage of the population, this might feel inconsequential. But it’s worth noting that trans porn is among the most popular porn categories — and its popularity is ever-growing. I love porn and I’m hesitant to place it in contrast with “real” movies. It’s just that most trans porn is being produced for cis people and has a very skewed idea of our sexuality. Of course, different trans people fuck in all sorts of ways — including the ways most frequently represented in porn — but there’s something insidious about trans sexuality only being framed one way and only being viewed by many in the shadows of their homes.

I want more work like Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca and Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions, movies where trans women filmmakers show our sexuality to be sensual and comical, romantic and complex. I want to see that even more in an independent space and I want to see it on an even larger scale.

There is always more work to be done. But for now let’s celebrate these victories. Go see Challengers in theatres and remember: As fun as it is to get turned on alone, it’s even more fun to get turned on together.

For more, check out our series Anatomy of a Queer Sex Scene.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.

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