We Need More Sex Scenes

Let’s start with something sexy: a history lesson.

Hollywood in the silent era was a place of queer debauchery. Drugs, sex, and intertitles. There were few rules about what could be shown on-screen and even fewer about what could happen backstage.

Many people know this changed in 1934 with the enforcement of the Hays Code, an on-screen standard that lasted more than thirty years and banned, among other things, any depictions of homosexuality. But this sort of culture-shaping censorship does not occur suddenly. The seeds were planted over a decade earlier due to what most call scandals and I’ll call tragedies.

In 1921, screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping and murdering an aspiring actress. Charlie Chaplin who dated, impregnated, and married multiple teenagers throughout his career defended Arbuckle.

The next year bisexual director William Desmond Taylor was murdered. Some believe he fell victim to a drug dealer; others believe it was the mom of a teenager he was pursuing. Either way, the response to the scandal held all these things equally: murder, sex with a teenager, drugs, and, of course, bisexuality.

Fearing bad press and a loss of income, the studios invited William Hays, former head of the Republican National Committee, to rehabilitate the image of The Movies. For a decade, Hays’ guidelines were taken as mere suggestions — and, therefore, rarely taken at all. Of course, this meant religious groups and state legislatures were not appeased, and, finally, by 1934, the suggestions became commandments. The images allowed on-screen were changed for decades.

There were real issues in Hollywood — issues that remain today. But the solution to those issues was not to flatten everything adult into the same objections. To put it bluntly: rape and murder are not the same as drugs and bisexuality. The only commonality between these things is that banning them from the screen does not ban them from life.

History is cyclical and today we find ourselves at a similar crossroads. What images should be allowed on-screen? What images should be celebrated on-screen? How can we create a better Hollywood? How can we create a better world?

This time, we should do the opposite of William Hays. This time, the solution is obvious: We need more sex scenes.

There were fewer sex scenes in movies during the 2010s than any decade since the Hays Code was in place. Television picked up a lot of that slack, but, in recent years, that too has been on the decline. Even a show like The L Word: Generation Q which had little to offer beyond a great cast and expert sex scenes, cut most of the latter out of its third and final season.

Cultural shifts never have just one cause. When it comes to movies, the push away from artist-driven cinema and toward tentpole franchises has studios trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. This means making work appropriate for all-ages. It also means conforming to the moral judgments of conservatives both domestically and internationally. Sexuality is best for the studios when it can be easily excised — or easy to miss — in certain markets.

But, as television follows suit, I would argue there are three other reasons for the lack of sex on-screen: the Me Too Movement, the introduction of intimacy coordinators, and the increase in queer storytelling

Six years ago, Hollywood again had a series of scandals I would call tragedies. Over 80 women accused mogul Harvey Weinstein of harassment and assault and an industry-wide reckoning began. More people came forward about more people, the rot of Hollywood clearer than ever.

Most of the accused were compared to Weinstein and, failing to meet that high bar of monstrosity, were allowed to return to work. But the lack of consequences for individuals was at least paired with a change in how sex was filmed on-screen. Intimacy coordinators became a common position on set. Sex could now be choreographed with the care and safety of stunts rather than an abuse-pron spontaneity. Not only did this create safer environments — it created better sex scenes. Shows like Vida and the aforementioned Generation Q redefined what we could expect in terms of specificity and eroticism. It’s also not a coincidence that both of these shows were queer.

Even before 2017, queerness on-screen was on the rise. And, more importantly, the queerness more frequently came from a queer perspective. I love the erotic thrillers of the 80s and 90s and will happily defend the goofy lesbianism in something like Wild Things. There’s still a big difference between Neve Campbell and Denise Richards’ pool makeout and the queer sexuality of Vida. Tanya Saracho’s show isn’t just more realistic — it’s hotter.

If reading about Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman makes you want to enforce Christian values, you wanted to do that anyway. If reading about the murder of William Desmond Taylor makes you want to ban queerness, you already hated us. If the mainstream Me Too Movement makes you want less sex to be shown on-screen, you’re contributing to the very secrets that movement aimed to uncover.

The current push against sex scenes was not created by people who want to change our culture for the better, but by people who want to keep it the same. Like most moral panics, it’s a small group providing the wrong solutions to real concerns. I don’t think teenagers on Twitter expressing their anxieties around sex want there to be less queerness in our world. But I do think certain people with power are manipulating those anxieties with that goal in mind.

The people in power have looked at a world where pleasure is available to us all and on-set safety has increased and see it as a threat to their patriarchal control.

We do not change our culture by denying its realities. We need more sex scenes on-screen that are hot. We need more sex scenes on-screen that are uncomfortable. We need queer sex and straight sex and everything in between. William Hays banning depictions of rape did not prevent it from happening in Hollywood and beyond. The more we talk about and show the bad, the easier it is to prevent. The more we talk about and show the good, the easier it is to attain. The more we acknowledge that sex and relationships often cannot be split between good and bad, the better equipped we’ll be to live in our complicated world.

It’s unlikely that Hollywood will adopt another Hays Code. Instead, there will be an increase in what has already begun. Certain people with power will get to show whatever they want without losing funding or mainstream support while the rest of us will not. Sex on-screen won’t be defined by work like Vida, this year’s wonderful Passages, or my current favorite show P-Valley. It will be defined by people like Sam Levinson and Lars von Trier. To fight for more sex scenes is to fight for better sex scenes. To fight for better sex scenes is to fight for a better culture on-screen and off.

I want a Hollywood of intimacy coordinators and queerness and open sexuality — not exploitation, abuse, and secrecy.

For the sake of art, for the sake of our world, let’s ask for more and let’s ask for better. A century later, let’s learn from our mistakes and this time reject repression. It’s scarier, it’s riskier, it’s messier. But trust me: some of the best things in life are fucking filthy.


This essay about the need for more sex scenes is here to launch an exciting new series all about sex on-screen! Look for our upcoming revamped list of lesbian sex scenes available to stream and deep-dives on what makes specific queer sex scenes so special.

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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 547 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, Drew. I grew up surrounded by purity culture shame, and the current negativity around sex just keeps bringing that all back up and it’s hard to see a new generation grow up with that, so I super appreciate articles like this. As always, your writing is amazing!

  2. “A century later, let’s learn from our mistakes and this time reject repression. It’s scarier, it’s riskier, it’s messier. But trust me: some of the best things in life are fucking filthy.” Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, Drew!

  3. I am so excited to read this and also agree so much!

    I recently watched Top Gun (i know, i was on a plane) and was genuinely taken aback in a good way by how explicit (relatively) the sex scene is for a PG? like you can’t See a lot but it is a whole scene where they are very obviously having sex? Top Gun, famously of universal suburban appeal! How have we moved so backwards?

  4. Totally agree with your point! I wanted to mention though that Fatty Arbuckle is widely understood to have been railroaded in the rape case and was acquitted after three trials, with fatphobia playing a major part in the accusations against him.

  5. I love this so much!!!!

    And it is coming to me in a time where I was thinking along similar lines!
    I was thinking about how I don’t really know of a genre of movies that straddles the porn-movie divide. Like I know where to find porn, and I know where to find movies, but I have no clue where to find the movie equivalent of a good smutty romance novel. I want a full fledged story and characters, and scenes that have nothing to do with sex, but also have lots and lots of erotic events! And also, I don’t know how to search for “movie that is super sexy, but not because it actually depicts sex, it actually depicts an alien engulfing a human and features a lot of synth music” or like a similar movie that takes a very other approach to sex – like completely PG if you only read a dry description, but is actually pulsing with sexuality

  6. Thank you for this! I know I’m not the only person who is very scared of the anti-fictional-sex attitude among (young) (queer) people in fandom spaces, and so I’m really excited to see the case being made like this.

    Like, not all media needs sex scenes (and honestly I mostly look away if they come on screen because I don’t like watching them!), but it would be great to discuss queer media that feels deeply afraid of sex, like Heartstopper, which had the only character who seemed to experience gay sexual desire be depicted as an irredeemable predator, in this context.

    • Agreed, and I really liked Heartstopper, but felt like the seemingly invisible boundary of “we only kiss frantically, we don’t even touch each other” felt … limiting, in a way? Not to say that isn’t many people’s experience as teenagers but just to say that when I was a teenager in the late 90s/early 2000s I was desperate for representations of queer intimacy, and I feel there is a very wide open middle ground between the more explicit and heightened sexuality of the 16 year olds on Sex Education (which I also love) and and the chasteness of Heartstopper. Then again, in true graphic novel, Charlie is supposed to be 14 I think…

  7. I am blown away by this article! What a piece, so informative and strongly written that you can’t help but pay attention (though, yes, you had me a ‘we need more sex scenes’ because I wholeheartedly agree).

    Particularly by queer artists. While I will forever have an apprecation for any director who boldly goes there (and does so well) I still maintain that there’s something not quite right about a scene written by, performed by or directed by foilks who aren’t LGBTQIA+. When you look at the scenes in Elena Undone, you know Nicole knew what she was doing. As did Traci. Then you look at Carol and it seems…stilted, almost?

    Anyway, brilliant article. Thank you!

  8. I look forward to more in this series, Drew! I was recently rewatching Vida and had actually thought to myself “I’m not sure whether they would have been able to make this show, in this way, especially with these particular (exceptionally hot and specific) scenes of sex and intimacy, if the show were premiering today.” I hope I’m wrong… but what do you think?

    • Rewatching some of the sex scenes to look for a feature image I realized I’d forgotten just how long and explicit and incredible those scenes were?? So I think you’re right. Because even while it was on it was really unique!

  9. Couldn’t agree more. Reading about the incorporation of the Hayes code makes me curious…I wonder if the Hollywood Blacklist hadn’t been nearly as rampant in the immediate years following the Hayes Code that folks who would be ready to fight the Hayes Code could not because they were immediately banned from doing any work in Hollywood at all. And how much these days blockbuster Hollywood is under the thumb of US government and military propaganda preventing expression of sexuality. Have more sex scenes, have more sex scenes in independant cinema…chip away at the grip blockbuster is under. Normalize bodies for children! Anyway. Fantastic piece Drew!

  10. I really dislike sex scenes personally (I think it might be because I’m demisexual), and I think there are enough of them – just not queer ones. I wish there could be more of those and fewer straight ones… But maybe that’s selfish.

    • Honestly? Yes, it is.

      It’s 100% okay to not enjoy sex scenes, and there should definitely be movies that don’t have any, whether straight, queer, or a combination of the two. Creators who don’t want to include sex scenes in their stories shouldn’t have to. But this is an article about censorship – about how creators who do want to include sex scenes in their stories are being pushed out of doing so, and how that contributes to a media landscape where the only people getting to show sex are the ones with mainstream approval (which means the queer sex will be less authentic and the straight sex will be more likely to follow restrictive cultural scripts). Sometimes having less censorship means that people will have to take a more active role in filtering out content they don’t personally like, and that’s okay.

  11. I don’t know, we talk about censorship etc… but I think this is also a labour rights issue? We talk about intimacy co-ordinators as if they solve all the problems, but if you pay attention to the experience of many actresses that is not actually true.

    I think there needs to be more nuance on both sides of this discussion, like obviously the answer is not no more sex in movies ever. However for me as a woman coming of age in the 2000’s it is hard to say that the volume of sex on screen was a net positive, especially when much of it was actually depicting sexual violence and not sex.

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