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.