Death of the Critic

Showing Sex

Written by: Tom Blaich

It is really hard to write a “good” sex scene. It’s even harder to show one on screen. It is so easy to slip into the realm of heady, erotic fantasy as two lovers caress each other’s heaving bosom’s and dripping sexes. Bad sex scenes make you almost uncomfortable. I did not sign up for
50 Shades of Grey in my fiction. Moreover it feels like a teenager’s perception of what sex is like between two people: romantic, well lit, clean, and perfect. When, for the most part, sex is just sexy. Funny and awkward and so many other things. Actual sex1 is so far removed from what you will see in your average movie to the point where I almost wish it wasn’t included.

Rarely do I watch or read a sex scene and come away thinking, “Yeah, they got that entirely right.” It is almost never an actually significant part of the plot or character development, and they feel like they were included simply to titillate the audience. It has become a cop out to show how attracted two people are to each other to have them have sex, as opposed to actually showing a complex relationship through good acting and writing.

It seems like there are three different ways that you will normally see sex. There is the awkward, lusty language of the dime store romance novel that your aunt likes to read at the kitchen table, full of poor sexual metaphor and cringe dialogue. Then there is the clinical detachment of a science textbook, where Character A inserts Tab 1 into Slot 1 of Character B. It feels more like a checklist as opposed to good writing, where the author thinks the only way they can get across that two people had sex is by saying that they had sex.

The third option is simply not showing sex at all, which adds an element of difficulty to the writing, but can make a more successful product. If you look at movies from the early to mid 20th century, you can find a lot of sex that isn’t sex. Characters about to fall into passion before the camera cuts away to something else. In Thomas C. Foster’s book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor2, he discusses this phenomenon in a section titled “It’s All About Sex…” where he breaks down the symbolism used to replace sex when authors felt they couldn’t show the dirty deed itself.

“These abstractions were necessary under the Hayes Code, which controlled content in Hollywood films from around 1935 until 1965, more or less, throughout the height of the studio system. The Hayes Code said a lot of different things, but the one we’re interested in was that you could stack bodies like cordwood if they were dead (although usually without blood), but living bodies couldn’t get horizontal together. Husbands and wives were nearly always shown in separate beds.” (Foster)

For more background, The Hays Code, also known as the “Motion Picture Production Code”, was a set of “guidelines” that enforced a sense of Christian morals on films made by major studios in the mid-20th century. First written in 1930 and strictly enforced starting in 1934, it was named after Will H. Hays, the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, which would later morph into our modern MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). The modern ratings system is an extension and adaptation of these rules, and you can see some of these rules still being partially enforced.

There are many sections of the code that interest us, but we will just point out a few:


II. Sex The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.
2. Scenes of Passion
  a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.
  b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.
  c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.
3. Seduction or Rape
  a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.
  b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.
4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.
5. White slavery shall not be treated.
6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.
7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.
8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.
9. Children's sex organs are never to be exposed.


VI. Costume 1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.
2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.
3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.
4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances
1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.
2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.


II. Sex Out of a regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home, the triangle, that is, the love of a third party for one already married, needs careful handling. The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution.
Scenes of passion must be treated with an honest acknowledgement of human nature and its normal reactions. Many scenes cannot be presented without arousing dangerous emotions on the part of the immature, the young or the criminal classes.
Even within the limits of pure love, certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation.
In the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law, the following are important:
1. Impure love must not be presented as attractive and beautiful.
2. It must not be the subject of comedy or farce, or treated as material for laughter.
3. It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
4. It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
5. It general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.

III. Vulgarity; IV. Obscenity; V. Profanity; hardly need further explanation than is contained in the Code.


Besides these rules, they also specifically call out the “effect of nudity or semi-nudity upon the normal man or woman, and much more upon the young and upon immature persons”, violence, criminals, etc. Interestingly enough, their rules on violence are much more lax. “Brutal Killings are not to be presented in detail” but “lustful kissing” is too much.

As you might imagine, creators were not fans of this limitation of expression, and they quickly went about pushing back against this system, seeing how far they cold stretch the limits before their were reined in. So you have creators coming up with some really inventive, if obvious ways to show that two characters had sex without really showing the realities of the deed. So you get something like this from the end of
North By Northwest:

“In one of the truly great cuts, Grant, who is struggling to hold Miss Saint on the rock face, is suddenly pulling her up into the sleeping compartment of the train (and referring to her as Mrs. Thornhill); this shot is followed by an equally famous one – the last shot of the film – of the train entering a tunnel.” (Foster)

It is about as explicit as one can get without showing something very pornographic. More explicit than two ambiguously naked characters thrusting their bodies together in the dark. By forcing these rules upon creators, they looked for a solution outside of the box. If you compare it to popular movies of today, you see scenes that are more designed to titillate without showing anything as opposed to actually forwarding the plot. Rarely does a sex scene actually work to add elements to the plot. This is occasionally the case, but it is by far the exception.

This is partly the fault of the MPAA and the modern rating system which has been shown to rate movies with homosexual acts more harshly than similar heterosexual acts (when asked in
This Film is Not Yet Rated, MPAA Vice President of Publicity stated, “we don't try to set the standards, we just try to reflect them”) and scenes in which women are receiving sexual pleasure are worse than scenes of men receiving the same pleasure (Think of how many movies show oral sex on men vs. women). It has created an environment where sex can’t be sex, turning it instead into a perversion of storytelling.

It would be interesting to see a return to the older styles of film making in regards to se. To see what ridiculous ways we can replace the act. Because let’s face it. Realistic sex is hard to do in film. The 2013 film
Blue is the Warmest Color, tried to have a meaningful love scene between the two main actresses, but instead of feeling like an important moment in they relationship, it felt like a seven-minute long lesbian sex scene out of an “artistic” softcore porn. It was a scene filmed for an audience’s viewing pleasure, not for a character’s development. Modern sex scenes are the male gaze being shown on screen.

I would love to see a realistic sex scene captured in film. All of the awkwardness, tenderness, laughter, and ecstasy recreated for an audience. Where the focus isn’t on who is watching but on the people who are doing the act. Sex that means something to a film.

1 - I will clarify that in this case I am talking about sex between two people in a relationship. Meaningless sex exists and might be closer to what you see in many movies, but for the purposes of this argument, we are going to be talking about the sex between two people in a relationship, which films love to show.

2 - Which I highly recommend reading as an introduction to critical reading and critical thought about media. It’s fantastic, and pretty damn cheap.


Foster, Thomas C. "16. It's All About Sex..." How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

This Film is Not Yet Rated



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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