In ‘Challengers,’ No Sex Is Good Sex

In Challengers, Luca Guadaginino’s smutty sports drama starring Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, and Mike Faist, climaxes only happen on the court.

For a film that’s marketed itself as an erotic thriller (writer Justin Kuritzkes prefers that label over the “romance drama” descriptor) one teased by critics as the sexiest movie of the year, filled with combustible chemistry and wildly sensual imagery, Challengers serves up what, to some, might seem like a small amount of actual sex scenes. And for fans flocking to theaters fueled by claims that the movie does for churros what Call Me By Your Name did for peaches, that realization might be jarring.

Hollywood has long conditioned audiences’ expectations of intimacy and desire on the big screen. If one buys a ticket for the latest superhero team up, one expects to see attractive actors neutered by tightly-fitting spandex. (These are the movies that birthed the current “everyone is beautiful and no one is horny” cinematic trend.) But if one buys a ticket for a film starring two slicked-up submissive “little white boys” willing to tank their friendship and careers in order to exist in Zendaya’s orbit, one expects a bit more grand slamming. Because, after all, when it comes to sex, it’s one or the other, all or nothing, the difference between a PG-13 rating and an R label that speaks to the adults only crowd.

But while Challengers’ trailers promised threesomes set to the backdrop of a Rihanna BDSM song, its theatrical reality might’ve left fans with a painful case of metaphorical blue balls.And you know what? The film is all the sexier for it. If there’s one takeaway Challengers leaves us with after two hours of charged eye contact and heavy petting disguised as power plays and repressed Queer longing it’s this: Luca Guadagnino is pro-edging.

Whether he’s teasing us with a menage-a-trois attempt in a dingy motel room or dangling an over-the-clothes fondling session in a college dorm, the director understands that unrealized desire is often more exciting than anything that follows. Sex is everywhere and nowhere in Challengers. It spurs Tashi to cheat on her fiancé in a swanky hotel lounge. It sparks some adulterous contortionism in the backseat of a beat-up compact SUV. Hell, it even turns an Applebee’s parking lot into a hot hookup spot. It’s there on the periphery, acting as both threat and reward while a tennis prodigy masterfully manipulates the game to suit her needs, reminding audiences that foreplay is everything.

If we’ve forgotten that, blame the ’90s. Or, more accurately, those ’90s erotic thrillers that made bets on a teenager’s virginity and pushed women to murder their lovers, men to take up voyeurism as a hobby, and psychos to grope Reese Witherspoon on a high-speed rollercoaster. For so long, cinema conflated eroticism with provocativeness, assuming that, for a film to be sexy, it needed to shock by showing everything. Its characters needed to be motivated by carnal desires. Sex needed to be the point.

In Challengers, Guadaginino imagines a different definition for the erotic thriller, one that courts chaos by taunting audiences with the unseen. Did Tashi and Patrick hook up years prior? Did its male leads sexually experiment with each other as teens? Did these characters want to fuck up each other’s lives, or did they simply want to fuck? The questions are sometimes more interesting than the answers, and they’re asked not by zooming in on soaked bodies horizontally splayed, but with churros, bananas, dick-swinging sauna sit-downs, and sweaty Gatorade-chugging marathons.

Guadaginino is a savant when it comes to Queer imagery, littering his pro-throuple work of art with suggestive symbolism meant to arouse audiences and cause us to suspect the true motives behind its main characters’ actions. Sure, in 2024, a mainstream movie that serves up some polyamory certainly could have had less offensive towel-placements. But for anyone arguing that the Queer eroticism of Challengers is simply for show, a nod to audiences hungry to read into subtext that filmmakers are too lazy to explore, we respectfully disagree. To understand the dynamics of the relationship between Tashi, Art, and Patrick, we need to see the unfulfilled sexual tension that undercuts the close friendship these two men have enjoyed for years – long before a woman entered the picture. Patrick’s comfortability in terms of his own sexuality is at odds with Art’s more repressed nature, hence his friend’s need to tease and taunt him with penis-shaped foods and intimate touches. Patrick, like Tashi, is constantly pushing Art out of his comfort zone, he just chooses to use sex to do it. And for Art, that confusion Patrick stokes leads to resentment, something he unleashes in the film’s sauna scene. He knows his friend cares about him on a deeper level, even after so many years apart, and he uses that affection – something Patrick’s always shown Art – to cut him down a size before their final showdown.

Challengers is a film that vibrates with sexual energy – from its pulsing techno soundtrack to its intimate cinematography to the many innuendos its use of food and cigarettes and racquets inspires. It teaches us how to do sex right, without actually doing sex at all. If anything, the lack of sex in the film is proof that, while no one would argue against watching hot people banging it out on screen, movies can arouse without being so obvious about it.

In Challengers, everyone is beautiful and everyone is horny… that’s kind of the whole point.