When Penn Badgley revealed he’d asked producers on his hit Netflix show You to cut down the number of on-screen intimacy scenes required of his character – the serial-killing, book-loving, window-peeping Joe Goldberg — it reignited a debate that’s been raging for decades. Some fans bemoaned both Badgley’s choice and his reasoning for it – the importance of fidelity in his real-life marriage to Domino Kirke-Badgley. They accused the actor of conflating the performance of intimacy, choreographed and consented to, with the actual act of adultery. Others applauded Badgley for standing firm in his values and setting personal boundaries on set. The terminally online used the controversy to unseal a can of worms that have been squirming beneath our society’s puritanical foundations for quite a while now.
Is there too much sex on screen?
The answer to that question is, as it’s always been, relative. To the shows you watch. The streaming platforms you subscribe to. The movies you buy tickets to see. It’s also biased – based on an individual’s attitudes towards sex and nudity that the industry as a whole just can’t afford to cater to. It’s a pointless query to ask with an unsatisfying answer, hence why it continues to pop up every few years.
The more interesting question is why now? Why, with the rise of intimacy coordinators, the praise heaped upon sex scenes filmed with the female gaze in mind, and the abundance of storytellers centering women’s sexual experiences on-screen (the good, the bad, and the downright awkward), are we dipping back into this bone-dry discourse well.
With so much progress made, why are we bothered by seeing sex on screen now?
I thought Badgley’s retroactive version of an intimacy rider would be the viral hook of this story when it was pitched weeks ago. But then, Swarm happened. The psychological thriller on Amazon Prime is filled to the brim with violence, gore, drugs, cults, and Beyonce references but the most performative pearl-clutching on social media happened in response to actress Chloe Bailey’s brief sex scene in the show’s premiere episode. Save a glimpse of her bare buttocks and co-star Damson Idris’ chest, there was barely any nudity and minimal dialogue – most of it moans and grunts happening off-camera as the audience zeroed in on Dre’s (Dominique Fishback) reaction to watching the romp. It was uncomfortable to sit through, cringe-worthy even, not because it depicted two consenting partners engaging in sex in the privacy of ones’ home but because of Dre’s fascination with and apathy towards the act.
Still, the blowback landed at Bailey’s feet with fans questioning why she’d consent to having sex on screen and making misogynistic comments that felt, well, gross. Idris’ involvement in the scene, interestingly enough, was never brought up. The reactionary takes felt reminiscent of early aughts attitudes when slut-shaming was still en vogue and sex sold, but only if it satisfied the male ego.
“For so long, people have been told that there is one ‘goal’ when having sex, and that is to please your male partner if you are in a heterosexual relationship – which, let’s face it, has been the norm in most TV or movie programming in recent decades,” Shan Boodram, a sex educator and Bumble’s Sex and Relationship expert, tells UPROXX.
Sex on screen has a long and storied history – from the enforcement of the Hays Code, which meant even married couples on screen had to sleep in separate twin beds and couldn’t utter the word “pregnant” on air (see I Love Lucy), to the revolutionary (yet still flawed) depictions gifted by Carrie Bradshaw and her group of unapologetically horny friends on HBO’s Sex and the City, to Lena Dunham’s Girls, a show that depicted intimacy in all its various shapes and sizes, a pedestrian element of living instead of a bit of salacious ratings tinder.
But only recently has female pleasure been pushed to the forefront.
“We are really looking at sex on screen through a different lens now than the one that we were before,” Intimacy Coordinator Lizzy Talbot tells UPROXX. “Our perspective on what makes a good sex scene has changed dramatically. We’re not just seeing heterosexual penetrative sex anymore where there’s an orgasm of both people from penetrative sex very quickly. We’re seeing a lot more foreplay, we’re seeing a lot more buildup. We’re seeing real relationships being reflected on screen, which I don’t think that they really were to this point before.”
Shows like Bridgerton (which Talbot works on) and Sex Education have not only made sex enjoyable to watch on screen for female-identifying audiences, they’ve educated viewers on aspects of intimacy that aren’t talked about enough. Talbot says that, although she sees occasional negativity on social media from show watchers, it’s the scenes that teach us something – about female pleasure or the steamy acts covered under the wide umbrella of “sex” – that get the biggest response.
“You can talk about sex, but then when you see it, and when you see it done in a really positive way with lots of consent involved, I think that’s what has an impact,” Talbot says. “Where do you see excellent portrayals of consent in sex [i.e. partners discussing their boundaries, kinks, and rules for safety] on screen prior to 2017 and 2018? There’s not that much out there.”
Boodram echoes that sentiment.
“I think we are very accustomed to seeing women enjoy sex on screen but through the lens of what brings pleasure to a man,” she adds. “To me, a lot of mainstream media sex is often a fantasy world where sex is catered to a man’s sexual needs, and somehow everything he likes is exactly what she desires. I think the difference now is that the media is showing that women can receive pleasure in ways that don’t directly benefit men or their egos.”
So, if shows like Insecure and Harlem (two examples Boodram lists as doing sex well on screen) and romance series like Outlander and Normal People are finally getting female pleasure right – why the renewed outcry over sex on screen?
“What I think is happening is the quality of sex is rising as opposed to the quantity,” Talbot offers. “There’s a big conversation around parity on screen” (i.e. male actors disrobing just as often as their female counterparts) “so there’s a conversation to be had regarding exposure versus sex. Because you can have a lot of sex scenes where people are almost entirely clothed. And I think the reaction to those might be different to those where the characters are fully nude.”
Parity is part of the rise in quality, obviously. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect to see a woman’s body on display during a sex scene but not a man’s. Still, the increase in prosthetic penises and full-frontal shots could be adding to the discomfort of viewers who aren’t used to desensitizing themselves to male bodies in the same way they are female bodies.
“I think many of us are seeing more intimacy than ever across TV and film: more diversity in the kinds of sex, more diversity in who has sex, and more diversity in the body parts shown on screen,” Boodram says. “This is truly a positive thing because we are straying away from the heteronormative model of how sex is depicted in media — kiss, kiss, clothes come off, penis goes in, cut to both people looking satisfied wrapped up in sheets — but because it’s new, it can seem scary or intimidating.”
It’s important then to investigate exactly what people are complaining about and ask why seeing women explore their sexuality on screen is so offensive.
“People are much more comfortable watching a murder than they sometimes are a sex scene,” Talbot laments. An on-the-nose-yet-completely-ludicrous idea considering how sexualized our culture is. The online backlash to sex scenes on screen isn’t going to change her role on set, or the content being made. “I’ve not seen the sex being axed because of a conversation on Twitter about too much sex on screen,” she assures me. “I think there’s so much invested in the creative that I don’t believe that those conversations are really impacting real-world storytelling.”
But the fact that one scene – like Bailey’s in Swarm – or one comment – like Badgley’s about You – can snowball into an avalanche of think pieces and Tik Toks and conservative talking points that pull focus from the sex-positive, femme-empowering depictions of intimacy happening on screen right now is still worrisome.
“As diverse representations of sexuality become more normalized over time, people may become more accepting and appreciative of seeing women’s pleasure on-screen in ways that don’t benefit the male ego,” Boodram says. “Discomfort shouldn’t be a barrier to pursuing diversity and gender equality when showcasing sexuality on-screen.”
And if watching women get off on screen at the same rate as men makes you uncomfortable, maybe you should ask yourself the same question we just did. Why?