Stand-ins, CGI and intimacy co-ordinators: what’s the future of the sex scene?

Written by Katie Rosseinsky

Jonah Hill and Lauren London’s snog in You People was reportedly rendered using CGI, while Lindsay Lohan used a stand-in for kisses in rom-com Falling For Christmas. Is intimacy on screen in danger? 

The handprint on a steamed-up car window in Titanic. The rawness of Blue Valentine, or the explosive chemistry in Carol. Sex scenes like these have provided some of the most memorable and talked-about moments in screen history. Whether they are romantic or titillating, earnest or played for laughs,they have always been a significant, often powerful part of the cinematic experience.

Or so it seemed. Recently, the on-screen sex scene has been up for debate. You star Penn Badgley made headlines earlier this month, revealing that he had asked the Netflix show’s creator if he could “do no more intimacy scenes” – citing “fidelity” to wife Domino Kirke as a major factor in his decision. The end result, Badgley noted, was “a phenomenal reduction” in on-screen sex, making You’s fourth season a comparatively chaste one.

His comments opened the floodgates for online conversations around eroticism. Words like “gratuitous” and “uncomfortable” cropped up over and over again; some commentators, it seemed, would prefer that storytellers bypass intimacy altogether. “I hate nudity in TV shows,” one Twitter user wrote. “Nothing more awkward than feeling like you walked into a room of people having sex. It never propels the story forward and it’s uncomfortable whether you’re with your parents, boyfriend, or friends.” 

Then came a flurry of stories about actors using movie magic to fake intimacy. Jonah Hill and Lauren London’s climactic snog in Netflix’s You People was reportedly rendered using CGI. “I see them go in for the kiss and their faces stop,” said co-star Andrew Schulz. “But in the movie, you could see their faces come close, and then you can see their faces morph a little bit into a fake kiss.” Lindsay Lohan, too,used a stand-in for kisses in her romcom comeback Falling For Christmas. It all seemed to point to a rather puritanical outlook for the film industry’s future. So how did we get here – and could the sex scene really soon be an endangered species?

“The representation of sex in Hollywood has fluctuated over the last century,” says Dr Alice Guilluy, postgraduate programmes interim leader at MetFilm School and author of Guilty Pleasures: European Audiences And Contemporary Hollywood Romantic Comedy. “Film holds up a mirror to society, so that representation has generally been in line with social progress.” When birth control became widely available in the 1960s, for example, it “had a significant influence on the romantic comedy genre, since it meant characters didn’t need to wait until marriage to have sex”.

Progress, though, hasn’t always been linear. Guilluy explains that while the films of the 1920s and early 30s “often featured much more liberated female characters”, this came to a halt in 1934, when the Motion Picture Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was enforced, imposing “significant restrictions on the representation of sex on screen”. 

Nudity was outlawed, and even married movie couples were forced to sleep in twin beds. “Miscegenation”, a deeply derogatory term used to refer to relationships between mixed-race couples, and “any inference of sex perversion” (in other words, allusion to same-sex desire) were banned too. When commentators espouse a sex-free film industry, then, they are treading eerily close to the Hays Code’s throwback moralising, rooted in old-fashioned gender roles, racism and homophobia.

Screenwriter and MetFilm School tutor Helena Medina fears that there has been an “involution”, rather than an evolution, when it comes to sex on film in recent years: “We’re now immersed in a morally conservative era where sex scenes are banned with different excuses, many of them alluding to women’s dignity.” The result, she believes, could be a stigmatisation of female desire. “There’s an implicit assumption that women, when it comes to sex, are always victims, both as characters/actors and as spectators,” she explains. 

Puritanism can be dressed up as protection, Medina argues. “What is presented as a step forward in women’s freedom, is in fact a prejudiced step back in the service of the interests of the conservative powers now in vogue.”

It’s interesting, Guilluy says, “to think about why we might be going through a similar regression in terms of representation now”. Entertainment powerhouses like Marvel, whose muscle-bound superheroes fly through a sex-free world like jacked-up Ken dolls, want their films to be family-friendly; passion-free crowd-pleasers reliably perform well at the international box office.

And if, as Guilluy notes, film reflects reality back at us, any potential antipathy to sex scenes might just be yet more evidence of Gen Z’s so-called ‘sex recession’. According to recent research from Rutgers University and the University at Albany, people aged between 18 and 23 in 2017 had significantly less casual sex than the previous generation: 24% of participants had hooked up with someone who wasn’t a long-term partner in the year 2017, compared to 38% of young adults in the same age group in 2007.

If this all paints a rather bleak future for passion on screen, fear not. The outlook for intimacy on screen is more nuanced – and more exciting – than social media would have us believe. That’s in no small part thanks to the revolutionary work of intimacy coordinators. Since the #MeToo movement emerged in 2017, they have become an essential part of film or TV production. Ita O’Brien, the founder of Intimacy On Set, was the first to work in the UK, supporting the young cast on the set of Sex Education’s first two seasons. Now, her CV includes stints on shows like Gentleman Jack, Normal People, It’s A Sin and I May Destroy You (TV, it’s worth noting, these days seems much more comfortable depicting sex)along with films like Magic Mike’s Last Dance and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  

O’Brien’s work involves “talking [performers] through” an intimate or challenging scene, “rehearsing and then supporting on set”. That might mean having a discussion about what an actor is or isn’t prepared to do in a sex scene. “What’s great is that then, through this process, an actor is able to call their boundaries to say, ‘I’m happy with this, I’m not happy with this’,” O’Brien says. “Then the choreography can be created.”

Boundaries come up again and again, whether those are lines within a scene that shouldn’t be crossed, or boundaries that a performer can impose at the end of the day when filming comes to an end. Safe Sets co-founder Kate Lush, who has worked on shows like Raised By Wolves, Brave New World and 1923, says she often considers how actors can “book-end the experience and enter into the space of play [for the scene], then step out of it at the end”. 

Increasingly, the support offered by intimacy coordinators extends not just to cast but to crew. Below-the-line workers, O’Brien points out, often won’t have read a script in advance, but if a scene deals with difficult subject matter, “anybody… might find that image or those sounds, even, disturbing”.

In light of the work of professionals like Lush and O’Brien, comments like Badgley’s make more sense. The actor isn’t calling for an outright ban on screen sex; he’s simply opening up about what works for him and his wife. O’Brien recalls a similar example from a recent production, collaborating with a married actor who laid out his “main stipulations” about where he would and wouldn’t feel safe to touch his scene partner(and be touched in turn). “You can still have all the intimate content that you want, and still have the imprints of the right storytelling, but still clearly choreographing, respecting everybody’s desires.”

These discussions are increasingly common, Lush says. She shares an anecdote from one recent project, the third season of a TV show. After the stars told her they were “over” sex scenes, she had a frank conversation with the showrunners. The gist? “Unless you can really justify why they’re in there in terms of storytelling, [the actors] don’t want to do them.” When she looked at the finished scripts, “I’d say about 50% of the scenes that were there in the beginning were removed or modified or just reconsidered, relative to actor comfort”. The fact that actors now feel able to have a potentially awkward chat, both she and O’Brien agree, is a step forward for the sex scene – and so is the fact that bosses are taking these comments seriously.

From this angle, a reduction in sex scenes isn’t a bad thing – not if the scenes we do get are better crafted, and the people involved feel empowered by their work. Consider it a quality over quantity approach, one that makes us viewers more ethical consumers.A sex scene carefully choregraphed by an intimacy coordinator, too, can spark vital conversations off-screen: think of how Marianne and Connell’s first time in Normal People got people talking about enthusiastic consent, or any number of Sex Education’s spin-off plotlines. And, of course, sex scenes can simply provide the heat that drives a story – and there’s nothing shameful about that. Think of the recent adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or a show like Industry, where the charged intimate scenes become part of the exploration of power dynamics. 

As for the brave new world of CGI snogging? O’Brien says her job is to support an actor to develop a character, and a connection with others, that’s “full of desire, yearning, love, lust. I don’t believe a CGI kiss can do that… If you want to have something that’s going to hit you into the gut and be literally heartfelt, you can’t get away from human, brilliant actors.” 

For her, sex scenes are not about projecting a glossy, perfect image, but “opening out the authenticity and the reality of who we are in our intimate lives… [so] we can make better intimate scenes and tell more real storytelling”. The future of the sex scene, it seems, is in safe hands.  

Images: Netflix

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