Oppenheimer has been one of 2023’s bigger successes at the box office, and it’s a surprise hit of sorts. It’s an R-rated biopic centering on the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It also features sex scenes. One occurs amid Oppenheimer’s grilling amid a panel and features a fantasy sequence of Kitty imagining her husband having sex with Jean Tatlock when she hears this revelation. The other occurs prior when Oppenheimer states his iconic quote right as Jean starts having sex with him.
In terms of filmmaking, these scenes are masterfully assembled. They portray a sense of eroticism and guilt that punctuate what makes Oppenheimer continue down his path of presumed progress. It was also bold for Christopher Nolan to film such scenes in IMAX for a big-budget movie. While not the most erotic scenes compared to the gutsier films that delve face-first into sexuality, they are much appreciated from a mainstream movie that many movie-goers will watch, even if they had to double-bill it with Barbie.
But even in the 21st century, sex still seems to be far too “icky” for the mainstream movie crowd. Amid the Oppenheimer discussion of the sex scene, one woman voiced her “strategy” for handling how her husband was “triggered” by the sex scene. Those not favoring to witness sex on the screen are fair. But what do you expect from a film rated R where its rating is attributed to “sexuality, nudity and language”?
Sex is not a foreign film element, at least for those who watch more than mainstream movies. Just this year, I watched David Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, a cerebral horror that features graphic orgies as the protagonist descends into a weird world where crimes have no consequences. When a handful of the prudes happened upon this film early in the year, showcasing their uncomfortable feelings at the sight of bare breasts and sex scenes on screen, there was a mild pushback by the seasoned viewer, remarking, “Y’all are just too sensitive to sex in movies.”
Was that harsh? Maybe, but this is a conversation that keeps coming up. Recently, news broke of Yargos Lathimos’s new movie Poor Things being a movie loaded with sex. It shouldn’t be surprising since its source material is a book that essentially asks, “What if Frankenstein’s monster explored sexuality?” A particular Twitter account (found via user wtflanksteak) posted about how this film was not for them when they heard of this news via The Guardian. But it didn’t end there. The poster continued to bring up how modern audiences don’t want to see sex in their movies and that the only reason sex was even in movies is that porno was not as readily available.
At the risk of being dismissive, this is a very dim way to look at sex in movies. The response to a modern film featuring sex with the childish, “What, don’t you know about Pornhub?” is not only a demeaning reduction of sexuality but a misunderstanding of the inclusion of sex in movies. Do people seriously think the only reason sex is included in a film is so an audience can masturbate to boobies on the big screen?
To a horny teen or childish adult, this may be the mindset. There’s a stuffy notion that sex should only be relegated behind closed doors and hidden pornographic films, as though it’s a mark of shame that can only peak its head into pop culture via innuendo. A joke about a car being an extension of a man’s penis is a commonly acceptable gag as it can fit into a mainstream PG-13 film. But when an actual penis is used in a gag, now the film has gone too far.
The aversion to sex in movies and television has created this deeply bizarre perspective where there’s a lack of consent. Some viewers, mostly Christian conservatives, have remarked that watching a sex scene in a movie is akin to being a voyeur and that the same level of disgust and shame should be felt. It’s not even close to voyeurism. The people you watch undress and get it on in a movie or show have consented to appear on screen. Relax, you’re not going to jail for seeing penetration in Antichrist.
Yes, there are some examples where sex scenes have not been handled well, but the solution for the prudes is not to have better scrutiny in direction and the need for intimacy coordinators to make these scenes proceed better. A handful of exploitation is all they need to cry that sex scenes have no place in movies. What’s even sadder is that most mainstream audiences have grown used to sex either being non-existent in their films or presented in the most vanilla manner possible.
It’s very telling that we are now 32 films deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and have only had one sex scene that wasn’t just implied. The scene is from Eternals (2021), and it’s a brief moment of intercourse between Sersi and Ikaris. It’s not much, but for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s probably as far as they’ll go until the studio can embrace R-rated displays of love. It’s a progressive scene, but progressive in that you watch a runner finally complete a marathon after everyone finished twenty minutes ago.
If you seriously have some aversion to sex in movies, and it’s not just some prudish conservative cry, I’ve got some good news for you. The MPAA has a rating system that informs you of what’s in the movie. If a film is rated R, it usually comes with a little box that tells you why it’s rated R. If you see the R-rated elements list includes “sexual situations” and “nudity,” then steer away. You don’t have to watch it; nobody is forcing you to do so.
But wait, Oppenheimer is a big blockbuster movie! Everybody will be watching it, so I should watch it as well. Can’t the film remove that sex scene I find icky?
You’re an adult and can decide if you don’t want to see a movie. Adults should be able to watch films that feature sex without having the picture pruned for the prudish. If you don’t like sex in movies, Oppenheimer isn’t for you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What is wrong is this constant cry to remove sex from films under the guise of it being “unnecessary” for a film. This argument is garbage because of the crowd who get uncomfortable any time a penis or boob pops out on the screen, EVERY sex scene is unnecessary to them. There are areas worth questioning in films where the sex is inexplicable, carries a male gaze, or depicts rape that is worth debating. But that’s a conversation the sex-negative folks are not willing to have; no sex is their only option.
As Roger Ebert once stated, a film is not about what it is about but how it goes about it. A film with sex in it is not necessarily a bad film, and yes, that can include movies with rape. Perhaps the film showcases how a sex scene changed a relationship or how rape became a horrific act that altered the characters and their progression. Maybe the sex led to a silly scene or was a genuine display of love. There is much to consider with how sex is presented beyond the surface-level taboo nature. That’s the conversation I want, not the childish question of, “Are sex scenes voyeurism?”
There’s also nothing wrong with a sex scene being genuinely erotic, where you find yourself turned on by what’s on screen. There seems to be this weird aversion to being turned on in movies, as though anything erotic on the screen will compel you to whip out your penis right there in the theater and start beating off.
If that’s your thought process, fucking grow up. There have been plenty of erotic films that have gone to theaters, and the adults in attendance didn’t treat the theater like their masturbation habitat.
I seriously think more adults need to get exposed to more sex scenes in films. When I was at the screening of Bohemian Rhapsody, there was a scene where Freddie Mercury was making out with a man. The older gentleman behind me started groaning in disbelief. He couldn’t believe two men were kissing on the screen, almost as if he never knew the history of Freddie Mercury going into this film. As the make-out scene progressed, his groaning got louder and louder. The rest of the audience eventually told him to shut the fuck up, and the childish adult kept his mouth shut for the rest of the movie.
So, yes, we need more sex scenes in movies. We need to make sex a more open element of films for adults, lest we have to listen to some coddled elder writhe in their seat when there’s homosexual kissing on the screen. Repressing sex scenes will only make them bubble in demand to the point where ultra-conservative prudes will further censor them from all movies. That’s a stepping stone to fascism that shouldn’t be entertained, or, at the very least, a sexless media landscape.
Movies need more sex. And if that seems fucked up to you, take the advice of John Waters: “Get more out of life. See a fucked up movie.”