Sex Scenes Are So Back — and Better

It's not a secret that explicit sex scenes in films have been on the decline for the past 20 years. In fact, a recent Stephen Follows film industry study found erotica in feature films had fallen by almost 40 percent since the start of the century.

The "Marvelization" of cinema, that is, the lack of horniness in Marvel movies despite their overtly sexual nature, has been slowly creeping into film genres across the board. A 2019 Playboy study found that only one out of every 100 movies released in the 2010s showed people having sex — less than any decade since the 1960s. Even younger generations are less inclined to explore desire onscreen and prefer intimacy centered around platonic relationships.

But now, explicit films such as "Poor Things," "Love Lies Bleeding," and "The Idea of You" are sending a clear message: Hollywood is hornier than ever.

The viral "Saltburn" bathtub scene set the internet ablaze in both horror and curiosity. In "Poor Things," third-wave feminist portrayals of sexual exploration lifted Emma Stone's character, Bella Baxter, into a state of liberation. The revenge thriller "Love Lies Bleeding" excited queer audiences with its depiction of "real sex," marking a hopeful era of queer erotic representation on screen. Not to mention "Challengers" and its highly reviewed ménage à trois situation which edged viewers through scenes of unacknowledged sexual tension.

There's a clear tug of war between proponents of erotic scenes and staunch opponent groups like puriteens — in other words, extremely anti-sex, chronically online youth. Despite a significant portion of Gen Z not showing enthusiasm for increased sexual content, it's possible that they simply haven't been exposed to the best representations yet.

Eroticism in cinema has been mainly centered around the male gaze, negating female pleasure entirely. (See: "Fifty Shades of Grey.") Perhaps Gen Z desires something different; films akin to "Love Lies Bleeding" with organic chemistry and natural sex that aligns more with their own experiences. Recent box office films have been displaying sex in a way that's mostly welcomed by younger audiences. It's almost as if we've been desiring sex all along but just now discovered what we want it to look like.

As our thirst for desire is being quenched it leads us to ask the question: Are sex scenes making a comeback? The work of intimacy coordinators may be to thank.


Experts Featured in This Article

Arielle Zadok is certified intimacy coordinator and sexologist.


How Do Intimacy Coordinators Facilitate Sex Scenes?

Intimacy coordinators — liaisons between actors, producers and directors for scenes involving nudity and any sexual exposure of actors — have been popping up in Hollywood since the early 2010s, most notably after the #MeToo movement.

"Coordinators help performers get clear on the director's vision by helping production understand a performer's boundaries, collaborating with other departments and making sure consent and creativity are ever present," says intimacy coordinator Arielle Zadok.

Recent films like "Challengers," "Love Lies Bleeding," and "The Idea of You" all had intimacy coordinators on set helping guide actors, with actors Zendaya and Kristen Stewart sharing how helpful these coordinators were in facilitating meaningful scenes.

Zadok points out that while it's difficult to pinpoint specific moments influenced by intimacy coordinators, having one on set is highly beneficial in scenarios where there's a pairing of a household name with a less renowned actor, as seen in "The Idea of You." A coordinator helps navigate these dynamics as smoothly as possible.

Intimacy coordinators are the breath of fresh air needed to not only keep performers safe but also push women's pleasure to the forefront on screen. Zadok explains that most sex scenes of the past involved a kiss, ripping off clothes, and simultaneous orgasm through penetration, which we know is not how most people with vulvas orgasm.

"Films before the last couple of years will likely follow that same script, which in and of itself is a misrepresentation of female pleasure," Zadok adds. "Creating authentic storytelling and centering female pleasure is important if we want to close the orgasm gap in real life."

As we've witnessed a cultural shift toward consent and representation, the erotica we consume is following suit. Take "Challengers," for example, which provided every clue to lead us into the theater expecting a steamy motel threesome, yet left us entirely reliant on our imagination. The "don't kiss and tell" plotline, though criticized by some for its lack of explicit sex, received overwhelmingly positive reactions, tapping into a fresh take on romance as viewers were forced to put together the pieces for themself.

Zadok explains we're seeing more and more filmmakers play with eroticism that doesn't require nudity or explicit sex scenes to get audiences' hearts pumping. "When you look at the sex lives of real people, eroticism, sensuality and that slow build up to arousal are often missing so when we get to see that in a film and let our imaginations do the rest, it can be deeply satisfying. We're seeing our foreplay fantasies played out for us as opposed to watching a scene that may lack elements that activate desire or make it believable."

As the curtains close on Hollywood's chastity phase, audiences are witnessing a complete reincarnation of on-screen erotica. And it's just the beginning.

The Future of Sex Scenes

The new era of sex scenes brings actors, performances, and audiences the power to create the representation they want to see. Filmmakers have the chance to showcase more desired narratives on the big screen through creative adaptations like we saw in "Challengers."

For Zadok, intentionality is at the forefront of her work, exciting her to see where the industry is headed. "I think we will see more eroticism, more authentic inclusion of different sexualities, genders, relationship styles, and even more kink and BDSM," she says. "When we see nudity or simulated sex, it will be far more intentional than it ever was in the past. With the help of intimacy coordinators, we'll be able to do all this and more."

Viewers should anticipate more respectful and representative portrayals of intimacy alongside more realistic adaptations of what sex actually looks like. With the help of intimacy coordinators, the rebirth of sex scenes has to include everything that happens off-screen as well: younger audiences can find reassurance in knowing that the films they're watching are now most likely prioritizing consent with actors able to communicate their boundaries openly.

Sex scenes are back, but not like they were before. Instead, they're transforming to reflect desires for more respectful and authentic intimacy. This era suggests a promising shift towards more inclusive cinema where on-screen intimacy can feel empowering and enlightening for all.


Jillian Angelini (she/her) is a sexual wellness and lifestyle journalist with words in PS, Bustle, Betches, MindBodyGreen, and more. She runs the queer advice column "The B Spot" on Betches.com and specifically enjoys writing about sex, relationships, and anything involving the queer experience.