Down With Sex Scenes?

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Paramount Pictures


We see sex scenes in film and television every day, and we hardly give them a second thought. But what about the actors that perform them? Is it no big deal? Apparently, it is to some. Actor Neal McDonough, a married father of three children, was fired from the cast of the new show Scoundrels for refusing to do a sex scene.

McDonough's decision raises lots of questions. First of all, is there a double standard here for men and women? If it had been a woman who was fired for refusing to simulate sex with a co-star, would the focus been on her, or the producers who wanted to use her body against her will?

Also, would anyone care if an actor refused to play the role of a rapist or a torturer? Unlikely. Provided that there are other opportunities, actors undoubtedly turn down roles that they find repugnant. But sex scenes and partial nudity are so common that refusing them could potentially ruin a career.

In the film Indecent Proposal, a billionaire played by Robert Redford offers a married woman $1 million to spend the night with him. After much indecision, she accepts his offer, but many members of the audience would have chosen differently. After all, why jeopardize a healthy marriage for money, even a lot of it? Is the source of happiness an abundance of love, or a pile of money?

But the McDonough case is different. He doesn't need to have sex with his co-actor to get a big paycheck. He can just fake it and make it look convincing. Since it's not really sex, what's the big deal here? Can't he have the love of his wife and children, as well as a huge payday?

Well, can he? Actors have a dual identity as fictional characters and as private citizens. They play many different roles, evoking a wide range of emotions, behaviors, and mindsets that they do not ordinarily display in their personal lives. They have to turn off these identities in order to sleep well at night. But so do soldiers, surgeons, and social workers. It's all part of the job.

It appears, however, that actors run unusual emotional and personal risks for the sake of entertaining their viewers. If you doubt that, just take note of the train wrecks of relationships that grace the covers of weekly magazines. Maybe Neal McDonough is acting in his best interests and those of his family rather simply doing what he is told.

Let's imagine McDonough did this scene. The intimacy he shares with his co-star would be publicly accessible, while the intimacy he shares with his wife would be private. When his children go to school, their classmates would talk about how their father appeared to be having sex on TV. They would be subject to taunts like, "That actress is a lot hotter than your mom!" or "Your dad is such a player!"

McDonough's wife might struggle with the same questions that Woody Harrelson's character had in Indecent Proposal: "What did that feel like? Did you enjoy it? Would you rather be with him than with me?" Being the spouse of an actor must be challenging in any case, and scripted sex scenes can only add to the emotional turmoil of marriage.

Is there an alternative for actors unwilling to play these roles? Of course! Sexuality is an important part of human identity and merits exploration through artistic expression, but so do many other qualities. The popularity of sports, and films about sports, are good examples of the celebration of non-sexual human activity (with the exception of professional golf currently). Also, stories that contain a great adventure or quest, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, portray humans pushing themselves to their limits to acquire something of immense value.

Other examples include Will Smith's movie Pursuit of Happyness, which describes how far a single parent is willing to go for the sake of his son, and Seven Pounds, which portrays enormous self-sacrifice to redeem oneself after a terrible mistake. There are undoubtedly many other great stories that have not been told due to the saturation of trivial relationships and superficial romance in film and television.

We can even explore love, romance, and relationships in great depth without focusing on the bedroom. For example, what makes the movie Once so memorable is the fact that the characters don't sleep with each other. Glen Hasnard, a heartbroken street musician, meets a quirky but charming woman with great musical talent of her own, and they quickly feel an attraction. But when he proposes they sleep together, she completely shuts him down. The story that ensues is a powerful, creative, bittersweet relationship that ends neither in the bedroom nor in marriage. We want them to be together, but our fantasy is not fulfilled. The actual ending is real, raw, and wonderful.

Sex sells. But it is often so predictable, pervasive, and scripted that it overloads and numbs our senses. For sex in mainstream TV and film to be really engaging, maybe we should have less, not more of it. Perhaps Neal McDonough is doing us a favor by reminding us that there is much more to acting than sex scenes.

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Thomas Burnett is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has degrees in philosophy and history from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.

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