The Death of the Sex Scene

What we lose when intimacy gets added in postproduction.

Still from the film 'You People'
Parrish Lewis / Netflix

Here’s a theory: Forget sex, forget nudity, forget the soft-focus jazzy humping of Red Shoe Diaries and the silhouetted saliva strings from Top Gun. The history of film and television suggests that, sometimes, the sexiest thing two people can do on-screen is simply look at each other—look, for a prolonged period of time, until the air around them seems to spark; desire and be desired, in the same breath. Never mind the fact that we are watching too, projecting all of our own intentions and experiences into the charged negative space between the characters.

When we talk about the “chemistry” shared by two actors on-screen, we usually mean their ability to look at each other and make us believe in what they’re seeing. But in the recent Netflix movie You People, what’s striking is how little the two stars seem to see each other at all. Early in the film, Ezra (played by Jonah Hill) and Amira (Lauren London) have a microaggression-tinged meet-cute when he jumps into the back of her Mini under the assumption that she’s his Uber driver. He charms her, for no discernible reason other than that it’s in the script—it’s not quite right to say that, throughout, Hill gives off the vibe of a man with a gun to his head, but it’s also not right to say that he doesn’t. Ezra and Amira go on a lunch date and a series of outings where they look at anything except each other—sneakers, an art exhibition, something funny on someone’s phone. Viewers infer that the two are going to have sex via a shot of his besocked feet touching hers; the next morning, Amira tells Ezra that they’re exclusively dating while flossing her teeth, potentially the single least sexy thing one person can do in the presence of another.

The two characters have almost negative chemistry, which makes plausible the recent assertion by an actor in the film that the pair’s one kiss, right at the end of the movie, was computer generated in postproduction, supposedly because of COVID protocols. This might seem logical—we’re already living in a moment of deepfake porn, so why not deepfake make-out scenes, if all parties concerned give their consent? In fact, why not eliminate filmed love scenes altogether? The actor Penn Badgley, who stars in the Netflix series You, recently gave an interview to Variety in which he said that the fourth season of the show contains fewer sex scenes at his request, because they’d long made him uncomfortable. Actors typically dislike intimate scenes; directors have historically used them to abuse their power. If they went away, what would we actually lose?

Maybe everything. The thrilling intimacy of the reciprocated gaze used to be everywhere in film and television. It’s Cecilia and Robbie, in Atonement, getting caught in each other’s stare after she climbs, soaking wet, out of a fountain. It’s Monica finally meeting Quincy’s eyes and not being able to look away as he reaches for the strap of her dress in Love & Basketball. That interaction, by the way, is almost identical to one of the greatest televised sex scenes of all time: the moment when Connell and Marianne negotiate, in Normal People, how to make love for the first time, each looking at the other with the kind of curious erotic intensity that isn’t negated by laughter or even awkwardness. Virtually the entirety of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an experiment with the charged act of surveying, posing, and being seen. Even sitcoms can get it right—think Nick, staring at Jess with a distinctly uncomic desire after he unexpectedly kisses her for the first time on New Girl.

Without filmed explorations of romantic love and erotic desire, modern sex becomes largely defined by porn, which is as alien to real human experience as the Mission: Impossible—Fallout London-rooftop scene is to my daily commute. Porn pretends that sex is just simple mechanics: choreographed displays of body parts arranged in rote order, joyless and algorithmic. Its influence has bled into virtually every aspect of human life, including television, which has spent more time recently with loudly sex-positive docuseries than with imaginative portraits of reciprocal desire. Sex on TV too often feels fake, abstract, or corrupted: giant prosthetic penises on The White Lotus and Pam & Tommy; a pornucopia of pleasureless, disassociated sexual experiences on Euphoria; the grasping sexual dysfunction of Succession and Industry. Love Life, one of the few shows retrograde enough to parse romantic relationships between adults, has been canceled; another, Modern Love, is currently in limbo. Only Heartstopper and Never Have I Ever, explorations of love and identity among teenagers coming of age, are left to do the serious grown-up work of figuring out what people can mean to each other.

The lovelessness of contemporary pop culture is particularly strange when you consider what’s happening on TikTok: endless, thirsty celebration of romance in all forms, but particularly in fiction. BookTok has helped elevate Colleen Hoover, an author of unabashedly explicit and sincere stories about love and relationships, to the top of the best-seller list. Gen Z, Hoover’s publicist told NPR, is “a huge audience for romance,” in part because “their youth has been marked by global and social upset and unrest” in ways that leave them “looking for a happy ever after.” But Hoover’s success isn’t just about escapism: In her most-discussed book to date, It Ends With Us, she slowly reveals that her stereotypically alpha-male hero is also an abuser.

This is precisely why, I’d argue, we need more explorations of love, sex, and desire in art—because they’re fundamental elements of what it means to be human, to understand intimacy, to accept vulnerability, to be put at risk. Television, at the moment, is more likely to present sex in much the same way that porn does: as something achieved, someone conquered, a new level unlocked. Romantic fiction, at its best, proposes instead that sex can be about connection and affirmation, while also acknowledging complication, messiness, and damage. It suggests that people can meet as equals and enrich each other’s lives, not just plague themselves with affairs they’d rather forget. And for young women in particular, who have grown up with pornography that can present female sexuality as submissive, degrading, or painful, romantic fiction offers a world in which their pleasure is paramount.

But the appetites being served in fiction are largely being neglected at the multiplex: According to the Black List’s Kate Hagen, less than 1 percent of movies released in 2022 feature a sex scene, and the standard-bearing Magic Mike’s Last Dance—which depicts an incendiary mutual seduction between Salma Hayek Pinault and Channing Tatum—has sputtered at the box office, although not as badly as the heavily promoted gay rom-com Bros. When audiences have been conditioned to want only sexless Marvel movies, fully clothed Christopher Nolan epics, chaste action thrillers, and possibly cocaine bears, why take a chance on love? (Not for nothing does the unscripted Bennifer saga currently stand alone as the most all-consuming love story of our time.)

And yet, we need love stories, love scenes, portrayals of how people can want and care for and change each other—not cynical, near-algorithmic pairings of couples without a modicum of chemistry, but explorations of profound intimacy and ineffable human connection. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as graphic, titillating sex scenes that require nipple shields and intimacy coordinators. (One moment in Atonement, despite featuring no nudity, has become so epochal over time that “Atonement library kiss scene”  has 5.1 million views on TikTok.) It’s about scenes with characters whose observed interest in each other is so intense, so elemental, that we can’t stop looking either, for fear of what we might miss.