Let’s (not) Talk About Sex, Baby or: 4 Types of Sex Scenes We Don’t Really Need to See Again
If the kids are around, you might wanna send them out of the room for a minute. I’ll wait.
Hmmhmm, dooduhdooo….did I turn off the—
Hey! You’re back!
Okay, so sex and sexuality are part of the human experience. We all got to Earth thanks to some very special hugs and chances are that at some point in our lives, we’ll do some hugging ourselves. Thus, it makes sense that sex and sexuality will turn up in screenplays. But there’s a way to do it so that it makes sense and there’s a way to do it that is creepy, alienating and ineffective.
Here are 4 types of sex scenes that tend to miss the mark and what you can do to fix them.
The scene where the lame/mean/jerky guy says something inappropriate or embarrassing to a woman but she decides that there’s “just something about him” and so she pounces on him anyway.
What people intend to show with a scene like this: That despite his shortcomings, the hero is not a bad guy and this unnaturally attractive woman sees that.
What people really show with a scene like this: That their female character is desperate and/or has no self-esteem and isn’t someone the audience is going empathize with or respect.
But, Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Girls hook up with crap dudes all the time! Yes, you are correct. But films aren’t real life. And while we may hold each other to flexible standards, audiences generally do not give such lenience to characters in film. If someone is attracted to someone in a movie, we want there to be a real reason why. Something beyond “I dunno, he’s cute. There’s just something about him.”
The person who gets pounced needs to give the pouncer something that they truly want or need. The guy can act like a bit of jerk, but if he displays a genuine soft spot for his cat or grandmother or war orphans—then he might be pounceable. But when a woman in a movie offers herself as some sort of taming device without getting anything in return, it makes both characters look weak.
The scene where the super powerful businessman/politician has incredibly rough/graphic…playtime with his assistant/secretary/wife’s friend then walks away and goes into a meeting or event like it’s totally no big deal, leaving the impossibly attractive nude lady to gather her things and get out.
What people intend to show in a scene like this: That the businessman/politician is so impressive that he can have whatever he wants and that he’s so detached from it all that he can’t even enjoy it and we should ultimately feel bad for him.
What people actually show in a scene like this: That they couldn’t think of something creative or new to show this character trait.
But Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Powerful people sometimes have crazy affairs and don’t show remorse! Yes, you are correct. But jerky powerful people also do lots of other things that show that they’re unempathetic. Ebeneezer Scrooge was the quintessential mean ol’ rich guy and there’s nothing sexy about his story.
Also, sex isn’t the only way to show that a character doesn’t care about something of value. Spending bazillions of dollars on a car, just to wreck it seconds later and not care about the little Honda Fit he destroyed in the process because he’ll just pay everyone off would get the same point across. Flushing diamonds down the toilet or having a house full of amazing gadgets that never get used, children who never get hugged and pets who never get walked could also communicate the same idea.
But Aydrea! I’ve watched movies where people use women like playthings and we still kinda want to be like them! Yes, you are correct. But in movies like that that work, those characters usually balance out their misogyny with many other likeable traits. Also, yes, there are some filmmakers who tend to be pretty exploitative when it comes to this sort of thing, and if you are Michael Bay, then what on earth are you doing reading this blog? If you’re not Michael Bay and can’t write your own ticket, then you should be trying to impress readers, studio execs and producers with substance over style.
The scene where the guy really wants to have sex, but the girl doesn’t, so the guy kinda just goes ahead and starts doing sex to her anyway and she eventually comes around and has an amazing time about it.
What people intend to show in a scene like this: That the girl really is actually into this guy but that she’s just shy or something.
What people actually show in a scene like this: That the characters are kind of okay with sexual assault.
But Aydrea! This totally happens in real life! Sometimes girls just play coy and are totally okay with getting busy if you convince them! Yes, you are correct. However, films are not real life and on screen, a guy who coerces sex out of a woman comes across as a creep. And the woman who can’t stick to her point of view long enough to get to sleep comes across as weak.
(Also, let’s be honest, if someone is really not intent on any hanky panky, someone prodding them annoyingly while they’re trying to rest up for their big presentation the next day is more upsetting than seductive.)
A scene like this can work if it’s clear that the characters really do care about each other and if there’s a clear reason for the woman’s reluctance. A scene where an exhausted Dad reminds an exhausted Mom that they’re going to make more of an effort to make a go of it could be informative and sweet. A post-therapy scene where a concerned boyfriend reminds his girlfriend that she doesn’t need to be afraid of closeness anymore can be compelling and transformative. But to show a guy just being greedy and inconsiderate and a woman finding that hot is insulting to everyone.
The scene where the woman uses nothing but her tight dress and low cut shirt to distract/disarm the powerful dude.
What people intend to show with a scene like this: That everyone has an Achilles’ heel.
What people actually show with a scene like this: That they think men are simple automatons who have no ability to control themselves if they see lady skin.
But Aydrea! Some guys really don’t know how to control themselves when they see lady skin! Yes, you are correct. But in a film, this type of scene diminishes the stakes and gets boring. If all the woman needed to do was flash some flesh to get whatever McGuffin she’s after, then why are we watching an entire movie? Why doesn’t she just prance through life in a bikini taking money from stunned bystanders’ wallets, walking out of stores with unpaid merch, and slowly but surely rising to the rank of Supreme Ruler of all the World! By letting sex or sexuality be the secret weapon, characters don’t have to think, plan or grow. And that’s boring.
A sex scene is just like every other scene in a movie. It should show us new information about the characters and it should directly affect the plot of the film. It should motivate character to new action and they should be changed, if even slightly, by having experienced that scene.
If a sex scene is inserted just to seem edgy or cool, it will feel flat, unnecessary and exploitative.
Just like actual sex, when it comes to writing about sex, the tension is often more interesting than the release. While it’s titillating (pun intended) to see nudity on screen, if you’re trying to evoke the kind of emotional reaction that will make a movie really resonate with audiences, not giving it all up is really the way to go. Enter a scene (pun intended) just before or just after the act and you’ve got a lot more to work with in terms of exploring character, defining relationships and maintaining momentum.
All right, you can bring the kids back in the room…
Okay, what’s up?
But Aydrea! You really like Wedding Crashers and there’s unnecessary boobs in that movie! What gives?? Yes, you are correct. First, I think the boobs in that movie are totally unnecessary, but here’s why they’re not a total turn off. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are good guys in that movie. They have a silly game of crashing weddings, but they don’t do it to be malicious and they help everyone have a fun time when they’re there. In fact, in the opening sequence of that movie, the guys help a fighting couple reconcile. Yes, they help them ultimately so that they can get off of work for the day, but their help is sincere. Because they are well-intentioned guys, their playtime with the girls feels fun and playful, not manipulative, gross or creepy.
But Aydrea! You liked Blue Valentine and that movie is totally graphic! Yes, you are correct. That sequence, however, falls into the “we know this couple is really trying to work on their relationship” category. The whole film is pretty much about them trying to work on their relationship. That sequence is full of personality and fun (Future Room? Awesome) and we learn things about the characters based on their interactions.
But Aydrea! I don’t agree with anything you’ve said. I think these kinds of scenes are awesome and I want to write them anyway. I think you’re just being sensitive. Maybe because you’re a girl! Yes, you are correct. But you know who else is a girl? Many of the people you’re hoping will read, pass along and green light your scripts.
Whatever! There are movies with nudie scenes and I wanna put one in mine! There’s a myth about town that says that nudity gets you an automatic distribution deal. I can’t confirm what I’m about to say, but this cannot possibly be true.
But even if it is, nudity will likely also get you an R-rating. R-rated movies are a harder to monetize because fewer people can go see them and so fewer people pay for tickets to them. So being a bit more modest can actually help your box office.