The dramatic decline of sex on screen: How the 250 highest grossing films featured 40 PER CENT less sexual content last year compared to 2000 with audiences favouring 'squeaky clean' content

By Daily Mail (U.S.) | Created at 2024-06-11 12:51:31 | Updated at 2024-06-17 00:23:06 5 days ago


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The wildly graphic sex scenes of films like Poor Things and Saltburn shocked viewers and critics alike when they hit cinemas last year.

But new research suggests such movies are becoming rarer, with data showing the level of explicit content has dramatically fallen by almost 40 per cent 2000, as Hollywood and 'squeaky clean' viewers have a fresh reckoning with sex on screen.

The study by data researcher Stephen Follows looked at the 250 highest-grossing movies in the United States for each year since 2000, tracking their sexual content with the help of sources including film database IMDb and the British Board of Film Classication (BBFC).

In a striking finding, almost half the films released last year featured no sexual content, while the proportion in 2000 was less than a fifth, according to the analysis, which was first published in The Economist.

The biggest decline in sexual content was seen in thriller and action films, with a 70 per cent drop over more than two decades.

By contrast, the number of scenes involving drinking, drugs, violence or foul language remain higher than those featuring sex.

The study by Stephen Follows found a 40 per cent drop in sexual content in films since 2000

Thriller and action films saw a 70 per cent drop - the biggest decline - over the period analysed

The few sex scenes that have made the cut recently have become increasingly more graphic than the 90s heydey of movie romps such as Sharon Stone's infamous leg crossing in Basic Instinct or Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio's steamy car sex scene in Titanic.

Last year, two films, Saltburn, starring Barry Keoghan, and Fair Play, starring Bridgerton's Phoebe Dynevor, featured depicted characters performing oral sex on menstruating women.

In yet more explicit scenes in Saltburn, Keoghan's character Oliver, who harbours a twisted obsession with his wealthy friend, Felix, is shown sipping the dirty water from his bathtub and later simulating sexual intercourse with his newly dug grave.

Tennis film Challengers follows a love triangle between two male tennis players and a coach 

Tashi, played by Zendaya, (centre), is caught between Art, played by Mike Faist (left) and Patrick (Josh O'Connor) (right) but experts say the sexual tension is played out in the tennis

In the award-winning Victorian fantasy film Poor Things, Emma Stone portrays Bella Baxter, a woman brought back to life by an experimental scientist who goes on an uninhibited journey of sexual awakening.

 And the reasons behind the surprising shift? 

Follows says 'squeaky clean' content is now on trend, and as a result, there are more wholesome films on screens for people to watch.

Viewers' evolving tastes are also driving the change, with particularly younger, Generation Z viewers less willing to sit through graphic sex scenes, he suggests.

Progressive audiences are more likely to reject outdated stereotypes which could be seen as objectifying women through a dominant male gaze, in favour of a more 'authentic and respectful' alternative.

'Modern audiences might have less interest in explicit depictions of sexuality. Instead, there is a growing preference for content that either avoids sexual themes altogether or handles them with more subtlety,' he said.

Follows suggests the proliferation of movements like #MeToo and others which helped shape the conversation around consent and gender representation 'have likely contributed to a more cautious approach to including sex scenes in films'.

Wholesome film Barbie was a summer box-office hit and did not feature any explicit sex scenes

The rise of Intimacy Coordinators in a bid to tackle inappropriate behaviour on sets could, he says, 'be discouraging gratuitous sex scenes unless they serve a critical narrative purpose'.

Filmmakers, he says, are 'sensitive' to the perception of sexual content and how it could spark controversy among viewers and critics.  

Hollywood also has to consider international audiences and filmmakers keen to avoid censorship in certain countries may omit explicit sex scenes in a bid to give their film broader reach, Follows adds.

 He also cites the explosion of streaming platforms and their ability to offer 'tailored viewing experiences' means viewers may be less interested in watching sexual content and the wide availability of internet pornography. 

Follows continued: 'With the ubiquity of internet pornography, audiences seeking explicit sexual content have an abundance of options readily available online,” Follows added. 

'This has potentially reduced the need for mainstream cinema to fill this niche, allowing films to focus on other elements of storytelling without the need to include sex scenes to attract viewers.'

In 2000 film The Beach, backpacker Richard (Leonardo Di Caprio) (left),  strikes up a romance with Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) (right), on a secret beach, where he later has sex with her

In Poor Things, Bella Baxter, a woman resurrected by a scientist, becomes sexually liberated

Bella, played by Emma Stone, speaks in vulgar terms about sex in the Victorian fantasy film

 Almost half of 10 to 24-year-olds feel sex is unnecessary for the narrative in most TV shows and films, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles, last year.

Alison Taylor, assistant professor at Bond University in Australia, suggests the decline in sex scenes was down to several factors, including a demands for big-budget superhero franchise series and the pressure to export films to more conservative countries like China.

In her research, she has cited how tennis drama Challengers uses 'suggestion' rather than explicit sex scenes to keep viewers hooked.

In Saltburn, Barry Keoghan's Oliver performs oral sex on a woman while she is menstruating

Elswhere in the film, the grief-stricken Oliver simulates sexual intercourse with Felix's grave

In another scene, Oliver, having outlived the other characters to claim Saltburn, dances naked

She said: '[Director] Luca Guadignino does for the erotic drama what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did for horror. He promises the audience everything but knows power is in suggestion. 

'Challengers’ achievement is in capturing the dynamics of sexual tension. It traces the power plays, negotiations, mistrust and rivalry in which an exchange of looks feels as graphic as what those looks imply.'

She added the 'vivid close-ups, slow motion, sweat-soaked' rallies symbolise passion in the film. 

'When the pressure is at fever pitch but unrealised, characters must channel it into their game. These matches are proximate, tense — and the closest Challengers gets to letting off steam.'

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