When It Comes to R-Rated Movies, Does Sex Still Sell?

It’s no surprise that people in the movies are so dour and anxious these days: They aren’t getting any. A little over a decade ago, sex was still commonplace in cinema, and movies like Basic Instinct were sold primarily on carnal thrill. In the years since, however, movie characters have kept buttoned-up, and the rare film that makes sex a focal point of its promotional campaign usually tanks (witness the underperforming Love and Other Drugs, which promised to unclothe Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway everywhere from the stage of Saturday Night Live to the cover of Entertainment Weekly, yet couldn’t crack $10 million over the past three-day weekend). We don’t want to blame Janet Jackson’s nipple yet again for America’s recent prudishness — really, we don’t — so here are three other legitimate reasons why sex no longer sells movie tickets.

The Internet has demystified celebrity nudity.
Viewers may still want to see attractive movie stars in the altogether, but the Internet era has made it so commonplace and easy that paying ten dollars for the privilege no longer seems necessary. (Even the most nudity-averse stars have found themselves the victims of leaked cell-phone photos, sex tapes, and sleazy upskirt shots.) Hathaway and Gyllenhaal may be beautiful examples of Hollywood pulchritude, but a simple Google search turns up plenty of other movies where they went naked, and Love and Other Drugs was barely in theaters for a full 24 hours before screen captures and videos from that film popped up online, too. Long gone is the day when Halle Berry could demand an extra $500,000 to go topless in the 2001 film Swordfish, and when nudity is the only incentive to go to the theater, many men will simply torrent the film (or wait a few days for screen captures to hit the blogs) instead of paying the full-charge ticket price.

It’s a turnoff to women.
You can’t blame women for being wary of the ways that Hollywood presents sex. Much of the time, actresses are little more than heavily objectified love interests or sex objects, and most films are told from a male point of view. Still, women rejected the equal-opportunity Love and Other Drugs, and it may be for the same reason that the female-targeted (and woman-directed) Jennifer’s Body flopped last year: Movies that hard-sell the female lead’s sex appeal are a turnoff to many women. Perennially unclad actresses like Megan Fox don’t top the average woman’s list of favorite performers, and even the sexually charged Angelina Jolie still has a large swath of her gender to win over (it may be why she’s traded the allure of her early roles for action heroism). Though Amanda Seyfried is an up-and-coming romantic lead who women like, they deserted her at the box office earlier this year when she disrobed and hit the sheets with Julianne Moore for the erotic thriller Chloe, and not enough men were there to pick up the slack.

The MPAA is too constrictive.
Audiences might be more receptive to sexually forward films if there were more of them — then Love and Other Drugs could have been sold more as a romantic drama than as an “Oh my God THEY’RE NAKED” novelty — but as long as the mortifyingly Victorian ratings board of the MPAA is in place, there are few directors and studios willing to chance it. Blue Valentine was recently slapped with an NC-17 despite its less-than-ample amounts of nudity and sex, and while violent movies appear to flout ratings boundaries all the time, the merest hint of sexual thrusting or female orgasms can send the ratings board into a conniption fit. Despite all the big-screen burnouts, there’s plenty of proof that sex can sell — unrated shows on premium cable thrive on nudity and daring onscreen assignations — but when you couple the already risk-averse studios with the ultratimid MPAA, you’re looking at several years of cinematic blue balls yet to come.

When It Comes to R-Rated Movies, Does Sex Still Sell?