The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the Sex Scene

Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.

Welcome to Sexpositions, a weeklong Vulture celebration of sex scenes in movies and on TV.

I’ve never watched my parents have sex, but I’ve watched other people have sex while I was with my parents. This used to happen at movie theaters all the time. This is because movies used to have something called “sex scenes,” which involved human adults in amorous union. And back when a children’s admission ticket was way cheaper than a babysitter, an impressionable kid might just get dragged along to, say, Moscow on the Hudson, a movie featuring delightful comedian Robin Williams from TV’s Mork and Mindy, and also, around the 15-minute mark, a lengthy, naked (and in hindsight, quite hairy) sex scene. I sat next to my mother, in great spiritual discomfort, while watching that scene in the theater. I remember it to this day with Technicolor clarity.

This may be hard to recall, but movies used to be the one place in the world where adults could watch other adults having sex. I don’t mean porn theaters or peep-show booths or Amsterdam. I mean mainstream Hollywood movies — like Body Heat or Don’t Look Now or Risky Business or Jungle Fever — in which sex was reliably presented as part of the human experience. Granted, this particular brand of Hollywood sex often happened in silhouette, was reliably somewhat cheesy, and was very likely accompanied by the soaring sounds of saxophones and/or the vocals of Mister Phil Collins. Backs would be arched. Knuckles would be gnawed. Sheets would be clutched at suggestively as the camera panned demurely away. Anthony Lane once described, in a review of the 1998 film Out of Sight, what he called the “lumpen grammar of the traditional Hollywood lay”: “An alien watching modern movies would think that human intercourse consisted of nothing more than two faces approaching and docking in horizontal silhouette.”

The example for me that notoriously ticks all these boxes is the famous sex scene in Top Gun — no, not the one involving sweat-sheened boys with aviator sunglasses cavorting on the beach playing volleyball. I mean the more traditional sex scene, in which Maverick finally gets busy with Kelly McGillis, among softly billowing curtains in a bedroom that’s backlit like the VIP lounge at a bordello. The song, of course, was “Take My Breath Away,” a soundtrack choice that would feel only slightly less subtle if the track were titled “Look at Us, We’re Finally Doing ‘It’ (and ‘It’ Feels Great).”

I was reminded of all of this — Moscow on the Hudson, saxophone solos, Tom and Kelly — during the final scene of Pacific Rim, in which the photogenic romantic leads, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi, survive a final, climactic battle and then passionately … hug. Now, no one will ever argue that Pacific Rim is a movie for, or even really about, adults — though it’s arguably not that much more juvenile than Top Gun, which wasn’t exactly adapted from a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Pacific Rim is our modern analogue to Top Gun, and it’s a telling example of the current plague of coitus avoidus — that tendency in modern mainstream movies to treat sex as something that happens elsewhere, offscreen and unspoken of. Romantic comedies rarely feature much explicit onscreen grappling, save for the rare recent exception like Love and Other Drugs. Otherwise, unless your movie is explicitly about sex — Fifty Shades of Grey or Friends With Benefits or Unfaithful — the leads may make flirtatious eyes at each other, but no one’s gnawing knuckles or clutching sheets.

Part of the reason is because of the internet, that perpetual digital orgy, which has busted the movies’ monopoly as the place where we go to glimpse naughty things. (That sexy scene in Moscow on the Hudson? The whole movie’s currently streaming on Hulu.) And part of the reason is because Hollywood, in the blockbuster age, has succumbed to the self-neutering gospel of the four quadrants — by which the world is split up into increasingly gory R-rated action and horror films; fun-for-the-whole-family superhero epics (superheroes, it’s well known, have no genitalia); animated films for the kid in all of us; and movies by Nicholas Sparks. In the era of Top Gun, The Big Easy, Body Heat, or other steamy Hollywood thrillers, the goal was to appeal to both men and women with the promise of (among other things) onscreen sex. (Ergo the fabled “date night” movie.) Now the goal is to appeal to adults and their 12-year-old kids with the promise of the absence of sex. As for more serious films, flipping back through the Best Picture nominees from the last few years — films like Argo and The King’s Speech and Inception — the only ones with truly memorable sex scenes are Black Swan and The Wolf of Wall Street. Yet in the former, the sex (between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) plays out like a nightmare; and in the latter, the sex feels like a porno directed by Hieronymous Bosch.

But the real cultural shift — as any with a pay-cable subscription will tell you — is that the small screen has finally steamed over. After decades spent as Hollywood’s prudish country cousin, TV now brings televised sex of near-Caligulian variety and inventiveness into our homes. There’s even a term, sexposition, created specifically for moments when characters are communicating information while also having, or watching, sex. TV, in particular pay cable, has claimed this ground in part because it can — there’s no MPAA threatening to slap censorious NC-17s on True Blood every week. (By contrast, the film Blue Valentine initially earned a scarlet NC-17 for convincingly, if not at all explicitly, depicting oral sex on a woman.) As for staid old broadcast networks, thanks to procedurals and shows like NBC’s Hannibal, you’re much more likely to see a dead naked human being flayed than you are to see a live, naked human having sex. Cable, of course, can show us both, and does, pretty much every week.

This led to a strange decade or so of cable programming, during which we saw the rise of a genre we might call prestigeploitation: artistically ambitious shows that nonetheless habitually indulge in gratuitous levels of nudity. (The Knick recently set a kind of land-speed record for fastest glimpse of skin, having a more or less pointlessly topless woman breeze past the camera within 15 seconds of the opening shot.) Not for nothing did Saturday Night Live suggest that a horny 13-year-old boy is Game of Thrones’ secret creative consultant. And prestige cable, which we can date roughly back to the rise of HBO in the late 1990s, is now coming out of its own extended, and pretty horny, adolescence. TV finds itself not only with unprecedented license, but with as-yet unexploited potential.

If you ever said there’s not enough sex on pay cable, people would say you’re crazy, but there’s not enough sex on pay cable. Or at least not enough different kinds of sex. As pay-cable auteurs get over the novelty of setting every other scene in a strip bar (or if it’s a period show, a brothel) just because they can, there’s a real chance to make TV shows about grown-ups having sex or, better yet, TV shows about grown-ups in which just one element of being grown-up is having sex. (We’ll consider Tell Me You Love Me, HBO’s almost ingeniously unsexy show about sex, a noble misfire.) A few recent shows have made tentative progress, such as Masters of Sex and Mad Men and Outlander, at using onscreen sex as a potent narrative tool and not just titillating filler. In fact, the most memorable TV sex scene in recent years was definitely not the most gratuitous and certainly not the most erotic, but it may have been the most unsettling: Sally Draper walking in on her father and their next-door neighbor. Sex — it’s not just billowing curtains and saxophones anymore. And while TV may well be where the action is, it’s still an open question, and a tantalizing opportunity, as to just what kind of action it’s willing to lay bare.

The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Sex Scenes