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At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I watched a movie that featured a graphic, and in its way revolutionary, sex scene and found myself wanting to sink into the floor. The film was the funny-painful character study Passages, from director Ira Sachs, in which characters played by Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski enjoy a bout of post-breakup sex. (At least, they sort of enjoy it.) The scene is long and shot straightforwardly—there is no sensuous camera movement or lighting, no murmuring music underscoring the action. It’s a frank depiction of gay sex, though not pornographic, of the sort that is very uncommon even in art house cinema.

Shouldn’t I have greeted this with appreciation, a slightly turned-on sense of triumph about this bold representation on screen? Maybe. Instead, I felt uncomfortable. Not because of what was on screen, but because of who I was watching it with and when: a bunch of industry people and well-heeled patrons, largely of the old and straight variety, at a time when sex scenes are a hot-button topic of debate. I didn’t really want to be watching an extended gay sex scene surrounded by these particular people in that environment because I was instantly nervous about how they were reacting; it was a kind of second-hand embarrassment. I was sure they were put off by the scene and wished it would end—thus, so did I. 

There’s been a lot of discomfort about sex scenes of late. Recently, the actor Penn Badgley said in an interview that he requested not to film sex scenes for the new season of his hit show You, out of respect for his marriage. Some greeted this announcement with celebration—finally, an honorable man!—while others found something sinister, or otherwise off-putting. (And noted that Badgley’s killer also kills people, which is much worse.) Badgley’s somewhat inelegantly expressed sentiment revived a contentious battle that has been raging online for a few years now. What good is a sex scene, anyway? Or, more precisely, can a sex scene ever be good at all? 

Badgley’s quote wasn’t really about the merits of sex scenes as a form. He was saying, I think, that he has some kind of moral boundary within his marriage that precludes simulating sex with another woman on screen. If that is Badgley’s specific choice, so be it. Yes, it may suggest that Badgley took a less than professional approach to sex scenes in the past—but without knowing the particular dynamics of his real-life relationship, who’s to say what’s best for him and his partner. And, of course, who’s to say what an actor choosing to do sex scenes is telling us about their private relationships. To each their own is probably the best policy here—we’ll give Badgley the benefit of the doubt in assuming that he was not issuing any judgments on performers who have a different set of moral standards than he. 

The broader issue surrounding the Badgley hoopla is maybe worth digging into, though. Time and time again over the past few years, a contingent of people have come forward to decry the sex scene as at best unnecessary, and at worst exploitative. 

On the latter front, there is of course a woeful history of actors, quite often women, who have been exploited on unsafe sets by nefarious people both on and off camera. Look to the decade-old controversy surrounding the celebrated film Blue Is the Warmest Color, whose brilliant lead actors, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopolous (who is, incidentally, in Passages), loudly condemned how their graphic sex scenes were handled almost immediately after they and their director, Abdellatif Kechiche, shared a Palme d’Or win at the Cannes Film Festival. This was a lauded film handed a major award by Steven Spielberg (who was the Cannes jury president that year) that was made, it would seem, under dire circumstances.

Hollywood history is littered with similar narratives: actors coerced or bullied into going further than they want to, being leered at by crew members even after arrangements had been made for a closed set. Given all of those stories, it’s no wonder that anyone would reject the very idea of the sex scene, a practice that has too often led to physical or emotional harm for its performers. 

That situation has, I’ll warily suggest, improved some in recent years. The rise of the intimacy coordinator—an on-set consultant who helps actors and directors find a careful and equitable way to stage intimate scenes—in the post-MeToo era has allowed for at least some productions to create safe and consensual spaces. Those coordinators are not cure-all fixes, of course. But they do represent a healthier outlook toward an aspect of filmmaking that had for too long been an unregulated nightmare for many in the industry. If that advancement is factored in and some people still deem sex scenes not worth it for all the potential risk they pose, that’s an understandable position. 

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