The Portrayal of Sex Scenes in Media
For decades the media has been a fundamental element of popular culture and is one of the most subtle or profound influences of our understanding of what sexuality is and what gender role relationships are. It is not something new, to say that sex is used to sell, this can be seen in adverts, films, series and is intended to attract the eye of viewers. However, the media can formulate imaginative scenes with a certain degree of fantasy in order to make sexual encounters more aesthetically pleasing to the public, and sometimes this fantasy representation can contribute to misconceptions about intimate relationships that sometimes have a bias in which women are objectified.
In the last 30 years, have increased considerably the inclusion of sensual scenes, explicit or not, in the media. This can be explained, to some extent, by the natural changes that society has undergone over the years in relation to the understanding of sexuality and its taboos, with more representations of these issues. This has shown to be a green light for producers to feel more comfortable to add content with these themes and opened up a new market to be explored. In parallel to this, streaming services have been gaining more space and for being a paid service, has more autonomy to produce content for certain genres than traditional media.
The erotic tone that permeates the art is not a recent phenomenon, since the Classical Antiquity until the modern age, naked bodies and sensual scenes have been explored by all kinds of artists. Artistic expression is not only a form of language, but also a means of communication which allows artists to project, objectively or not, their ideas and thoughts, with the intention of manifesting, whether on the screen of a painting or film, an emotion that words alone may not be able to express entirely.
Restricting sexual content in the media is a controversial topic and an ongoing debate. Intimate relationships without the purpose of reproduction are something natural for many people, even so, in a society, different individuals may have different convictions about exposing this content in the media. Indeed, two lines of debate arise. On the one hand, there is a concern to restrict or even ban these contents, while on the other hand, there is a view that this exposure can help young people to understand and feel represented about their sexuality. As a result, nowadays, the audience has more power of choice to decide which content they will consume or not, in addition to the fact that both streaming platforms and broadcast television warn about adult and violent content that may be sensitive. In this sense, the discourse on controversies around sexual content in the media will not be ended or solved through censorship.
Which scenes are most targeted?
Although homosexuality has been decriminalized in several countries, it is undeniable that to this day the representation in different media of non-heterosexual and non-cis gender people often receive a more negative reaction than their heterosexual counterparts, especially in intimate scenes, explicit or not. This is evidently a reflection of established and normalized homophobia in society.
The entertainment industry has shown a supposed acceptance and has increased the presence of the LGBTQ+ characters, however, over the years this representation has been accompanied by stereotyped characters serving as comic relief or villains.
This is an effect of the Motion Picture Production Code or as it is better known, the Hays Code, a series of rules adopted by American studios to regulate audiovisual productions. This manual was applied during the 30’s to mid 60’s and was intended to censor certain content that was considered immoral and inappropriate. In this sense, for a film to be exhibited and distributed, producers and directors needed their scripts to conform to these norms. Thus, scenes of nudity, insinuations of adultery, behavior seen as vulgar, references to homosexuality, among other topics, could not be portrayed. If the film was not approved, they could be banned or have scenes modified and censored.
Nowadays, films and dramas often contain sexually charged conversations, jokes and scenes of kissing and heterosexual sex, sometimes even free of charge. In contrast, the slightest indication that a character may not be straight or even when a same-sex kissing scene is depicted, they are more likely to receive harsher criticism. In addition to being enough material to suffer pressure from conservative groups, labeling it as “too explicit” or “inappropriate for children” is often censored or minimized.
This ambiguous relationship in how LGBTQ+ characters are portrayed is not beneficial just because there are LGBTQ+ people present in the media. In the award-winning 1991 film the Silence of the Lambs, the character Jame Gumb, known as Buffalo Bill, is a serial killer who murders women and skins them so he can make a “woman suit”. Jame is presented as a mentally ill person and his sexuality and gender are linked to the murders. Even if it was not the intention of the film, the approach and construction of this character reinforces stigmas and fears regarding transsexuality.
Despite this, the LGBTQ+ community resisted and increasingly managed to achieve greater prominence not only in front of screens with complex and less stereotyped plots but also in production. This is due to more LGBTQ+ people are at the forefront of projects, such as the Spanish director and screenwriter Pedro Almodovar. Since he started his career in the late 1970s, he has stood out for maintaining an aesthetic of vibrant colors and controversial themes involving sexuality, religion and a strong female role. Still, this new scenario was conquered through debates and protests, and even so, it is a space that continues in constant discussion.
The current media scenario is complex due to the new forms of communication that are rapidly evolving. A sector that has been transformed is the music industry and when we analyze the presence of sexual content in the mainstream media, we soon realize that the music business is increasingly showing nudity and eroticism, especially in music videos, lyrics, clothes and choreographies.
This phenomenon is not new and occurs in industries in different countries, however, this hyper-sexualization occurs mainly in women. At first, this sensual manifestation can be analyzed as a way for women to assume the autonomy of their bodies and show empowerment. At the same time, this sexualization is also used by the industry as a means of objectifying female bodies and fantasizing about a fetish. This can be noted by the prevalence of the male gaze in music videos, a heterosexual view that projects a male viewer onto the audience, reflected by camera angles and editing highlights. Indeed, this type of representation can normalize an idealized and fetishized view that women are available purely for male pleasure.
Another point to consider is which body types the media prefers to promote. It is common to see, mainly in movies and TV shows, a predilection for certain standards by conventionally beautiful, thin and young people. The constant broadcasting of these same images can feed an idealization of how the perfect body would be and this can cause negative effects in many people of non-adequacy.
Adults playing teenagers in movies is common practice in the entertainment industry. When studios and producers decide to work with children and teenagers they know they need to be twice as careful and follow certain legal rules in order to protect and provide a safe environment for young people. As a result, several countries establish laws for the artistic work of minors, such as the number of hours allowed on set, respect for school activities and, above all, the censorship of scenes with sexual content. Therefore, many productions prefer to hire adults as the have more availability and less restrictions to deal with intimate scenes. While there are practical reasons for using adults in films and teen dramas, it can lead to many problems of authenticity and stereotyping, but most importantly it can contribute to the sexualization of teenage characters.
Working with adult actors can help avoid potential problems. In the film Grease (1978), both protagonists played teenagers, however, John Travolta was 24 years old and Olivia Newton-John was 29 years old; Yentl (1983) actress Barbra Streisand played a 17-year-old when she was 41; and American Pie (1999) most of the leads actors were in their early 20s. In contemporary teen shows, they still have actors who don’t even physically resemble teenagers like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Euphoria, Elite and Riverdale are just a few examples of famous series aimed at a teenage audience that has adults in their 20s in their main cast.
It is important to acknowledge that teenage characters have always been a part of the media. Teen dramas have the difficult task of capturing the complexity of this stage of life, avoiding stereotypes while dealing with age-related issues such as self-image, family problems, friendships and sex. However, the media must reflect reality, and sexual content must be included when it fits the plot and elevates the narrative. While this can be a positive development in terms of creative freedom and authentic storytelling, it is important to consider the potential negative implications and take steps to ensure that sexual content is portrayed responsibly and safely.
In recent years, there has been an increase in the sexualization of teenage characters and in some cases, the age discrepancies between the actor and the character they are portraying can be significant. By portraying adults engaging in sexual activity as teen characters, it can contribute to the objectification of teenagers. Using adults not only makes the scene legally correct but also can change our perception of what content is appropriate and makes it less uncomfortable for the audience.
A prime example of this is Euphoria and Elite, which contain many graphic sex scenes that could not have been filmed in the same way if they had been shot with 16-year-old. Since everyone is visually adult and mature, there is less negative criticism.
Another remark is the possible influences that this early maturity can have on the social live of young people. It is very common in this age group to wish to be seen as experienced, cool and older. As a result, they idealize the lifestyles that many characters of the same age possess in teen shows and movies. In this sense, many young people feel the need to dress in a more sensual way and go to more adult places in order to achieve this imaginary of what adolescence is.
Celebrities and the roles they assume send a number of messages about social values and can promote empowerment and gender equality. At times, it seems that the overwhelming message to adolescents is that their empowerment is largely derived from erotic outfits and attitudes, which can lead young people, especially girls, to mirror and shape themselves according to their idols, contributing greatly to children’s visions of sexuality.
Consent and Exploitation
Violence and sex are sensitive issues that cross generations and the approach seen in the media often becomes a topic of discussion. Some scenes of violence and sexual harassment are not portrayed in the right way and this affects the way people view violence against each other, despite it being in fiction. However, as it is an important subject, the influence and power of the media could broaden this discussion in society.
The media sometimes presents these incidents in a problematic light. One of the most worrying is the trivialization of consent. Sometimes sexual encounters are shown without clear consent or with force. The effect of this practice tends to normalize this type of behavior and the importance of consent, thus contributing to a culture of sexual abuse and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about sexual violence. For example, the belief that victims are responsible for their assault, which women provoke by the way they dress or behave. This narrative, besides being false, is an excuse to blame the victim.
Since its release, The Last Tango in Paris (1972) has been a controversial case. At the time, the 19-year-old rookie actress, Maria Schneider, performs alongside the 48 years old actor Marlon Brando. The controversy surrounds a graphic rape scene, which Schneider told the Daily Mail in 2007 was non-consensual and not in the original script. “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
Another area of concern is torture porn, a sub-genre of horror that includes graphic depictions of violence, gore, and torture, where the suffering of the characters is not necessarily of greater significance. They often draw on the gendered violence and exploitation of women, presenting them as victims and their pain and suffering as voyeuristic. An example of this is seen in the sequences of “I Spit on Your Grave”, which tells the story of Jennifer Hills, who takes revenge on each of the men who raped her and left her for dead. Yet, it shows at length the sexual violence in gory and close-up detail.
A famous example is the film “A Servian Film” (2010) by director Srđan Spasojević, who under the pretext of making a political and social critique of Serbia, made a controversial film in all senses. The feature addresses the underworld of pornography and explores scenes of pedophilia, necrophilia and torture. In this case, we can assert that much of what is shown is more about using graphic violence to shock the audience and consequently trivializes the impact of violence.
These types of films can have an extremely negative effect on real life, as they often normalize the position of men as dominators while women as passive bodies. In fact, this view enhances violence against women in real life and leads us to reflect on the purpose of these productions and which audience they want to reach.
It is important to highlight that acting is a job and, like other professions, it also has rights and ethics that must be followed in order to guarantee safety and a comfortable environment. It is common for actors to perform intimate and dramatic scenes, but this cannot be seen as an excuse to violate boundaries.
Overall, sex sells, and in certain genres, a scene of intimacy can be a step forward in the plot, and there is nothing inherently wrong with the inclusion of this act in films and television series. In essence, sex it is a complex issue that involves balancing concerns about artistic of expression, censorship, realism, and sex education.
For some people there is a fine line between what is decent or indecent and how they apply that view in the media can be subjective. Hence, talking about censorship today remains a controversial topic that will always be questioned, especially with the possibilities that new alternative media offers. Thanks the rapid evolution of the means of communication, censorship these days does not have the same effects as in the past.
Finally, the mainstream media still play a very powerful role in society, in how we live in the world and because of that, it has responsibility for the content it promotes, especially when transmitting sensitive content. After all, it can help or worsen social issues.
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