The history of the representation of sex on the screen can be seen as a barometer of society’s moral codes and its devices of control such as censorship and ideas of what is decent and acceptable. Although cinema from the off understood and tapped the allure provided by eroticism to attract punters into the dreamy space of its cave-like projection rooms (as in the case of Theda Bara, cinema’s first vamp), the industry has had to adapt to changing climates. As it stands now, unfettered sexuality has become the remit of arthouse and independent cinema. Mainstream Hollywood cinema is more likely to adhere to restrictive codes and self-censorship to deal with Eros, often avoiding dealing with it altogether.
In its quest for realism, cinema has tended to leave fully-fledged, naturalistic sex out of the diegesis, especially when erect penises are involved, although Romance(Dir: Catherine Breillat, France, 1999)and Nine Songs(Dir: Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2004) have famously and successfully broken this much feared taboo, since the difference between art and pornography is considered to be only a few inches long. Perhaps our resistance and uncomfortable-ness with ‘real sex’ stems from the fact that we don’t want to be reminded that the thing is actually quite banal. Naturalising it means losing the magical, forbidden, subliminal appeal that pulls millions of filmgoers to cinema theatres in search of an elusive erotic moment. Western societies, obsessed as they are with sex, used to sell everything, from shampoos to cars, don’t seem to like it when sexuality is de-fetishised in favour of the real, boring thing.
However, it would be naive to think that, based on the examples given by the aforementioned films, the loosening of moral codes for sex on the screen follows a linear, progressive path. As far as Hollywood goes, it seems to have gone back in time of late, due to economic factors arising from the anti-sex climate fostered by the fundamentalist Christian ethos of the Bush era. Would a film featuring Rachel Welch sodomising an all-American boy as she did in the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s cult 1960s book Myra Breckinridge (Dir: Michael Sarne, USA, 1970) be given the go-ahead by studio bosses these days? Most probably not.
These days, when the biggest moneymakers in Tinseltown are family-friendly fairy tales and anodyne rom-com scripts, sex and nudity are the first to go in the cutting room. Besides, as Edward Jay Epstein, the author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, says in his book, "There is the Wal-Mart consideration. In 2004, the six studios took in $20.9 billion from home-video sales, according to the studios’ own internal numbers. Wal-Mart, including its Sam’s Club stores, accounted for over one-quarter of those sales, which means that Wal-Mart wrote more than $5 billion in checks to the studios in 2004. Such enormous buying power comes dangerously close to constituting what the Justice Department calls a monopsony—control of a market by a single buyer — and it allows the giant retailer to effectively dictate the terms of trade."
As a family-oriented company, continues Epstein, Wal-Mart will take care not to offend mothers, a criterion that studios will obligingly accept in order to maximise sales. Then there is the television factor. As a government-regulated enterprise, it has to conform to the rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. As the recent Janet Jackson’s breastgate indicated, it doesn’t take much to shock god-fearing Americans these days. So the same America that has kept Bush in power is telling Hollywood what to do in bed.
Of course this chaste Hollywood phase could potentially work to the advantage of independent and European producers, who can use sex as a selling point of their more specifically targeted films, with attitude towards sexuality becoming a parameter of taste and moral sophistication. What independent cinema will come up with to represent sex realistically on the screen remains to be seen. The question that lingers is whether even liberal arthouse cinema consumers genuinely want sexual realism.