Free Film School #62: Anatomy of a Sex Scene

This week, Professor Witney Seibold looks at the basic way sex is used in films, and muses briefly on how to film a sex scene. 

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


Let’s get it on.

It’s been said by critics and professors more astute than myself that the two most commonly-filmed things are cars and nudity. If a space alien were to judge human culture based only on our movies, they would find our outright worship of breasts and cars to be our central obsession. If they were to then make a film about humans based only on our movies, well, they’d probably come out with something like David Cronenberg’s 1997 fetish flick Crash. The first thing that was ever filmed was a train pulling into a station. The second thing was a topless woman. Filming people in the nude is a regular hobby of ours. Love and lust seem to be the most common emotions to be elicited from film.

I’ve already talked about how just about every narrative feature is, on a very basic level, a love story. I’ve also already talked about that moment in film history when porn was almost art, so this week in the Free Film School, I, your humble professor will be combining those notions by looking at one of the most commonly-filmed phenomena in cinema history: the sex scene. It’s time to get deeper into the nitty-gritty, so to speak. Sex scenes are frequent and expected in most movies. Even the films rated PG-13 will contain, at the very least, allusions to sexuality and people going at it. Human beings are, after all, sexual creatures, so it only makes sense that our movies would reflect our healthy interest in our own bodies and desires. No matter who is having sex or for what reason, sex scenes are going to be titillating to us. What’s more, sex scenes are dramatic. They can reveal a level of emotional connection, dramatic tension, consequences, new love, raw passion, and even cultural mores that can’t be shown any other way.

I’m bringing sexy back.

Sex scenes in dramatic feature films, and even in most pornographic features, remain, for the most part, intermissions from the action. The typical structure tends to be this: the story is chugging along in its usual way, the characters will find themselves attracted to one another, and, to release the sexual tension, will fall into bed together. The important part of that story is merely that they had sex. How they had sex is pretty much irrelevant at that point. Sure, there are a few films in which the manner of sex is just as important as the sex itself (think Shortbus, or Lust, Caution, to cite a few recent examples), but for the most part, the sex is going to be a quick little break for the audience to relax, not focus on any story, and just watch two actors shed their clothing and kiss for two minutes. In the case of adult entertainment, the sex scenes are, of course, much longer and more explicit, but they essentially follow the same pattern; the film is going to stop for a few minutes so we can watch sexin’.


How the sex is filmed depends, of course, on the tone you want your film to have. The classic view of the sex scene comes from old traditions of sex scenes filmed under the aegis of the infamous Hays Code of the 1930s or the MPAA rating system, which is, for all practical purposes, the child of the Hays Code. I can’t cite a film that first used it, but in older movies, it was a typical move to eschew the sex scenes by panning the camera away from any of the bodily action, and to a smoky, romantic image in its place. A fireplace would do. Or a shot of the full moon. Maybe waves crashing on the shore. For many, these simple images are rife with sexuality thanks to their ubiquity in film. And while the pan-aways can be tasteful, and essentially allow the sex to happen without having to slow down the film, many people feel (perhaps rightly) that this was far too prudish. As social mores changed, and sexuality became more wisely used in feature films, the actual sex began to enter into the movies. Pretty soon, the raw, joyous outburst of orgasmic release became something important to the movies. Again, there are no definite origins to this, as far as I can tell. It was just a gradual cinematic evolution.

When I think about you…

A sex scene in a comedy tended to be adolescent and farcical. Passionate. If you want the tone to be light, the sexual partners should be having fun. There is an entire movement of teen sex comedies that cropped up in the late 1970s, and continued through the American Pie era that focused on the sexual interests of teenage boys 9and it was typically boys, although girls occasionally got in on the action). As such, their view of sex was the way teenage boys tend to look at sex: something desperately to be sought, and fantastical once acquired. The women would readily shed their tops, and breasts were a regular staple of films like this. Thanks to constant rotation of Revenge of the Nerds on cable TV, I often saw nudity, long before I was 17. Before you have ready access to pornography, this may be your only access to on-screen nudity.


That, and the infamous Cinemax straight-to-cable “erotic thrillers.” You know the genre. Films that starred Shannon Tweed, often playing a sex therapist, getting into all manner of sexual trouble with clients. The sex in these films, while still an intermission, were handled in a more (presumably) mature fashion than in teen sex comedies. They were often filmed in smoky slow-motion, usually in soft-focus, often with romantic accoutrements like candles dotting the room. I have heard it said that the visuals of sex in these softcore “Skinemax” movies is what people like to cite when they distinguish between “sex” and “making love.” Sex is regular sex. The kind you have. “Making love” is the slo-jamz, saxophone sound-tracked version of sex one sees in late-night thrillers.

Really. This song is all about shagging.

An aside: have you ever noticed those L-shaped sheets you see in movies? The ones that appear in post-coital scenes, and reveal the male’s rippling chest, but demurely cover the woman’s breasts? Where do I buy sheets like that? Also, in many movies, when the sex scene begins, you will see two people, in a fit of release, heedlessly ripping their clothing off of one another. In some instances, the clothing will actually tear. But afterwards, once the sex has finished, you’ll see a woman carefully replacing her earrings. Were those torn off too? When did the passion slow down for the woman to remove those earrings? Another pet peeve voiced by many friends of mine: When a couple has wild sex, and the clothing-rip will be in place, the post-coital scene will show the woman still wearing her brassiere. Perhaps the implication was that they were so desperate to shag, they didn’t bother to remove it, but I think it was left on for modesty’s sake.

Modesty is all well and good in sex scenes; if they’re intermissions to the action, then they don’t necessarily need to be explicit. Plus I agree with David Duchovny when he said in an interview that on-screen nudity is always gratuitous, and can it can be eschewed or reveled in according to the filmmaker’s interests. But often filmmakers, operating under pretty strict ratings guidelines, and not wanting to offend any audiences, can take the modesty too far. This was especially problematic in cases of homosexual sex acts in the past. Homosexuality was, rather unfortunately, something of a bugaboo for many decades, and any scenes of homosexual sex were strictly verboten. When it came time to openly discuss homosexuality in movies, many censors felt that it shouldn’t be discussed in movies. So gay characters had to be “coded” in a way. Shied away from. If you watch the rather good documentary film The Celluloid Closet, it traces the history of gay characters in movies. I will talk about queer cinema in a future Free Film School article. It’s far too vast a topic to cover here. Needless to say, homosexual sex wasn’t often depicted in films until more recent decades. Lesbian sex was depicted more often than gay male sex all throughout the 1970s, though, as Eurotrash vampire films often had wicked vampire seductresses who could easily woo and bed whatever man or woman they liked. Lesbian sex was always seen as titillating, so it made its way into exploitation movies pretty often.

Push it real good.

An odd observation. All of the examples above refer to sex between two people. Filming masturbation is a school unto itself. It’s rare that a mainstream feature film will have a masturbation scene, but they crop up from time to time. There is a scene in the queer comedy But I’m a Cheerleader wherein the lead character pleasures herself. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The Road to Wellville. There’s Something About Mary. And, of course, American Pie. All these films feature enthused depictions of onanism. The strange thing about solo sex scenes, though, is that they are pretty much invariably seen as comedic. Especially if it’s a male doing it. Occasionally, you’ll find a scene wherein a woman finds sexual liberation by touching herself (The Center of the World featured such a scene, and it was the central conceit of The Oh in Ohio), but even in earnest entries, there is something silly about peeking in on the privacy of masturbation. If a man does it, well, it’s never going to be sexually liberating. It’s going to be funny. There are several scenes in the dour Angela’s Ashes to feature boys testing out their own bodies, and they provide some of the only levity in an otherwise depressing movie. I will not comment on general sexual attitudes that might perhaps dictate this gender-driven off-center depiction of self-love. It’s an observation. Is there a way to film a male masturbating, and not have it be comedic?

Little girl, I’m gonna make you mine.

Is there a way to show on-screen sex, in all its nudity, with close-ups of people’s genitals, and have it be dramatic and not just titillating? Well, there are a few films that do that (which I have already mentioned above). But the act of filming actual penetrative sex is usually under the purview of pornography, which seeks to arouse and titillate, and not necessarily move. And while porn’s alternate universe of hot-to-trot women and well-hung men can achieve a powerful and salient aesthetic in the film world (when looked at objectively, porn reveals a lot about the way we see sex much more than the actual sex acts themselves), they rarely seek to tell a real story, or move you with their drama. Radley Metzger, Nagisa Oshima, John Cameron Mitchell, and Catherine Breillat have sought to film actual sex and have managed to make it actually dramatic. Some would also point to Larry Clark, the director of Kids and Bully, but he’s a controversial director at best.

In the cases of these aforementioned filmmakers, the way they shoot the sex is, you’ll find, much different than the “intermission” approach. Often, salient and important dialogue will be exchanged during sex, and it’s important that the dialogue occurred during sex. How the people behave in the midst of coitus will reveal a lot about their character. Essentially, these filmmakers have taken the sexual act, and have filmed it as if it weren’t, if that makes any sense. They block out the scene, figure out the dramatic beats, and discuss with actors what’s going on during the sex the same way they would discuss what’s going on in any other scene. Many audiences might not be able to see past the titillation factor (as we’re all, I think, more used to seeing sex as always titillating, and rarely dramatic), and might find the sex scene to just be sexy and nothing else. Many audiences, though, will often see the scenes as the mini-dramas they were intended to be. I guess the lesson here is: if you want your sex scene to be dramatic, don’t film it like a sex scene. Film it like a scene that incidentally contains sex. Film it the same way you would any other dramatic climax, and not like a sexual climax.

But then, if it’s just a fun, frothy little sexual aside, film it openly and in a fun way. Make sure the characters are having fun. That is, after all, why we like to see sex in movies.

There aren’t enough O’s in “smooth” to describe how smooth I am


Homework for the Week:

The next time you see a sex scene in a movie, try to look past the heaving chests and attractive bodies, and pay attention to the way it was filmed. What kind of sex scene is it? Did the story stop to show this? How does the tone of the sex scene contribute to the film at large? How often is the drama of the sex important to the movie? Is it ever? Nudity is fun, but is it always necessary? How often is nudity gratuitous? How often is it necessary? If you were to film two people having sex, how would you do it? How would you fit that scene into a movie? Also, just for the fun of it, watch John Waters' film A Dirty Shame.