Why are we getting it on?

As an article for Paste Magazine delved into yesterday, “What’s it like to film a sex scene?” is perhaps one of the easiest staples of an entertainment journalist’s toolkit. And often it results in a familiar rote back-and-forth where actors namecheck the same awkwardness. The better question, however, is why.

I’m not of the mind that sex scenes have to be unnecessary. They are, often, unfortunately. And even some of the best ones can be gratuitous. But sometimes they can be used to communicate depth about the characters, the same way a camera pan or a lighting effect might. There are the obvious ones to check here: 50 Shades of Grey, Shame, or any rom-com where two people start with casual sex and discover real feelings.

But let’s look at Blue Valentine. When we first meet Cindy she’s with a boyfriend, Bobby. She’s got a life outside of that—one that soon intersects with Dean—but we’re given no reason to think that Bobby is a bad guy, really (again, at first; opinions may change as he develops). But we do see them have sex: Him, behind her, both seeming to enjoy themselves. They move fluidly, and seem to be on the same page until Bobby ejaculates without protection.

Flip that with her later sex scene with Dean, where their romance is finally consummated. It’s not a matter of complete control, but it is notably one of the only instances (and certainly one of the happier moments) where a man goes down on a woman. It also earned the film a battle with the MPAA over their attempts to rate it as NC-17, basically because of that one cunnilingus scene.

That got the movie a lot of press, similar to the infamous sex scene(s) in Blue is the Warmest Color. And for once it was because of the question of why: Why was the MPAA so appalled by the act? Why was the scene important enough to the film to go to the bat for?

These sex scenes don’t have to do with power, or money, or fame, as so many “important” sex scenes in Hollywood do. Instead they illustrate the difference in two partners one woman has; the carelessness of one and the consideration of the other. They’re worth risking the NC-17 rating because they’re a quick character study.

Because like technology law, sex touches on a lot of different parts of our life. And how that’s presented on screen is important. Why do we only see heterosexual, white, able-bodied, orgasm-having, conventionally attractive folk on screen? Why is it so shocking when sex is confronted head on, or at least realistically?

And perhaps most tellingly: Why do people still think that a kiss and a pan away means that the characters themselves won’t have talked about sex since the last time we’ve seen them?

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