In my day, sex scenes were placed in mainstream movies out of necessity. Well, that’s not precisely true—no one was going to die if they didn’t get to see men’s bobbing butts and women pantomiming going from zero to orgasm in 15 seconds—but it kind of felt that way. I came of age in the early ‘90s, when erotic thrillers were all the rage and even movies that weren’t exactly erotic thrillers (like Single White Female) had the good sense to play like them. There were simply fewer avenues to experience depicted sex back then, especially as someone who was below the age of 18 and without access to a large stash of porn VHSes. So when Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction cut to a few minutes of skin slithering all over the screen, it felt like a service was being provided.
Now, obviously, things are different. Online, it feels like discussions about sex onscreen are as fervid (and often as unreasonable) as they were in the early ‘90s. Often, it’s kicked off by a social media post declaring sex scenes pointless—or worse, a violation of consent—that multiple outlets have all weighed in, giving rise to discourse about the discourse. And yet Saltburn and Poor Things were two widely discussed films from 2023, due in no small part to their depictions of sex. Saltburn might not have gotten half the play that it did were it not for the kinky bathwater-drinking, grave-humping, and dick-out dancing by Barry Keoghan’s character, Oliver. Poor Things, which in part explores the pragmatic enjoyment of sex via a woman who hasn’t been socialized to be ashamed of her sexuality or body, has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards.
It’s a good time for sex in movies. As someone who thinks about sex a lot (I co-write Slate’s "How To Do It" advice column) and pays close attention to matters of media representation, I eat all of this up. I am excited for creative approaches to sex on screen, both in terms of the act itself and the greater impact it has on characters’ cultures, dynamics, and personalities. I’m looking forward to the year ahead of sex in movies, and to kick off this year’s column, below is a preview of what to expect.
Drive-Away Dolls (February 23)
Ethan Coen’s first narrative feature he’s directing without his brother, Joel, has been kicking around since the mid-‘00s, when it was called Drive-Away Dykes and had Selma Blair, Holly Hunter, Christina Applegate, and Chloë Sevigny attached. Now, it has a more user-friendly name, but is still very much the lesbian road movie that Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke (his wife) always intended it to be. In Drive-Away Dolls, Margaret Qualley, wielding an emphasized Southern accent, stars as the extremely sexually comfortable Jamie. She's a foil for her more buttoned-up lesbi-friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan), as they take a road trip from Philly to Tallahassee, Florida, while carrying… hot cargo. Criminals are trailing them, to boot. Expect copious copulation in the form of girl-on-girl oral, toy play, and more. If you thought Burn After Reading was horny, you’re in for a wild ride.
Mea Culpa (February 23)
At long last, the world gets to see Tyler Perry’s take on the erotic thriller. The auteur wrote and directed Mea Culpa, which Netflix is marketing as a “steamy thriller,” and its trailer has the hallmarks of golden-era erotic thrillers. Kelly Rowland is a defense attorney (of course) representing an artist (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) accused of murdering his girlfriend (naturally), who says things like, "I’m the kind of man that likes to see pleasure on my woman’s face. Not pain.” (Sure, buddy.) Something that is also very vintage erotic thriller? A voiceover comparing human carnality to that of animals: “A snake is never violent when stalking their prey. It’s only when they get right into striking distance that they become very violent,” says one character. Check!
Dune: Part Two (March 1)
OK, so we can’t expect too much along the lines of sex from Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his code-cracking 2021 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece. But the second half of the book does contain a sort of spice orgy that’s part of the Water of Life ritual Lady Jessica undergoes. Some fans of the book are concerned: “Dune Part 2's Spice Orgy Is A Problem” reads a subheading in a Screen Rant piece about whether or not Villeneuve will remain faithful to the book while incorporating the all-important sex-party imagery.
Love Lies Bleeding (March 8)
Rose Glass’s follow up to 2019’s Saint Maud was a sensation at Sundance this year. It stars Kristen Stewart as a gym manager who falls for a female bodybuilder. Lots of gunfire and Ed Harris with a bald-on-top-long-on-the-sides hairdo follow. The Telegraph deemed it “jaw-dropping” in its five-star review, while The Hollywood Reporter wrote that among its “passionate and intimate lesbian sex scenes” are depictions of “oral sex, brief toe-sucking and one encounter that finds Lou instructing Jackie to masturbate while she watches from inches away.” Sign us up!
Challengers (April 26)
Talk about making love mean something in tennis. The trailer for Luca Guadagnino’s racket romance depicts what seems to be the beginning of threesome between three characters: Tashi (Zendaya), Patrick (Josh O’Connor), and Art (Mike Faist). They sit in a line on a bed; she kisses Art, then Patrick, and then…? It seems like—but is unclear if—that’s a flashback. (Per MGM’s official summary, she eventually marries Art and he and Patrick face off on the court.) Also unclear: Whether this threesome will be MFM or MMF. Knowing Guadagnino, bet on the latter.
Housekeeping for Beginners (April 5)
The past two movies from Macedonian Australian writer-director Goran Stolevski, 2022’s You Won’t Be Alone and 2023’s Of an Age, have both featured pivotal and bold sex scenes. There’s no reason to believe that the chosen-family, cinéma vérité-esque drama Housekeeping for Beginners won’t do the same—it’s R-rated, in part for sexual content.
The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed (April 26)
Joanna Arnow’s latest film did the festival circuit in 2023 and will open for general audiences later this year. Its protagonist Ann (Arnow) is a woman in a “long-term casual BDSM relationship,” the portrayal of which could go a long way in bringing kink without shame or stigma to moviegoing audiences.
In the London-set Sebastian, via Finnish-British director Mikko Mäkelä, Ruaridh Mollica plays Max, a writer who turns tricks on the side. He does this mostly without pathos. Around the time of his movie’s Sundance premiere, Mäkelä told Variety that he wanted to “approach the topic of [sex work] becoming more common and continue to interrogate any lingering stigmas around it.” Practically speaking, Max exists in two modes: his writerly one, in which he uses his given name, and his sex-worker one, where he goes by Sebastian. The movie is explicit—Max is casually versatile with his trade—and Sebastian's laid-back approach to its subject is fresh.
Where Sebastian is casual, Ponyboi—another queer sex-worker movie that premiered at Sundance this year—is tense. The titular character (played by River Gallo) spends much of the film on the run in North Jersey, after a trick dies from smoking bad meth. Turns out, it was provided by Ponyboi’s pimp (and occasional sex partner), Vinny (Dylan O’Brien). It’s reminiscent of 2015’s Tangerine, though it looks much better (no iPhone cinematography here) and is deeply invested in Ponyboi’s interior, even if the character is somewhat ambivalent about what’s going on under the hood. “I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be anymore,” says Ponyboi, who, like Gallo (the mastermind of the project, according to an interview at Sundance with director Esteban Arango), is intersex. There’s a lot going on in this one, but its frenetic pacing ensures this is no chore to endure.
Last Summer (TBA)
It would be crude and unfair to say that Catherine Breillat’s drama is the French arthouse equivalent of stepmom/MILF porn, but Last Summer touches on the taboos and morality questions inherent in that particular (yet popular) pornographic subgenre. This remake of the 2019 Danish film Queen of Hearts finds Anne (Léa Drucker) drawn to the 17-year-old son her husband had in a previous marriage. Mess ensues. of course, but it’s rather mannered and tasteful mess!
The Rest of 2024
There are, of course, many other movies set to be released that could have enticing sexual elements of sex in them, but too little is known about them currently. The third part of Ti West’s Mia Goth-starring X trilogy, MaXXXine, is expected this year—the early teaser suggested its porn-starring protagonist may be entering her VHS era, though a report from a screening suggested it is “homage to Dario Argento and the sub-genre of giallo,” and compared it to Lucio Fulci’s roughie The New York Ripper. Robert Eggers is trying his hand at Nosferatu (due out by the end of the year), which is almost certain to contain vampiric lust. And will Todd Phillips continue pushing the envelope in Joker: Folie à Deux by staging sex between Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker and Lady Gaga’s (rumored) Harley Quinn? Anyone down for some clown-on-clown action?
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