Why Hollywood Can’t Ignore Its Consent Problem Any Longer

Sex is out at the movies, and family-friendly superheroes are in. That’s partly because sex no longer sells, but also because the way audiences feel about movie intimacy has changed, too. It’s way more difficult to separate the art from the artist, because the context we now have makes us more aware of and concerned with the way actors are treated. In this context, more and more people are coming to the realization that acting doesn’t have to mean doing sex scenes, and definitely that actors shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable or exploited at work.


Sex is out at the movies, and family-friendly superheroes are in. That’s partly because sex no longer sells when mid-budget adult movies have all but disappeared and blockbusters reign supreme. But actually, the way audiences feel about movie intimacy has changed, too. In the post MeToo era, we tend to look at films holistically. It’s way more difficult to separate the art from the artist, because the context we now have makes us more aware of and concerned with the way actors are treated. In this context, more and more people are coming to the realization that acting doesn’t have to mean doing sex scenes, and definitely that actors shouldn’t be made to feel uncomfortable or exploited at work. In January, more than 50 years after its release, the stars of 1968’s Romeo and Juliet sued the studio over changing expectations that they’d do nude scenes once they arrived on set. This greater sensitivity seems to be a positive development – though not everyone agrees: there was a loud backlash against Penn Badgley when he revealed he wouldn’t do intimate scenes on You to protect his marriage. There’s also the question of whether clamping down too puritanically on intimate scenes is a form of censorship that recalls the Old Hollywood days and isn’t really good for the art or for audiences. Here’s our take on how consent plays into how we view intimacy onscreen – and whether Hollywood needs to start censoring again.

Sarah Lozoff: They’re being told: Hey, make that hotter, make that sexier. Well what does that mean? - Vice

From the 1930s to the 1960s, Hollywood self-censored intimacy onscreen under the Hays Code. The Code was strict – married characters weren’t even allowed to sleep in the same bed – and there were rules about how long actors could kiss onscreen for.

Charles Winchester: Gentlemen, uh, before you unleash your libidos, bear in mind… Boston would have banned Pinocchio. - M*A*S*H

After the Code lost power and was lifted in the 1960s, the industry veered in the opposite direction. Sex scenes in films became increasingly associated with edginess or prestige. Erotic thrillers became popular, adult dramas with intimate scenes won big awards, and arthouse directors used explicit scenes to shock. Then, the Prestige TV era juggernauts like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, and Game of Thrones established their HBO appeal in a large degree through being able to realistically show what network TV couldn’t.

But, abruptly, #MeToo reshaped our understanding of so many intimate scenes from the history of film. And as a result the way we approach intimate scenes has begun to change – both in the industry, and as viewers. In the past, actors experienced egregious consent violations while filming. The most famous example is in Last Tango in Paris, where actor Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci conspired to surprise actress Maria Schneider with a scene in which Brando’s character assaults her with a stick of butter.

Bernardo Bertolucci: In a way I have been horrible to Maria. I wanted her to react as a girl, not as an actress. - El Mundo de Alycia/YouTube

Schneider later said “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” As these stories have emerged more and more, now it’s common practice to have an intimacy coordinator onset. But that doesn’t automatically mean everything is easy – as MeToo taught us, there can be multiple non-consensual events leading up to the first day onset. Critics pick up on a lack of chemistry between the actors in these scenes. But how can actors be expected to create the illusion of intimacy if they’re afraid or uncomfortable onset? And then, conversely, how do you act sexy when you have a full team watching you, you’re wearing protective underwear, or you don’t get along with your co-star – as was the rumor about Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson while filming Fifty Shades of Grey. So when there is still some sex in Hollywood, making it convincing – or something people want to watch – can be pretty complicated.

Sylan Tichenor: Sex scenes, in general, I think, are probably difficult for everyone. Difficult for writers, difficult for actors, difficult for directors. - The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

And when actors do a good job, there’s an element of audiences being too convinced, and taking their responses way too far. Recently, viewers slut-shamed Chloe Bailey for her sex scene in Swarm – combining two recent audience trends: that they’re unable to separate the actress from her character, and they’re becoming increasingly uninterested in these graphic scenes.

In February 2023, Penn Badgley came under fire for saying he prefers not to do intimate scenes because his marriage is more important. It came only a short while after the media reported the ‘extinction’ of sex scenes due to COVID, sparking a big conversation – and in some camps, the fallout was huge. Some deemed his quote “antisex comments” “creepy and unprofessional,” taking them as proof he couldn’t focus on his job and not “lust” after a coworker. The industry assumption has long been that willingness to do intimate scenes is required for any serious practitioner of the trades. But isn’t it fair enough for an actor to make the decision not to do them - whatever the reason?

It’s true that Badgley has an easier time taking this stance as a guy. We’re told time and again by women with lived experiences of the industry that if you say no to sex scenes and nudity you’ll be ostracized. Mila Kunis said she was told she’d ‘never work again’ after refusing to pose nude for a magazine to promote a movie, for example. The stars of shows get a lot more leverage to control what intimate scenes they do, versus the smaller characters or extras. And only the most famous and established actresses come out to say that they now steer clear of roles where they’re asked to perform intimacy.

Andie MacDowell: I don’t wanna be the one in the doorway, dropping the towel… because I’m tired, you know what? I’m tired of the cliches, and so are all of us. - The Off Camera Show

If the story and the role don’t really call for sex, why write it in? More and more, we’re seeing explorations that aren’t just jumping to those clichés and attempt to realistically capture the complexity of human relationships, whether they’re sexual or not.

Even the very first romantic contact onscreen – the 1896 short film The Kiss – showed that critics and audiences have always had pretty strong and visceral reactions to watching other people being intimate. What looks like a very sweet moment between a couple was deemed revolting by critics back in 1896, with one writing:

“The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life-size it was pronounced beastly. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”

And with the advent of the Production Code, this sort of opinion came to govern mainstream cinema.

Many people agree that the Production Code held Hollywood back for all that it prevented being represented onscreen. Queer relationships, interracial relationships and women’s issues weren’t allowed to be explored. Film was sanitized, and stripped of many of the things that make up the human experience. Subjects like abortion, sex before marriage, and assault were scrubbed from films even though they absolutely existed at the time, so young people didn’t have open representations of these things to refer to.

Chett Donnelly: Die a vir… a vir-vir… Why can’t I say that word?

Lisa: Hays code.

Chett Donnelly: Bastards. - Weird Science

Yet today, all over TikTok and Twitter, people are calling to reinstate censorship. One tweet says people don’t consent to being voyeurs; another says that the characters haven’t consented to us watching them. Many don’t seem to know about the history of Hollywood censorship, saying ‘50-60 years ago, intimate scenes didn’t exist’, while others are claiming the film industry has somehow ‘decayed’ and that the decay in question has taken root in society.

Yet it’s important to separate the actors’ right to choose whether to participate from the value of intimate scenes themselves. The true history is that intimate scenes existed long before Hollywood censored itself. And it’s a slippery slope to start censoring content again. There are also complex biases at play – as journalist Mira Fox notes, the Hays Code was deeply antisemitic, too. When done well, intimate scenes can have a lot of artistic and narrative value. The 1973 film Don’t Look Now’s scene between a couple grieving their child explores how these two people can reconnect after such a devastating loss. 1997’s Boogie Nights explores what intimate scenes were like in the 70s and 80s adult film industry. Many shows today often use these scenes to explore important aspects of human relationships, the dynamics of power, consent, and emotional needs. And this can be important in cinema that’s made for grown-ups as well. So the point isn’t that all this should be erased from visual storytelling – but the industry should be guided by thoughtfulness around why an erotic scene is in the story and how it’s produced.

Tonia Sina: When you don’t have a voice of a population of people it’s not going to be represented in the work. And that’s what is changing in the arts now. - Vice News

Censorship didn’t work the first time around. Directors came up with increasingly inventive ways to get around it – like the way Hitchcock got around a ‘three second kiss’ rule by writing a scene filled with passion where the characters simply have to stop and talk every three seconds.

The heart of Hollywood’s historic culture of censorship isn’t in a good place, and making rules around what we can and can’t watch doesn’t do audiences any good. It’s much better to include content warnings at the beginning of movies so that people can decide whether they want to watch them or not – the way Disney, TCM and HBO Max do when introducing historic films with racial stereotyping, for example.

On the other hand, why is it just a given that actors will do sex scenes? Consent comes into work, too. For as long as the film industry has existed, actors have been expected to do things on and offscreen that might make them uncomfortable, or might even be harmful to them – and that’s reflective of something bigger in society.

Jodi Kantor: If that could happen to Hollywood actresses, who else is it happening to? - She Said

As the conversation grows, hopefully we’ll see more nuanced portrayals of relationships onscreen, too, reflecting a movie industry that has to grow as it challenges itself.


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