Friday, February 14, 2014

Top 10 Most Necessary Sex Scenes

Sex scenes aren’t my thing. To generalize why: in dramas, thrillers and action films, sex is treated as nothing more than a bridge between two scenes. The scenes are often uninteresting in their coyness, or laughable in their intended salaciousness. And, most importantly, sex in these kinds of films tends to say nothing about the characters involved, and rarely has anything whatsoever to do with the film’s overall plot. In romance films (particularly romantic comedies), sex between people for the first time often implies that those two people are now in love, which is rarely the case outside of PG-13 romcom fantasyland.

Basically, I think sex in film is lazy storytelling. When a sex scene begins during a film, I’m almost always wondering when we’re actually going to get back to the story. However, as always, there are exceptions to my school of thought, like the 10 scenes I have listed below. These sex scenes are essential to their respective films – they actually say something about their characters, and prove to be a necessary element to the overall film.

The Silence (1963)

The sex scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence is unique because it says nothing about the people engaged in the sex, but rather everything about the person observing them.

One afternoon, the bitter and resentful Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) roams the war torn streets of a fictional European city. She stumbles into a theater and casually watches the show. Moments later, she notices a couple near her passionately making love. She stares for a few moments longer than she should, captivated by the couple’s ignorance (or indifference) of Anna watching them. When her captivation turns to shock, Anna quickly exits the theater. Anna’s curious-turned-cold observance is a great character touch that helps shed light on Anna’s personality. But moreover, the scene is effective because it sets in motion (emotionally or otherwise) much of what Anna does throughout the duration of the film.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Not a traditional sex scene by any estimation (does Stanley Kubrick even do traditional sex scenes?), but the final shot of A Clockwork Orange is one of the most ingeniously revealing shots of Kubrick’s career. Watching Alex watch himself roll around with a blonde haired maiden proves to be the most devious trick of the film. Yep, he was cured, all right.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is house hunting alone when she stumbles into a seemingly vacant apartment, only to find Paul (Marlon Brando) sitting in the dark. The two say little, and just as Paul is deciding to leave, he confronts Jeanne and the two engage in effortless, anonymous sex. The scene takes place 14 minutes into the film, and gives you all possible insight for the 122 minutes that are to follow.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

A few years ago, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw referred to the infamous sex scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now as “perhaps the best, tenderest, if not precisely the most real sex scene in cinema history.” When you look past the infamy of the scene (rumors still swirl as to whether or not Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie were having actual sex during the scene) and put it into context with the rest of the film, it’s easy to see where Bradshaw is coming from. This is the first time these characters have been remotely intimate since the death of their daughter. And the intense carnal manner in which they get it on proves to be the best and rarest means of character development.

Boogie Nights (1997)

I’m not sure if there has been a more unusually romantic sex scene than Dirk Diggler’s first porn scene with Amber Waves. The scene is salacious, but never gratuitous. Sexy, but never erotic. Tender, not banal. It’s a long, oddly unique sequence that conveys the innocence of Dirk’s character, and the physical and emotional love Amber feels for him. In just one scene, Amber is lover, mother, teacher and caretaker. Basically, no one but Paul Thomas Anderson could’ve pulled this off.

Monster’s Ball (2001)

We’ve all seen and read about this scene plenty, so I’ll only add that the extended living room romp between Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry is executed in a way that makes the audience feel like it had to happen. And that’s really the best way I can put it: these two characters had no choice but to get drunk and screw each others’ brains out.

21 Grams (2003)

Really, what kind of woman would have sex with a man who she recently discovered actually has her dead husband’s heart inside of him? A woman in an Alejandro González Iñárritu film, that’s who. This scene is as carnal and vital as love scenes get.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Any of Heath Ledger and Jake Jake Gyllenhaal’s love scenes deserve to be on this list, but the most telling sex scene in Brokeback Mountain is the first time we see Ledger and Michelle Williams going at it. In any other movie, a husband flipping his wife over for some playtime would seem pretty normal, but Ledger hastily turning Williams around tells the audience everything we need to know about where his head’s at.

A History of Violence (2005)

For my money, the most necessary sex scene in all of film is the brutal stairway sequence in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. After learning who her husband really is, Edie (Marie Bello) storms out of her living room and is met at the base of the stairs by her angry husband, Tom (Viggo Mortensen). He’s initially a little too rough in his confrontation, and she responds with physical violence. Things get out of hand, he backs off, but she then welcomes him to continue. The subtext of the scene is obvious, but no less startling. Tom thinks he is rekindling his marriage, and Edie simply wants to fuck. I was stunned and appalled the first time I saw this scene, but after I let its worth sink in, I realized how uniquely essential it truly is.

Shame (2011)

Steve McQueen’s Shame is memorable for many reasons, a prime example being that he made (consensual) sex appear as a routine act of emotional violence. There is no joy to be found in the sex in this film, a notion Michael Fassbender portrays hauntingly. The film’s most infamous grand reveal of its sexual attitudes is an extended, sound-free threesome between Fassbender and two women. The women in the scene are paid to express excitement, so the state of their emotionally complexity really isn’t of concern. It’s Fassbender’s duty to convey, in graphic, unflinching detail, the horror of his character’s own mind. The final shot of this scene, in which we watch Fassbender’s skeletal face contort in agony, is one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever seen.

66 comments:

  1. Great list as usual, man. Personally I like a well-executed sex scene - whether they're relevant to the narrative or not, if they're well done they get you to feel something (whether it's good or bad) - but I do really appreciate films like the ones above where the sex scenes are necessary. Don't Look Now, Shame and A History of Violence would certainly be atop my list as well. I'd also give some credit to Mulholland Dr - the first encounter between Rita and Betty is not just important as an insight into character, it also marks the point where the fantasy degrades into a nightmare.

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    1. Thanks man. Mulholland Dr. would probably clock in at number 11. Your notion of that scene being where the fantasy degrades into a nightmare was so eloquent and spot on. Couldn't agree more. Really great call there!

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  2. I find most sex scenes tedious. I consider myself to be a private person, so unless it's integral to the storyline, I really don't want to see it. I prefer some of the methods that older films used, it was implied, rather than shown. I much prefer seeing long passionate gazes or dialogue or kisses. To me that's much more romantic than watching two people roll around. I don't need to see every thrust and sigh. Although the scene in 'A History of Violence' was definitely dramatic and integral to the storyline.

    In my opinion, one of the worst was in Zack Synder's 'Watchmen,' with the two super heroes while the soundtrack blared "Hallelujah." Oh that was awful.

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    1. That Watchmen scene has to be one of the worst sex scenes ever, right? I mean, seriously... what the hell was everyone involved thinking? I can't imagine sitting in an editing bay, queuing "Hallelujah" and thinking, "Yeah, YEAH! That works so well."

      I actually tend to prefer when sex is implied rather than shown as well. Soderbergh did wonders with that in Out of Sight. I agree, much more romantic that way.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

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  3. I'm a sucker for sex scenes only if it's done right. Based on the films that you list (w/ the exception of The Silence which I hope to see later this year), that's pretty essential as I would also agree with ccpopculture.com on Mulholland Dr.. I would add Blue is the Warmest Color in that first sex scene between Adele and Emma as it's not just intense but also would play into Adele's growth as a woman.

    Being a screenwriter myself (though I haven't been writing anything for months because of other projects, laziness, and having hard times forming ideas), I try to find ways to make a sex scene be important to the story as far as it plays to what a character wants and what they want to do. Some of which, would involve some explicit detail because I want a sense of realism and shock value.

    Msmariah is right about Watchmen where as enjoyable it was to see Malin Akerman in the nude, I hated the use of "Hallelujah" as it's a song I've heard too many times. It really took me out of the film and thought it was unnecessary. I also do find some sex scenes to be very tedious where if it doesn't serve a point to the story, it can really drag the film even more.

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    1. I was tempted to add Blue, but ultimately it just didn't make the cut. Still, that is a VERY necessary sex scene, no question. I think that is great that you are approaching sex scenes in that way via your writing. That's what they should be, you know?

      That Watchmen scene is just awful.

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  4. I'm trying to find a way of saying I usually enjoy sex scenes without sounding like a total perv. I like them when they are done right at least. I agree with many of these, All I could think of during History of Violence was how painful that looked, but you're right it was so important. Then there's Monster's Ball...."Make me FEEL good!" I can't. I laugh every time I see that scene, and that's so not the right reaction.

    I have to 2nd and Third Mariah and Void, that Watchmen one was pretty terrible. Not Show Girls terrible, but up there.

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    1. Ha, you don't sound like a perv... I get what you mean. I can't imagine how painful that History of Violence scene was, which kind of plays well for the scene, you know? That whole damn ordeal is painful. Yikes.

      I'll admit, Berry's delivery of "Make me feel goooood," is a bit much, but I buy it. That scene really does fit in that movie.

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    2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3wIse5icuo

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    3. Completely agree. Berry's delivery is awful, haha.

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    4. Jack: Fair enough. I just think honest.

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  5. I'm so glad you made this list. The topic of whether or not sex scenes add anything to a film is something that has been debated endlessly for years. My personal favorite sex scene in a film is the one between Carrie Snodgress and Frank Langella in Diary of a Mad Housewife. It's just so...perfect.
    -Dan

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    1. Thanks Dan, really appreciate you reading. Oh wow... Diary of a Mad Housewife is a GREAT call. Seriously, nice pull there.

      Sex scenes do provoke an endless debate don't they?

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    2. Yeah that scene led Groucho Marx to make this joke, "Well I'm not interested in that. I don't care what they are doing in the sack, if I am not doing it, why should I sit in the theater and watch it?"

      I'm actually really glad to hear that you've seen the film. It really is an under appreciated gem.

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    3. It is indeed. I just haven't seen it in so long. Needs a rewatch.

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  6. Good list. Agree with all the ones I have seen. The only other film I can think of is The Dreamers. Michael Pitt and Eva Green's characters doing it for the first time while Louis Garrel watches over while making eggs- it was so odd it made sense.

    Maybe Her? Between Theodore and Samantha.

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    1. Only you would highlight that Her scene, and I love you for it. That's such a good call. Love it.

      Also, The Dreamers.... yeah that'd be in my Top 20, for sure.

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  7. Another great list. Shame was the first movie I thought of when I saw the topic. As for sex scenes in general, I tend to enjoy them if they really have something to do with the plot and are well executed. Other than that, yeah it's lazy story-telling. That said, I have to agree with Brittani Burnham on Monster's Ball. I thought that scene was completely laughable. And so was The Watchmen scene.

    One I thought of is the sex scene in Boyz N the Hood in which Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character is lying to his father about his sexual exploits. It's so perfectly emblematic of a teenage boy's mentality and this particular boy's relationship with his dad.

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    1. Thanks man. You know, that is a great call with Boyz N the Hood. Seriously, I wasn't even thinking about scenes from that perspective, but your reasoning is so spot on. Truly splendid cal there.

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  8. Great topic to do a post on, I was thinking about this the other day watching Girls (y'know, the show where Lena Dunham has sex in like every episode) and thinking that it's actually fine in that show in the same way it's not fine in most hollywood movies (apart from the 10 you named of course - good list).

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    1. Yep, couldn't agree more. I agree with you about Girls and sex scenes in general. Very well put.

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  9. Hardly seen any of these films to be honest, but I have seen Don't Look Now. It is a great scene, and of course controversial at the time, I loved the editing in the that scene, the film jumps between them having sex and getting ready for dinner.

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    1. Ignore my other comment, I think I understand - I had just woken up.

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    2. That's a great scene, isn't it? Really captivating film.

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  10. I haven't seen most of these scenes but when I read the title I actually thought about Y Tu Mamá También's final sex scene.. and the morning after.

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    1. That's a great scene, for sure. And a necessary one, no question.

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  11. Interesting list. I think sex can provide an interesting look into the state of a character(s) state of mind, like more or less all the films you mentioned above (though I am certainly not a fan of all of them) I do think they are relevant to the actual story being told. I was perhaps most shocked by the lack of a scene from a Lars Von Trier film on here though. Whether it's the more graphic and nasty ones in Antichrist, the one-time fuck on the lawn in Melancholia, the turning point in Dogville, or the dark descent in Breaking The Waves - I think that man knows how to make sex relevant to a story (also for the fact that he just made a film named Nymphomaniac), I would have put him on but that's just me. Also, was there any other film that could have topped/finished(?) this list but Shame. Such a great film (...duh), saw it again recently and is even more powerful than the first couple of times I've seen it already.
    I do have to confess that when I first saw this list I was scared for a second because I thought you might just include the likes of Winterbottom's horrible 9 Songs on here - but it was fleeting and I'm glad that I discovered that it was not present on here.

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    1. You know, my one rule from this list was to not include scenes of sexual abuse. A History of Violence toed that line, but most of LvT's films cross that line. Let's go walk through your picks:

      Antichrist: all are necessary for the world the film creates, but none would break my Top 10.

      Melancholia: Necessary, sure. Top 10 worthy... nah.

      Dogville: Didn't consider any of the scenes in this film.

      Breaking the Waves: the first sex scene between Bess and Jan nearly made this list. A very important and poignant moment there. I didn't consider any of the subsequent scenes with Bess and other men.

      Beyond that... yeah, I'm no 9 Songs fan either.

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  12. What a great list for Valentine's Day. For me, sex scenes only work if they move the story forward (ie, two characters are having an affair) rather than grinding it to a halt. (Erm, pun not intended...)

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    1. Thanks! I agree, that is a way that sex scenes work, certainly.

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  13. I completely agree with you that a sex scene is rarely ever really needed to drive a film forward. However, I honestly don't mind them.

    In a good movie, they are usually done well enough that it adds something to the story (as you've mentioned). And in a bad movie, at least it provides a salacious break to whatever mess we're stuck in. The real crime, for me, is when a middle of the road movie throws one in, almost as if it's simply required to do so.

    I'm shocked that the sex scenes in MacGruber didn't make this list.

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    1. Yeah man, fair enough. I admit I'm a little harder on sex scenes than most other people. So it's all good.

      MacCruber... what was I THINKING?!

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  14. Really awesome list here, I agree with all of those. I'd add Soderbergh's Solaris and the double sex scene - the first time/Solaris one because with so many bitter and tough moments between the couple this is the only one that's truly joyful and peaceful and gives you some idea as to why the protagonist loves his wife above all else, even with her flaws. I also really liked the one between Sevigny and Swank in Boys Don't Cry that established Sevigny's lack of issues with Brandon's identity. She just wanted to be with him.

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    1. Thanks Sati! Solaris and Boy's Don't Cry are both excellent choices. Seriously, great calls there. That first Boy's Don't Cry scene is so telling.

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  15. I love that you posted this list on Valentine's Day. That's poetic. And I love that introduction because it really captures the problem with sex scenes in general. But you're right, they can be necessary, and all of these are. (Well, I haven't seen "The Silence." I should change that.) I thought of "Don't Look Now" too and I also thought of the sex scene between Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow in "Two Lovers."

    It's so beautiful and awful and uncomfortable all at once, like a consummation not of love but of their "crazy".

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    1. It really was the only way I could think to constructively contribute to Valentine's Day. Ha.

      Great call on Two Lovers. That's one of the best, most necessary sex scenes I've seen recently. A very important scene there.

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  16. Excellent list, Shame is a great pick. I'd also include Mulholland Dr and most recently, Her.

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    1. Thanks Jack. That Mulholland Dr. scene was really close to making the list. A necessary scene no doubt.

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  17. Terrific article Alex - as always. Sex is so often used as a form of titillation that has no real bearing on the characters themselves (outside of some very basic desires). I like the fact you mention that in PG-13 films, sex for the first time equals "love". I'm not sure what sort of message these films are sending out to young people - but it can't be a good one.

    Love the fact you've included two of the real stand outs for me: Don't Look Now and Last Tango in Paris...very iconic, very memorable for the right reasons. I do love that scene in Boogie Nights too - particular that almost innocuous cut back to the film crew as they are watching events unfold.

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    1. Thanks Dan. I honestly could (and want to) write a whole essay about the wrong message PG-13 films send to young people, particularly young women. It definitely is NOT a good message.

      Glad you liked some of the picks. Always love hearing another blogger issue praise to Last Tango!

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  18. Fantastic work, Alex. This is an ingenious idea for a list. Great call on 21 Grams especially. That one didn't cross my mind at first, but yeah, that was a really powerful scene.

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    1. Thanks Eric! Love that you appreciate that 21 Grams scene. Such a disturbing (but necessary) moment there.

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  19. The sex scene in A History of Violence is a fantastic choice for this list! Another Fassbender choice I thought of when reading your intro is in Fish Tank. When they finally have sex in that movie it's done in an almost brutally uncomfortable and realistic way. It really affected me.

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    1. That Fish Tank scene is so rough, BECAUSE it's so realistic. Truly haunting shit. Fassbender is so damn good in that movie.

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  20. It seems to me, though, that some of the better story-telling is taking place on TV and, almost simultaneous to the rise of good TV series, are storytellers who are using sex a great deal (pretty much anything on HBO comes to mind, but also something like Boss which, I think, was on Stars). One could make the argument that while the sex shown does not add anything particularly meaningful in the way of narrative development, it does reflect simply one more thing that people actually do. So ... what are your thoughts on sex and television?

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    1. Great question, but a tad difficult for me to answer, only because I don't get around to watching much TV. Of the shows I currently watch (House of Cards and True Detective), I don't think sex plays a very big role in them. In the first season of House of Cards, I thought the sex was an essential component to Kevin Spacey's deception. But of what I've seen of Season 2, sex has been mostly absent, and I don't think there's anything lacking from the show at all.

      The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and True Detective are other shows I've watched in recent years that use sex intermittently and effectively. Girls, The Sopranos and Deadwood contain(ed) quite a bit of sex, and I almost always thought it was necessary in all of them.

      So, I suppose my thoughts on sex and TV is the same as sex and movies: if it serves a purpose, then I'm all for it. But really, I don't make for a very expansive TV critic. Most of my time is spent on films. Still, that was a great question and I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting.

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  21. Brilliant collection of necessary sex! I'd also add Atonement to this, for I think it brilliantly sets up the whole arc of the film, and without it the story wouldn't have been as impactful. It's also probably the best choreographed sex scene I've ever seen.

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    1. Thanks! That Atonement sex scene call. Very important, and very well executed. The way it cuts to a master shot from Briony's POV is ingenious (and oddly hilarious).

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    2. For me, like Fisti, it's ATONEMENT for may reasons (some of aesthetic, it really is well shot) but in a movie that's basically all subtext it's ingenious how the lone moment of physical gratification is happening in a library against a stack of books considering how the written word is the basis of the film's tragedy.

      (Excellent call on the one in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE.)

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    3. Nice man, love seeing more praise for that Atonement scene. One of the new films that really got sex right.

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  22. Amazing work man! A History of Violence and Shame would be at the top of my list. Double bonus points for including The Silence. I probably would've overlooked that one, but it couldn't be more appropriate.

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    1. Thanks buddy! Really happy to hear you value that scene from The Silence. Such an important moment from that film.

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  23. Great post! Shame definitely featured the most joyless, non-erotic sex scenes I've ever seen in a movie. They were both brilliant and extremely depressing. I've neither seen nor read A Clockwork Orange, and I can't figure out what the hell is going on in that screenshot. ;-)

    I''m glad you made this point: "In romance films (particularly romantic comedies), sex between people for the first time often implies that those two people are now in love, which is rarely the case outside of PG-13 romcom fantasyland." As a counselor/educator, this has always been one of my pet peeves -- I think the implied message is harmful to teens. When movies portray sex between 2 people who barely know each other, I wish they'd let things play out the way they normally would in the real world.

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    1. Hey Steph! Thanks for the great comment. I don't know if you saw Don Jon, but that movie was essentially about what I was talking about with that quote. Porn is as destructive for young men as romcoms are for young women. I think there's a lot of validity to that argument, and that sex=love trend in romcoms is definitely a pet peeve of mine as well.

      You MUST see A Clockwork Orange. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that one!

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    2. Hmm ... interesting. I definitely want to see Don Jon soon.

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    3. I had some issues with the execution of the film as a whole, but that central theme is really quite compelling. I wish the flick had fleshed it out a little more, actually.

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  24. A number of TV producers for networks like Netflix and HBO need lessons on when sex is actually necessary to the plot and when it's just a distraction or changes a series from whatever genre it's intended to be (crime, fantasy, sci-fi) into erotica. If you want to create erotica, that's fine, but shows like Girls, Orange is the New Black and Sense8 are supposed to be about something more than erotica. Yet that's what they have become. Filmmakers seem to have a better grasp (usually) on when you really actually need to show sex than people on cable and streaming TV who seem to act like a kid with a new toy.

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    1. I do think Girls and OitNB have used sex in a necessary way before (haven't seen Sense8), but I agree that their use of sex has become excessive. Just tell the story, you know?

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  25. This list helped me understand why sex scenes may sometimes be necessary and add to the plot. I personally would still rather not see them, it's more impact full and meaningful when its just a kiss or an intense hold or even implied. I've always felt that sec scenes where absolutely useless and really a waste if time in a film. I find myself saying 'are you kidding me.... why...' and becoming negative afterwards towards a film for a few min. That is just me though, like I said there are well done scenes that add to plot I just rather view the plot without the sex.

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  26. This list helped me understand why sex scenes may sometimes be necessary and add to the plot. I personally would still rather not see them, it's more impact full and meaningful when its just a kiss or an intense hold or even implied. I've always felt that sec scenes where absolutely useless and really a waste if time in a film. I find myself saying 'are you kidding me.... why...' and becoming negative afterwards towards a film for a few min. That is just me though, like I said there are well done scenes that add to plot I just rather view the plot without the sex.

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    1. For the most part, I agree that sex scenes are unnecessary in movies. They're often so gratuitous (for the sake of being gratuitous) and add nothing to the plot. The examples I listed, however, are 10 such rare exceptions.

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  27. Most of Von Trier's sex scenes e.g. in "AntiChrist" are usually necessary.

    Thanks.

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    1. Whew, some tough ones in that film. But I agree, they are necessary for that specific story.

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  28. I always skip the sex scene in the otherwise excellent "After Dark, My Sweet." Truly distasteful and unnecessary.

    Thanks.
    b

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    1. Oh I forgot about that one. Yeah, I suppose I think it's about as unnecessary as most sex scenes.

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