How Sex In Cinema Works (And Why It’s Here To Stay)

sex in the cinema

By Blake Dillon

Amy Schumer recently described her Trainwreck sex scene with WWE star John Cena as awkward. “He was actually doing it,” she said. “Apparently wrestlers aren’t always faking!”

While the budding comedienne was obviously using hyperbole to grab a quick laugh, she was also letting the audience in on the reality that many actors and actresses face: sex isn’t sexy. At least, not in film. The very scenes that get us hot and bothered often get them, well, just bothered.

Charles Smith, a Canadian assistant director who’s worked on 40-something films including The House at the End of the Street (starring Jennifer Lawrence), says that while everybody is professional, things can occasionally get awkward on set during sex scenes. Apart from the obvious reasons, he attributes the awkwardness to the fact that these scenes aren’t treated much differently than any other scene would be, despite the iffy nature of the content. That means hair and makeup, numerous takes, several camera angles, different lighting, directorial advice, repositioning, and so on.

“Just like any scene, filming can take anywhere from an hour to half of a day to all day,” he says. “It depends on camera angles, setups, and whatnot, but I would say, on average, most sex scenes take between two and three hours to film.”

If dry humping in front of cameras and crews for hours on end isn’t bad enough, on-screen talent will often adorn a series of awkward accessories ranging from flesh-coloured banana hammocks to stick-on pubic wigs. On top of all that, there’s plenty of rehearsing that goes into things before it even gets to set, and the mid-action interplay — be it moans and groans or actual dialogue — can be tough to deliver in the heat of the moment. Mix in some accidental arousal and you have all the makings of extreme discomfort.

The bad news for actors and actresses who are either uncomfortable or unwilling is that sex on screen is becoming more common day by day. While it’s true that sex scenes have basically been around for as long as film has, they’ve only recently become the new norm. Game of Thrones really popularized them when it debuted in 2011, and, since then, directors have become increasingly comfortable using them in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to basic cable dramas. “I think sex on TV has always been prevalent, especially in HBO shows,” Smith says. “I believe it’s only so noticeable now because Game of Thrones affords a different type of sex to play out, and the popularity of the show allows a wider and more diverse demographic to witness it and become accustomed to it.”

Smith contrasts Thrones’ use of sex to that of shows like The Sopranos or The Wire. The difference, he says, is that these shows are set in gritty, crime-filled cities. There are strippers and mobsters and criminals engaging in intercourse, painting the act with a bad brush. Whereas, in Game of Thrones, you have kings, queens, heroes, and regular people hooking up — it’s less vilified, and viewed as more of a part of life.

“Tony Soprano does not look like Jaime Lannister, and nor should he,” Smith says. “The fantasy genre really allows filmmakers to take liberties with sex, which allows the audience to see incredibly attractive people have sex with other incredibly attractive people.”

As a result, people are slowly becoming desensitized to sex — something Smith is excited about.

“I think that’s a good thing,” he says. “For a long time, it’s been acceptable to show violence and gruesome acts in cop dramas, but it’s been necessary to censor or blur a nipple. Something is seriously wrong if people think that seeing a naked boob is worse than seeing an eviscerated corpse.”

Although what we see on screen is often a far cry from what it’s like in real life, a real reason for this desensitization is that sex is something all people can relate to. Seeing iconic characters in vulnerable settings brings a genuine sense of realism to our favourite shows and films.

For that reason — and much to the chagrin of many celebs — sex will be utilized more and more in the coming years. In 2015 alone, sex-filled flicks like Fifty Shades of Grey and Magic Mike XXL have become massive commercial successes, leading the charge in this nouveau approach.

As Smith puts it, “sex is a part of life.” And it looks like Hollywood is finally figuring that out.

Four Ways To Fake It

Here are some of the weird things film crews use to simulate sex.

Exercise Balls: This common workout accessory is often used during sex scenes to mimic girl-on-top action.
Merkins: Also known as pubic wigs, these fake bushes create the illusion of exposed private parts despite actually concealing them.
Modesty Pouches: In nude scenes that portray an actor from a back or side profile, he’ll often be wearing a skin-coloured pouch over his, um, own pouch.
Pasties: The breast equivalent of the modesty pouch, these skin-toned patches stick onto an actress, hiding her nipples from sight.