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Monday, December 15, 2008

When Is Sex Gratuitous?

APA Dean Keith Simonton, reviewing Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution, notes that "Although the story Lust, Caution (2007) centers on a heterosexual love affair, Lee pushes the limit in a different direction: Where Brokeback [Mountain] stayed within the bounds of an R-rated film, Lee thrusts Lust, Caution quite emphatically into NC-17 territory. The sex is not only explicit but brutal." Simonton later notes "explicit sex becomes far more artistically critical to the very extent that it departs dramatically from what we would usually expect on the silver screen."

When is sex in films essential, and when is it simply gratuitous?

Read the Review
ReviewPracticing Essential Cinematic Sex
By Dean Keith Simonton
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2008 Vol 53(50)


David Carroll

Referring to the cinematic depiction of "ordinary" sex, Simonton states that "most of us do not need to witness the nitty-gritty details about what transpired because most of us have been fortunate enough to have had comparable experiences in our own lives."

This is not only witty, but correct, it seems to me. Movies don't show characters taking baths or preparing dinners in real time. Rather, they show snippets of the activity and we fill in the rest. Anything more would be gratuitous in the sense that it does not advance the film's story.

Emily - Cyprus Property For Sale

Sex is an important part of every person's live and it's important that peopleview it in films not just like a mechanical process intended for satisfaction dastination, but first of all like a real psychological problem straightly connected with persons superego...


Sex, being a part of the human race, is often intriguing and frowned upon at the same time. The line between artistic portrayal and pornography can be blurry sometimes. The same piece of work can both be positive as well as artistic and ugly and vulgar. I remember many years ago, the statue of David was presented publicly in Hong Kong. The statue is well-known all over the world as a piece of art. Unfortunately, when its presence was in Hong Kong, the authority back then decided to put a leaf to cover his private part. Did the statue come with a vulgar mind or was mind of the authority really the obscene one?

I may have a corrupted mind or an overly-open one. As long as sex is carried out between consenting adults, it is not my place to judge what these individuals have done. The same applies to scenes in movies. As long as directors believe those scenes are an integral part of the movie, they should be there. If we do not question if a scene that involves walking to a bus station being extra, just because the scenes involve sex, then why do we use a different yardstick to measure the necessity of sex scenes?


Movie producers be like "I think this movie lacks something, let's add some sex scenes, moviegoers love sex scenes." Indeed, too many movies carry unnecessary sex scenes that do not even go with the flow of the story. Some of them are so unrelated that I feel like watching a half-time ad in the cinema, which really degrades the film. Why is the existence of sex scene a must in love stories? To show the tension or to indicate the point where the relationship reached? Or people simply love the erotic scenes?

Although there are sex scenes that ruin their movies, some do weave perfectly with the plot, such as "Basic Instinct" and "Atonement". Movies like "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Don Jon" thus are "licensed" to implement excessive sex scenes as demanded by the storyline.


The issue with sex is often a taboo subject to openly discuss. Even so, to further decipher whether it should or should not be shown in a film can be proven to be quite a hefty subject. Personally, I believe some films, which portrays sex in a very casual and explicit way such as- Eurotrip and American Pie does make one question its necessity within the film. Obviously, these movies without the eye-catching scenes with nude women and men would not be the same and it does not create the comedy/ artistic element in it. Comparing American Pie to Lust, Caution. Both films depicts a much more vivid and more graphic scene of sexual behaviours and to a certain extend, it does contain a certain degree of truth and reality in it. Therefore, I believe some modern films do tend to exaggerate the sex scenes within the movies and it can be at times, gratuitous. On the other hand, these films also need those specific scenes to create a different element to attract its viewers.

Take another example; a lot of viewers can mutually agree that French movies contain a lot of sex scenes that are very explicit. However, to some cultures, that is considered an art of expression and without that element of Sex, the movie would not evoke the same emotions and expressions it hopes to evoke towards its audience. In addition, it seems very hypocritical for people who do not understand some of the cultures who value sex or nudity as an artistic element. For example, the painting “ La Grande Odalisque” by Jean Auguste Ingres. The nudity in the picture can be conceptualized as the intricacy of the lighting that is reflected through the skin of the woman. In addition, the expression of the subject in the picture and the position she is painted in, gives off a feeling of purity in the human body. Therefore, it might appear very disrespectful to comment on a piece of art that might be interrupted by people of different cultures.

To sum up, to say whether sex is really necessary to be portrayed in films can be judged by whether it reflects the content and whether it would invoke the same emotions (if the sex scene was taken out). Therefore, my point is that I believe it is unfair to suggest that sex in some movies are excessive and unessential because it without those scenes, it would be like viewing a painting without considering its context and history.

Adrian Mark

We are probably talking about culture difference. In the U.S, movies feature a certain number of sex scene but still relatively more restricted in mainstream movie production. In comparison to European standard notably Northern European’s, the restriction is very little; therefore nudity is fairly viewable in film and on TV in busy hours.

Perhaps, it has a lot to do with the education and attitude towards artistic expressions. Agree with Toby, people are educated enough to distinguish reasons behind nudity. It is not because a naked scene takes place that we call it ‘pornographic’. People’s attitude seems to have much greater tolerance and they do appreciate logic behind the scene when sex episode happens to come across.

Looking back to Hong Kong, it is normal to experience much more reservations in regard to sex scene. Movies are categorized into 3 grades. Grade ‘III’ is only suitable to adult audience. Naturally, Hong Kong authority makes a decision whether a movie falls into any of these 3 categories. The problem is that the sex education is already in its inexistence (including in school and family). In addition to it, movies with certain presence of nudity are limited to people over 18 of age only. The whole system gives a wrong message to others under 18 that sex is highly related to taboo.

Personally, sex scene is never too gratuitous. However, it should have its raison d'être in the movie. Most importantly, sex education for everybody is essential; it helps shape our views of individuality, family, parenthood and community and eventually to be a better person in the society.


The main goal for production of films is to gain profit. Arguably speaking, many producers may believe that having sex scenes interest a lot more audience. Hence, even if it is subtle scenes, a certain amount of sexual scenes are included in films.

Yet, I find it interesting how there is a lot of question as to whether it is necessary to include or eliminate sex scenes in films, or even in books etc. Constantly, I have heard that speaking openly about sex is frowned upon. However, it is an essential part of life nonetheless. Of course, I am not saying that sex should be openly discussed with children or used without control. However, I don’t understand why other factors are not as discussed as much. For example, there are many scenes portraying theft e.g. Ocean’s Eleven. In society, this is illegal activity, whereas romance is normal. Why movies that have theft and kidnapping scenes are less criticized? Yet, whenever there are sex scenes, they are often criticized depending on how graphic they are. If the scenes are not about abnormal and unacceptable behavior, I do not understand why there should be so much negativity or scrutiny towards the idea.


Carmen has pointed out something very correct: the over criticising of sex scenes and the under representation or even the lack of mentioning of other equally important issues, such as violence, coarse language, theft, domestic quarrel and so on. One of the real rare occasions I heard about violence being talked about was the movie from a few years back, the Natural Born Killer. Other than that one, there may have been some occasions but they definitely received much less attention than they should have. Movies with the entire theme of theft, for example, the Fast and the Furious (I believe it’s now the 6th or 7th sequel) and violence as the underlying theme, like Rocky, received so little attention. This deserved to be discussed as much as Lust, Caution. Or perhaps they should have received a lot more attention since there were a number of sequels produced with the same themes.


I agreed with everyone that some sex scenes in films are unnecessary and the purpose of these scenes was only for “eye-catching” and “gimmick”. The ultimate goal is only for profile maximizing. It is difficult to make a clear cut when should be the right time to include sex scenes in silver screen. But I think it’s very important for clinicians to understand Chinese’s point of view towards sex.

By comparing Western and Chinese culture and perspective towards sex, Western culture is relatively open compare with Chinese. Sex in Chinese society was being classified as a secret topic and no one should discuss it in the public. As I said film director include sex scenes in film is for film promotion and gimmick to attract audience. I believed sex is the basic needs of everyone but as a Chinese we were raised up in a society which we shouldn’t ask anything about sex. We have no chance to learn and understand the nature of sex and build the positive attitude towards sex. I strongly believed audience would like to learn more about sex from films but nowadays most films including sex scenes were not distorted and overwhelmed.

As a student in clinical psychology, I think we should be aware of the culture difference in sex perspective when we meet clients. Indeed, we should assist to build a healthy and proper way to teach the society what sex actually mean to us.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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