Hollywood’s Sex Scene Disconnect

hiding eyes

Actress and director Olivia Wilde wants to make filming sex scenes safer for the actors and actresses involved. Specifically, she’s spearheading an effort to “make a better environment” for such scenes—i.e., enforcing a closed set that ensures only those who really need to be there are present.

Sitting down with Katie Couric at the 2020 MAKERS Conference in Los Angeles earlier this week, Wilde used her own directorial efforts and rules on the set of Booksmart as an example of how things should be done:

“I thought, OK, I’ll finally teach everyone what a closed set means. And I said to our actresses that are doing this intimate scene, ‘When you’re on your next film set, I want you to demand what I’m showing you today.’”

I understand what Wilde is saying here. Essentially, she’s arguing—and rightly so—that she wants to make sure no one is on set for creepy reasons instead of professional ones. She’s trying to limit the number of people who watch these actors and actresses shed their clothes in this live context.

On the surface, this seems both noble and reasonable, and Wilde deserves credit for championing rules that protect vulnerable artists in these situations.


Wilde seems utterly unaware of a sad irony: The same scenes she doesn’t want a handful of extra people viewing voyeuristically during filming are going into movies and TV shows that millions of people will be watching. And many of those consumers may well be watching those scenes because of that explicit sexual content. Wilde doesn’t want vulnerable actresses to be exploited or abused on the set (again, admirably so), but she doesn’t seem to have any problem with film studios using that graphic content to market their wares, placing images of naked bodies in front of countless more eyeballs for the sake of a bigger financial return.

Many, many movies and TV shows exploit stars’ willingness to participate in racy scenes in order to garner attention and viewers, from the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise to HBO’s flesh-filled Game of Thrones, to name but two recent examples. In fact, when it comes to so-called prestige TV on streaming outlets such as Netflix and Amazon these days, as well as premium content providers such as HBO, you’d be hard put to find shows that don’t feature that kind of sexually explicit imagery.

Given that reality, I can’t help but feel Olivia Wilde is unwittingly trying to solve an important micro problem but missing the macro issue in play here. So perhaps the real question isn’t, “How can we make sex scenes safer?” but “Why are we filming these scenes at all?” The reality is that such scenes fundamentally exploit the dignity and personhood of these actors and actresses in a profound way … no matter how many people are on the set.

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Anonymous 3 months ago
Nude scenes are never “necessary” nor appropriate. I am surprised that (in the previously posted comments) a Christian would argue that it’s the way it’s shot or edited that matters. It’s clearly not in keeping with Scriptural teaching about purity for actors to do nude scenes or for us to watch them. 
Anonymous 3 months ago
Movies like Schindler's List, Walkabout, Monster's Ball, or The Master know how to tell powerful stories even with nudity in them, because the nudity is more natural and not titillating in the least. As in the case of Monster's Ball and The Master they're about broken people clinging to each other while dealing with such issues as racism and alcohol addiction. And of course with Schindler's List it's showing how the Jews were really treated in the Holocaust. And of course Walkabout is at its heart a nature movie akin to a National Geographic special.
Rocketshipper 4 months ago
The simplest response is just that seeing people nude in real life is different than seeing them nude in a movie.  It's the reason why people can watch a nude scene in a film and at the same time they would never sneak into a woman's locker room to stare at the women in real life.   There is a barrier of "unreality" between the viewer and the things going on in a film.
Edna Konrad 4 months ago
The big difference is editing. On set anyone watching the two actors gets to see everything, which many actors are understandably uncomfortable with. The final product you see though, is often heavily edited so that you don't see a lot of their bodies: sheets cover them, close ups on faces, silhouettes, etc.
The Kenosha Kid 4 months ago
I don't agree that nude scenes are fundamentally exploitative. There's nothing wrong with them, as long as they're not gratuitous. Sometimes they're the best way to reveal character.

There's a big difference between A) being naked on a film set in front of 20 people for an hour while they fiddle with lights and cameras and B) being naked on-screen in a scene that's been carefully shot and edited in accordance with the actress's wishes. Olivia Wilde just wants the actresses to be treated with as much respect and dignity in Situation A as they are in Situation B.

The people who are in the best position to talk about this are the actresses themselves. Jennifer Lawrence said doing nude scenes on her own terms made her feel empowered and in control after the humiliation of having her private photos hacked. She didn't feel exploited at all. To the contrary, she was showing people exactly as much as she wanted them to see -- and no more.

-- The Kenosha Kid
Anonymous 4 months ago
Jennifer Lawrence gave consent and felt empowered and didn't feel exploited. Jennifer Lawrence was still exploited.