Most recently, two scholars released a study entitled 'Sex Doesn't Sell -- Nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema.' (Nice scholarly touch, that exclamation point.) Actually, this conclusion seems pretty obvious, especially if you look at lists of 2009's top-grossing movies and best-reviewed films.if you look at lists of 2009's top-grossing movies and best-reviewed films. Every once in a while someone does a study and comes to the seemingly counter-intuitive conclusion that sex scenes do not boost a movie's box office or critical acclaim.
Most recently, two scholars released a study entitled 'Sex Doesn't Sell -- Nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema.' (Nice scholarly touch, that exclamation point.) Actually, this conclusion seems pretty obvious, especially if you look at lists of 2009's top-grossing movies and best-reviewed films.
The study, by University of California at Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton and independent scholar (and aspiring actress and screenwriter) Anemone Cerridwen, crunched the numbers from about 900 movies released between 2001 and 2005 and determined that films featuring explicit sexuality did not necessarily do better than films without it, whether at the domestic box office, at the worldwide box office, among critics, or among major awards groups. (Except, that is, for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives out the Golden Globes. Go figure.)
On a superficial level, this makes sense. Explicit sex earns a movie an automatic 'R' rating, which excludes kids and teens from the audience. Looking at this year's top box office hits, most are family-oriented fare (animated films like 'Up' or 'Monsters vs. Aliens,' or movies with chaste romance, like 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' and 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.') Only two films in the top 30 have any significant amount of nudity or explicit sexual content ('The Hangover,' at No. 5, and 'Watchmen,' at No. 28).
Looking at this year's best-reviewed movies and most likely awards candidates (and correcting for art-house movies that were barely released) adds to the list movies like 'The Hurt Locker' (pictured, left), 'Precious,' 'Up in the Air,' 'An Education,' and 'A Serious Man.' For the most part, these films also avoid explicit sex.
There are, however, a few caveats that appear to go unmentioned in the study, which appeared in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts (subscription required). One is that the study excludes home video revenue, which these days is often much greater than domestic or worldwide box office. So unrated versions and director's cuts that may be more explicit and are popular on DVD aren't accounted for.
There's also the fact that the top films, while pulling up the covers on sex, do not necessarily skimp on other kinds of explicit, grown-up content, like profanity and violence. So the notion that this study might lead to tamer, more 'G'-rated movies (the usual hope behind such studies) is probably wishful thinking.
Not that that seems to be the goal of this paper's authors. Cerridwen seems interested in this issue primarily as a practical concern for working actresses; if explicit sex isn't necessary to sell a film, she argues, then casting directors ought to hire more actresses on the basis of something other than their sexual appeal, and there should be less pressure for women to take their clothes off in mainstream movies. (So Hollywood, by making more kid-friendly films, would somehow root out decades of sexist practices? Good luck with that.)
Even more dubious is the contention by Pepperdine University professor Craig Detweiler that the study's findings is a sign of generational backlash, a rebellion by today's young people against the Sexual Revolution-influenced explicitness of mainstream movies from the late '60s through the early '80s. As if teen fondness for the sex-free romance of the 'Twilight' and later 'Harry Potter' movies is a way for kids to thumb their noses at their parents, who'd rather have their kids watch something more overtly sexual. Um, no.
The truth is, for at least the last two decades, mainstream movies have been pretty squeamish about explicit sex. Filmmakers are still contractually obligated to deliver movies that earn a rating less restrictive than 'NC-17' because newspapers, theater chains, and DVD retailers are still skittish about 'NC-17' movies. Even romantic comedies these days generally avoid explicit sex; they're more concerned with male camaraderie or shopping than the sexual side of romance.
Chalk it up to prudery or religious revivalism or the prospect of government censorship in overseas markets. Or chalk it up to the fact that Hollywood's chief product these days is adventure movies for guys and about guys, in which women are barely a consideration and sex is not even an issue. (The sexual content of the year's biggest hit, 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,' begins and ends with Megan Fox's Daisy Dukes.)
So sex may not sell, but it's not like anyone's really trying to sell it.
|More likely||277 (24.3%)|
|Less likely||649 (57.0%)|
|I won't see it in the theater, but I'll watch it at home||213 (18.7%)|