Plugged In Talks Content: Sexual Content

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blog top 01-19 PI Talks Content - Sexual Content

Editor’s Note: Plugged In movie reviews are split into content sections, and sometimes Plugged In is asked, Why? This series of blogs seeks to answer that and many other questions. We’ll unpack each content section in turn and explain why we believe each is important. We’ll give you a peek at how we think and talk about movies—and in so doing, perhaps you’ll learn something about us, the movies we watch and maybe even how can you watch them with a discerning eye, too.

Our third post in this series is about Sexual Content. (See previous post on Spiritual Elements here.)

Sexual Content is the most “popular” section in our movie reviews … but not in the way that word might imply.  

We know from decades of interactions with our readers that this section, along with our Crude and Profane Language section, is the category of content that parents are most concerned with. And for obvious reasons: Explicit sexual images can have a deep impact on our hearts and souls, shaping and influencing this profoundly important aspect of being created in God’s image.

That’s true for all of us, of course. But for tweens and teens, explicit sexual imagery during their growth and development toward adulthood can be especially damaging. Yet many movies feature exactly that kind of content. And even if they avoid explicit imagery, many PG-13 films still include innuendo, sex-focused plotlines and sexually immoral worldviews. So content concerns in this area are hardly relegated to R-rated fare alone.

Given how important this area of content is, Plugged In strives to walk a delicate line in describing the sorts of images and ideas that fall into this category. We want to give you enough information to know, generally, what to expect in a film; but we don’t want to describe it in such a way that our summary is, in and of itself, problematic for those who struggle in this area. In short, we want to give you enough, but not too much, information for you and your family to make the wisest decision possible.  

We walk that line in a couple of very specific ways.

Good writing depends on active verbs (think run or jump or stab) that bring readers into the action. In this section, however, we intentionally violate that rule of good writing. Here’s what I mean. Instead of using active and evocative verbs that paint a picture, we try to use passive ones (is, are, was, etc.) that communicate what’s happening without unnecessarily inviting a reader to picture the scene. So instead of a sentence like, “The two people slowly peel off each other’s clothes,” we’ll say something like, “Clothes are removed, and there’s frontal nudity.”

It’s tricky, of course, because even a pared-down description of sexual content can feel erotic to some. But for the most part, we try to keep these descriptions specific enough that you know something’s happening, but general enough that you’re not actively picturing it in your mind’s eye. Something like, “A sex scene involves explicit movements and female breast nudity.”

We certainly want to protect those who have weaknesses in this area. But we also occasionally hear from people who are frustrated that we didn’t give enough information. A review might say, “We see two explicit love scenes,” but one person’s idea of what constitutes explicit may be very different from another person’s, which is why we’ll generally try to list what nudity takes place in a way that no one gets caught by surprise, either.

The more sexual content a film has, the more we’re able to generalize. And where we’re able to generalize yet still communicate clearly, that’s definitely the path we try to take.

Increasingly, our reviews also have to note same-gender sexual content. Over the last decade, homosexual relationships and content has gone from being relatively rare to being in nearly every movie and TV show in one form or another, including movies made for kids. For adult-focused movies that have a same-sex relationship at the core (say, Call Me By Your Name, for example), the issue is pretty straight forward. But when it comes to kids’ movies, it’s often more subtle. Onward, for instance, had a fleeting mention of a female police officer’s “girlfriend,” something that might be easily missed. We noted that mention, but we didn’t make that the primary lens through which we viewed the entire movie. The more a film emphasizes a pro-LGBT worldview, and the more that’s a core part of the plot, the more we will deal with that issue theologically and philosophically in our reviews.

And sometimes—again, especially in kids’ movies—it can be tricky to quantify what counts as sexual content or not. And in cases like that, we try to stick with what the movie is actually telling us, rather than trying into interpret what a movie’s maker might have been trying to say. Take Toy Story 4, for instance: The character Forky (a plastic fork) has a rainbow sticker on his foot, and some readers interpreted that as a sign that Forky was part of the LGBT community. It’s possible the makers were trying to say that, but rainbows are also just really popular subjects for preschoolers to draw and appreciate. And given that Forky really didn’t show any particular romantic inclinations, we didn’t automatically assume that this was a wink or nod to LGBT inclusivity.

Sexual expression—and the worldview behind a given film’s values—is obviously a huge area of contention culturally, and one that we strive to deal with in an accurate, matter-of-fact tone while staying true to our evangelical and biblical worldview in this area. Focus on the Family affirms that God has designed sexual intimacy to take place exclusively between a man and a woman, reflecting His image, in the context of a covenantal, marriage relationship. We will note where a film’s sexual content deflects from this biblical intention, both with extramarital intimacy between genders as well as any content related to LGBT relationships.

As you can probably see, dealing with this content area in our reviews requires a great deal of thought—perhaps more than you’d thought about before. We may not always get it 100% right, as evidenced by letters from readers who believe we said too much or not enough. But we work very hard to depict and describe sexual content in films in a way that’s accurate but not unnecessarily explicit, and we welcome your input on any review that you think misses the mark in this important area of entertainment and of our lives.   

Next, we’ll tackle Violent Content in this space.

Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.

6 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for this important and beautiful subject. In some ways I think this topic may prove the most controversial since it intertwines both with the deepest parts of our souls (in ways that other adult topics like violence hopefully do not) and with many darker aspects of society, history, and culture, including where the lines fall between Scriptural edict and cultural taboo.

    I was reading your review of “Redeeming Love.” It sounded like an awkward mix of moods (“am I supposed to be aroused by the sex; ashamed because some parts of Christendom culture treat sex as embarrassing; or repulsed since the story is about prostitution”), and while I think our culture needs to be given a mature and Godly perspective about sex, and that we need to strike a balance toward being able and willing to talk about it in a healthy way without falling into unnecessary fear or into licentiousness, I think this is one subject you could show to Christian audiences and get perhaps an unhealthily wide range of reactions, depending on what aspects the viewer most heavily focuses on, as noted above. Ultimately our Christian culture is going to have to address the twin problems of rampant sex abuse and inappropriate teachings that sometimes “victim-blame” women (even as early as teaching girls “wearing XYZ will tempt boys to lust”), but we have God’s Word and God’s Spirit, and that gives me hope.

    Also, thank you for not being unnecessarily cynical about rainbow depictions. I’ve seen people do that to certain LEGO sets. God bless you guys.

  2. -I appreciate your approach to detailing what content is in a movie; I do check the sexual content section first!

    Read your site’s review of Redeeming Love and… yeah, that’s about what I expected from the “Christian romance novel” everyone recommended I read in the 90s. For a young teen, it was akin to porn. I blushed my entire way through it and hid it from my mom when she came up to say goodnight, because I was scared she would notice it and ask to read it after me. It’s one of the most sexually explicit “Christian” novels I have ever read and quite put me off them (no swearing, but married graphic sex is fine).

    At least it sounds like they erased the toxic relationship between the heroine and Angel — in the book, he was a controlling misogynist who married her against her will, insisted she use his name during their physical encounters (an attempt to groom her), blamed her for sleeping with his brother (even though it was rape / his fault), and continued to chase after her and haul her home when she tried to leave because she didn’t want to be married to a total stranger who married her when she was beat half senseless and drunk. Not a popular theme and message in 2022. 😛

    1. -Although I agree with the brother part I feel you are being too harsh on the main make character- even though I feel the movie does a disservice to Hosea in general the point of it as the movie (even not protested in well in movie) is that he lived her unconditionally and wanted to marry her and show that everyone can be loved. He didn’t force her to marry him- and the only reason she ran away is because she was never shown non prostitution cruel abusing be love and couldn’t believe that someone would love her. Him going back to get her was showing that he still loved her no matter what and that she didn’t need to be afraid of love or keep running. Are there men who take advantage of women, abuse them horrible, not treat them with godly love and respect? Yes. But what Hosea trys to do is show her Gods love and not how the world says is love. Does the movie as a whole not show it as good as it could. Yes. But is that any fault to the main character Hosea? I would say no.

  3. -Thanks for your explanation. My husband and I so appreciate the care you all take to convey what we would want to know about a film, especially in this area. In fact, we never go to the theater without reading PluggedIn first; often, a movie might have a great trailer, but we skip it after reading the review.

    1. -Agreed, I appreciate their speaking openly and fully (without an arbitrary “filter”) on this subject without making jokes about it or trying to insert shame in places where Scripture does not.

  4. -Just wanted to say thank you for a refreshing and good point well written article about a very important topic. To me when read review especially plugged in I always pay special attention the sexual part so as know what to avoid if don’t want to watch anything would not be comfortable with. I think too many movies nowadays treat sex wayy to casually- acting like it’s something that we can//should do regardless of it’s fit good reasons or not. personally I really don’t want to nudity or strangers making love especially if it’s crude, explicit or downright porn graphic which I feel is becoming wayy to normal nowadays..Although society as norm doesn’t do the whole waiting thing anymore and obviously we live in a much more modern world, I’ve believed sex really should be between a husband and wife and not just some causal fling, one night stand or whatever else nowadays…Guaranteed my views aren’t always popular haha but appreciate that as article also points out- try to be a discerning and shining biblical light in a very sex saturated non biblical world…

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