Hollywood’s Sex Scene Disconnect

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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.