The 5 Uses of Nudity and Sex in Film

Sex and nudity have been used in filmmaking since well near the dawn of film, with the first known “erotic” and controversial film being “The Kiss”. Its purposes and application, however, are worth further investigating.

I am opening this topic up for discussion, but for the sake of internet attention spans I am formatting it into a list of categories into which I feel many uses of sex and nudity fall. But please feel free to comment and respond as you see fit!

1. Eroticism

This is the classic use of both nudity and sex in film. In erotic scenes, we are generally shown just enough nudity or just enough of the sex to cause us to feel a level of titillation which might imitate that which the characters experience in the scene.

In terms of filmmaking, in this sense it is a very effective technique, and a very direct one to our visceral experiences. Sexuality is something naturally connected to our physical beings, and accessing this is a way to directly connect with the viewer, which is something that many filmmakers have tried to do since its advent.

However, there are some problems with this.

First, there is the difficulty of being sure that the viewer associates this eroticism with the character, and not the actor/actress or him/herself. Eroticism, historically, has been expressed through painting or the written word, and so the eroticism would be connected to the figure created by the author. With photography, there is no denying that we are actually seeing real people naked. This is a difficulty that can lead to exploitation, which will be discussed later.

Second, there is the problem of relying too heavily on the primal senses – hunger, sex, danger, etc. Suspense films can often focus on danger too heavily, with things jumping out at you to create a cheap sensation in which you jump; others, focus on creating an effective psychological atmosphere (such as “Alien”). Sex is similar.

An effective erotic film which comes immediately to mind is “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” – not, in my opinion, a fantastic film, but with a good use of eroticism to help the characters. Other examples are essentially any cheap Hollywood movie.

2. Naturalism

Naturalistic nudity and sex is a style which is much less common and much more difficult to do. Often accompanied by long takes and what would seem to be a copious amount of nudity, naturalistic nudity often creates in the viewer a sense that the viewer is there with them. Nudity here loses its eroticism, unless the viewer is extremely prudish and sensitive to nudity.

When done correctly, this type of nudity and sex can create an even heavier feeling of connection with the characters on screen than is possible in any other way, one deeper and more subtle than the overtly dramatic style typical in Hollywood dramas.

Examples of this are “Dreamers” by Bertolucci, later parts of “Irréversible” (obviously not the infamous part) and “À Nos Amours” (a film which I highly, highly recommend).

3. Sex and Violence

Though seemingly inherently negative, this is actually probably almost as common in cinema as eroticism.

Often they are tied together in films generally meant to be “cool” or stylish, with sex in one and the violence in the other – examples are Bond women, or the extremely direct example of “Shoot ‘Em Up”.

War films often contain the two, but with a much different effect. Here we are shown the horrors experienced by civilians in a way we understand – innocent men and women killed with clothing on seems completely horrible, but when they are naked, for some reason, it seems absolutely atrocious. Perhaps it’s because it seems to reduce them to their true animal existences, removing their complicated personalities which their clothes imply. It’s a frightening thing to us, who consider ourselves higher than animals. Examples of this are “Schindler’s List”, “Saló”,

Also included in war films, but not restricted to war films, is rape. This is a most unpleasant topic, but it is a topic which nonetheless exists in life, and thus is also discussed in film. Graphic rape, in particular, when shown on film, is far more disturbing, impacting, and shocking than perhaps any other act possibly filmable. Using nudity during this creates a tremendous effect, making the experience all the more unpleasant. As to whether or not rape should be in film, I am open to both sides. Personally, I find it just as appropriate as anything else because it is something that exists in life, but the arguments against it, especially by those traumatized by this act, are equally legitimate. Examples here are “A Clockwork Orange”, “Irréversible”, and, more recently, “The City of Life and Death”.

4. Exploitation

Nudity and sex in films occasionally is featured with the sole goal of exploiting sex itself. Here we often see (due to the historically male-dominated industry) lots of naked women dancing around a man, or one woman often naked throughout for no reason other than to add a level of sex to the film. Exploitative sex and nudity has no purpose other than to add this level of sexuality. Examples of this are lots of B-movies from the 70’s. See the number 1 completely random shark scene for more information.


5. Pornography

Exploitative sex taken to the extreme is pornography. Here we see the sexual act in all of its shades and colors, with cheap music and often bad camera angles, with the purpose of aiding masturbation. It is often almost clinical in its exposition of the vagina and penis, and would probably serve as a medical film genre if it weren’t for quick cuts to faces of the “characters” (or real people in some types) participating. Examples of this… abound on the internet.

Which uses do you find more or less worthwhile? I’m sure even an argument can be made in favor of pornography – in truth, I would find this genre much less offensive if it wasn’t for the utterly horrible workmanship in which it is created.

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Categories: Features, Theory

2 Comments on “The 5 Uses of Nudity and Sex in Film”

  1. October 3, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

    What about humor? Humor seems to be the only time a penis gets to make it’s way on western screens outside of pornography.

  2. Adam
    October 3, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    Good point, Nick. Penises are funny, especially when they land in pie

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