Penn Badgley and the No Sex Scenes Discourse Is Ruining Movies and TV

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I took the world’s shortest nap earlier this week, and when I woke up it seemed that, all of a sudden, Hollywood wanted to take away everything that I hold dear: sex scenes; all of the episodes of Arrested Development; my childhood Barney the Dinosaur; our buccal fat.

What was this alternate universe I had returned to? It was one in which we were no longer excited about watching hot famous people pretend to bone on a giant screen; future generations won’t understand what I mean when I say, “I don’t understand the question, and I will not respond to it;” Barney has been bastardized; and everyone’s cheeks look real weird.

These things seem like they are unconnected, but there is something that ties these things together: There is an inescapable sense that the entertainment industry is in total chaos, and no one seems to know what to make of it anymore. Me? That used to be my job, to navigate the sometimes confusing and tumultuous waters of culture. Now, it feels like I’m going down with the ship. (Titanic is also back in theaters! Timely!)

And what will be mayday? “They took away my beloved sex scenes.”

This past week, Penn Badgley, who stars in the Netflix television series You, made headlines with his comments about filming sex scenes. On his podcast, Podcrushed, he revealed that he asked the You showrunner to cut as many intimate love scenes as possible from the series, out of “fidelity” to his marriage. Then, in an interview with Variety, he explained further: “That aspect of Hollywood has always been very disturbing to me—and that aspect of the job, that mercurial boundary—has always been something that I actually don’t want to play with at all.”

For context, You is a series that became incredibly popular and successful in large part because of the sex scenes involving Badgley’s character, a charismatic serial killer. These were so great that viewers were unabashed about their desire to fuck a psychopath. And Badgley, for his part, first became a star because of his role in Gossip Girl, a series that exploded the zeitgeist entirely with its provocative (but pre-watershed hours) sex—and willingness to bait pearl-clutchers and the morality police by bragging about it in marketing.

Badgley clearly has experience to talk about this with authority, and he’s entitled to the validation of his opinion on it. (Though I still have a little bit of twitch from rolling my eyes over the “fidelity” rationale. All you hetero marrieds: Are you OK?) Even if the comments were particularly outrageous, which they really weren’t, they wouldn’t be much to complain about, outside of being bummed that you don’t get to see the hot murderer bone on Netflix anymore. Celebs say silly things all the time. So be it.

The issue is what these comments begat. All week, there’s been a baffling debate raging on a certain sector of social media, which then bled into the “discourse.” It now means that I’m talking about it with you—when it’s at the point that I am paying attention, you know things have gotten real annoying.

Apparently, there is a discussion over the idea of “consent” in movie and TV sex scenes, as part of a larger movement to minimize sex and nudity in films for various reasons (they are gratuitous; they are unnecessary to furthering plot; they exploit actors; people on the internet hate me, personally, and the things I enjoy).

There seem to be several parts to this conversation, and it’s unclear if anyone who is arguing over one aspect even understands the other ones.

One stems from a nonprofit in Australia, which suggested affixing “lack of consent” warning labels to projects in which a character engages in or is forced into non-consensual sex acts; this would help educate viewers on the necessity and nuance of consent in real life. Can’t argue there. I support that!

Another makes the case that audience members did not give their own consent to witness characters in movies or shows having sex, and are therefore disturbed or violated by those scenes. I don’t think pathologizing language about assault when discussing movies is particularly helpful. I find the idea that viewing a movie is some sort of passive exercise to be bizarre. You choose to watch a movie. There are detailed ratings systems involved. The scenes are not randomly happening to a person; the person made an active choice to watch them. But here I am, just reporting to you what the people online are saying.

Then there’s this one: The fictional characters in a show or movie have not consented to us watching them have sex. Honestly, I can’t even touch this one.

It’s taking every ounce of self-control for me not to be glib about any of this. (I would like to know who I can invoice for the dentist bill when I show up for an emergency appointment after I have ground my teeth down to nubs while scrolling through these tweets, however.) I recognize there is a diversity of opinion that merits consideration, and that not every person will share my perspective on everything. I do, however, have one major question: What the hell are these movies that these people have been watching?

If there has been any trend in the last few years—the last decade really—it’s been the frustrating lack of sex in movies. They’ve become impotent! Sure, there is a smattering of steamy flicks each year, but, by and large, critics have been bemoaning the industry’s sanitization.

Sure, I find sex scenes to be more of a vital aspect of storytelling than some might, and I swear it’s not purely out of horniness or sexual frustration. But when I watch a film like Passages (read about those sex scenes here), which premiered at Sundance and may just make these people’s heads explode when it comes out later this year, I learn so much about human impulses through those scenes. The tension between carnality, rationality, love, and how those tangle and complicate life reveals itself. I reflect and think differently about who I am and how I operate in relationships because of them.

And let’s be honest, friends. I’m not alone. You’re all lascivious little weirdos too. Whenever one of these rare, raunchy projects hits Netflix, it surges straight to No. 1. We’ve written about it before: that softcore porn project doubling as a film trilogy, 365 Days. That hot-as-hell and boring-as-even-heller show, Sex/Life. The very Sexy Murderer series that started this whole conversation, You. We love it all!

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