The Most Exploitative On-Screen Sex Scenes, Ever

Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX Shutterstock.
This story was originally published on February 2, 2016.
Picture, if you will, the last time you vacuumed your home or did any type of housework. What were you wearing? No, this isn’t some sort of role play or the beginning of a sexy story. I want to know what you had on. Probably not your nicest clothes, right? And a supportive bra of some sort, I’m guessing. That’s usually what I wear to do housework, which is why I took pause during a recent rewatch of the 1988 movie Working Girl.
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During one scene, Tess (Melanie Griffith) is vacuuming in just underwear and heels — nothing at all on top. It’s supposed to be a visual cue to the audience that she’s finally coming into her own, in both the boardroom and the bedroom. All I could think while watching the scene, though, was how bad it is to perform manual labor with your breasts unsupported (hello, tissue breakage).

Also, how many other ways could Tess’ new empowerment have been conveyed to viewers without Melanie Griffith having to vacuum topless in what I imagine is some kind of '50s housewife male fantasy? I can think of several, and they all involve Tess keeping her top on. Was the studio worried that this movie, about a woman trying to climb the ranks in a white-collar corporation that basically runs on institutionalized sexism, would bomb at the box office because no men would possibly go see such a thing? So they stuck in some shots guaranteed to appeal to the male gaze?

Listen, I have no problem with sex or nudity in movies or television shows. Michael Fassbender in Shame? Great stuff. Shameless? If you’re not watching, you’re missing Emmy Rossum making sex scenes look hot. What I take umbrage with are cases like the nude vacuuming scene in Working Girl. I just don’t see its point, besides Melanie Griffith having to put her boobs out there to get male butts in seats. The same goes for Halle Berry's topless scene in Swordfish, which is on record as being completely unnecessary.

In the case of Tess McGill’s topless housework and these other examples, the nudity and sex scenes feel gratuitous, exploitative, and just straight-up superfluous. Also, because these scenes are so unnecessary to the plot, I’m not going to be embedding them here. Just watch the trailers included along with the descriptions of the scenes, and know that they exist.
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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Role: Linda Barrett
Actor: Phoebe Cates

It's perhaps one of the most famous nude scenes in a movie ever, but that doesn't mean it was in any way necessary for the teen comedy classic to thrive. The scene with Linda coming out of the pool, dripping wet and promptly removing her red bikini top, is the stuff of male fantasies seemingly the world over. But did it need to exist for the movie to become a classic? That's up for debate, of course.

Watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Amazon, Hulu.
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Working Girl (1988)

Character: Tess McGill
Actor: Melanie Griffith

Tess McGill’s plan to pretend to be her conniving, two-faced boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver) while said boss recovers from a skiing accident is working out pretty well. Tess has successfully gotten dashing investment broker Jack Trainer onboard with her plan, and the two have intense chemistry outside of the office as well.

What’s the best way to signal how well things are going in the office and at home for our gal Tess? With a quick montage of her doing a variety of successful “having it all” businesswoman things, like...vacuuming in nothing but underwear and heels. You know, as you do, to show the audience in your apartment (which I hope doesn’t exist) how much you’re finally coming to embrace your power as both an executive (the heels) and a woman (the exposed breasts). What this scene is doing in an otherwise extremely pro-female and anti-sexism film, we’ll never know.

Watch Working Girl: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Coming to America (1988)

Role: Royal bathers
Actors: Felicia Taylor, Midori

The royal penis is clean your highness.” This is all you really get to hear from these nameless servants, who attend to his royal highness' morning toilette so he doesn't have to lift a finger, even to bathe his most private of areas.

Watch Coming to America: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix
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Swordfish (2001)

Role: Ginger Knowles
Actor: Halle Berry

Director Dominic Sena told the New York Daily News that producer Joel Silver and Warner Bros promised Berry an additional $500,000 on top of her $2 million salary if she appeared topless in Swordfish. Berry insisted that wasn’t why she agreed to do it. She told Entertainment Weekly that Sena’s remark that she was getting $250,000 per breast to go topless in the movie was a joke.

Berry had recently won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and said that, “So much of my life I was afraid to [do a nude scene]. With the success of my Dorothy Dandridge project and the critical acclaim that brought me, I finally felt that I didn’t have to prove myself anymore.”

Joel Silver told EW, “I’ve known Halle for years, and I felt this was time for her to do this. I think it’s cool for the character and good for the box office.”

Yeah, that’s the real bottom line here. Berry’s bare breasts were supposed to increase the box office take of this extremely subpar hacker movie. It’s too bad she chose to do her first topless scene — which was, in fact, the definition of gratuitous, because it served absolutely no function in moving the plot forward — in such a mediocre movie.

Watch Swordfish: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix
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The Room (2003)

Role: Lisa
Actor: Juliette Danielle

“You are TEARING ME APART, Lisa”...with your excessively long sex scenes that very much resemble soft-core porn.

Sadly, The Room is not streaming anywhere online. YOU ARE TEARING ME APART, Amazon/iTunes/Google Play/Netflix.
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Knocked Up (2007)

Role: Alison Scott
Actor: Katherine Heigl

This movie is fairly tame when it comes to sex and nudity, lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Alison (Heigl) keeps her bra on during sex. We see Ben’s (Seth Rogen) bare butt for the briefest of moments. Then, it happens. During the birth scene, we’re treated to a shot of the baby’s head crowning.

The rest of the movie is so grounded in reality that the cutaway looks almost like something taken from the Miracle of Life or some other instructional video about what happens during childbirth. It’s unclear whether writer-director Judd Apatow is trying to celebrate the wonder of what happens to a woman’s body during labor, or truly horrify and shock the viewing audience with a John Hurt in Alien moment (viewers of the British show Coupling will get that reference). Either way, is it really necessary to see a baby crowning if you’re not about to have one of your own?

Watch Knocked Up: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Role: Bert
Actor: Tyler Nilson

“A very impertinent penis makes an appearance right behind John C. Reilly's head in a hotel bedroom orgy scene,” is how the Toronto Star described Nilson’s member dangling over Dewey Cox’s (Reilly) head while he makes a phone call during this scene. Really, though, it’s just hanging there, serving no purpose besides being a penis in the foreground that makes the movie’s co-writer, Judd Apatow, laugh.

Watch Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Role: Peter Bretter
Actor: Jason Segel

It’s great to have nudity equality. Females are expected to appear topless like it ain’t no thang, while men can keep their thangs on lockdown thanks to much stricter MPAA ratings guidelines when it comes to showing a penis versus breasts — and just a general societal understanding that we’re all a lot more okay with women disrobing than men. Ugh, patriarchy and latent homophobia. The worst.

Anyway, for the above reasons, it's a welcome relief to see Peter (Segel) welcoming his girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell) home from a trip with a coy little stiptease — okay, it isn't so coy; he drops his towel and starts shaking what his mama gave him — because we all know people who have done this.

The gratuitous part starts happening soon after the initial towel drop. Peter realizes that Sarah isn’t there to have welcome-home sex with him; she’s there to break up with him. Now, he’s just an increasingly pathetic naked man. You just want to cover him up. Would you start the process of breaking up with someone while he wasn’t dressed? Let the man put some clothes on before you start ripping his heart out, Sarah.

Watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008)

Role: Women at bottomless party
Actors: Unknown

After escaping from Guantanamo Bay, Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) go to see their friend Raza (Amir Talai), hoping that he’ll lend them a car. When they get to Raza’s house, he’s throwing a “bottomless party.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. In Raza’s words, he’s bored of topless parties, so he decided to invent bottomless ones.

I said I wouldn’t link to the individual scenes here, but you really have to see this to believe it. It’s actually a scene in a movie where beautiful women are walking around completely bottomless, while the camera zooms in on their crotches so viewers can get a good look at how they’ve chosen to groom their pubic hair.

It’s almost too sad and bizarre to be objectifying, because what even is this idea? Why would you want to attend a party with a ton of other also-bottomless women and one man? Who would sit down anywhere? Yeah, I said it. You have to think these things through, Raza. You wouldn’t know, because you don’t have a vagina. In reality, everything about this idea is the opposite of sexy. How do you like them apples, heterosexual male fantasies I just destroyed?

Watch Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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The Hangover (2009)

Role: Mr. Chow
Actor: Ken Jeong

Do we need Mr. Chow to be buck naked when he jumps out of that trunk? No, especially when it means he’s going to be the butt of a zillion stereotypical jokes about Asian men later on in the trilogy.

Watch The Hangover: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Powder Blue (2009)

Role: Rose-Johnny
Actor: Jessica Biel

Jessica Biel made headlines in 2007 when she signed on to play a woman who takes a job as a stripper to pay her terminally ill son’s medical bills in Powder Blue. It was a far cry from Biel’s biggest role to date as Mary Camden on 7th Heaven. That’s probably why the fine print of Biel’s contract, which detailed exactly how much of her breasts and butt would be exposed in the film, became such public knowledge.

The movie wound up going straight to DVD, and in 2011, Biel told the Daily Mail that she “cringes over naked scenes in the disastrous film.” The actress continued, saying that it was “unfortunate” and “brutal” to see clips from the film where she’s naked plastered all over the internet. “There was so much more that we put into it,” Biel says of her nude scenes overshadowing the rest of the film as a whole.

Watch Powder Blue: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Piranha 3D (2010)

Role: Nude women killed by piranhas during sex
Actors: Unknown

Horror movie directors are always coming up with new ways to kill characters. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became a bit of a sexploitation competition among filmmakers to outdo each other when it came to killing sexy women in various stages of undress. Piranha 3D director Alexandre Aja probably thinks the scene where two unnamed women having sex underwater are murdered by bloodthirsty piranhas is an homage to the 1978 original, Piranha. We don’t know these two women as characters, though, and their only purpose in the film is to serve as bait. It's quite gratuitous.

Watch Piranha 3D: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Game of Thrones (2011-present)

You can’t pin down the gratuitous nudity on Game of Thrones to just one character, but the most egregious examples all seem to occur in one place: Littlefinger’s (Aidan Gillen) brothel. Or — mild spoiler alert — now that Littlefinger’s on the move, anywhere there’s a bunch of men congregating who need to get a lot of expository dialogue out.

See, television is a visual medium. If a bunch of characters just stood around saying words, viewers would get very, very bored. Sometimes writers need to convey large chunks of important storytelling information, though, and they need the audience to stay focused. On Law & Order: SVU, they do this by having the bartender who’s explaining the last time he saw the victim move crates while he’s talking to the detectives. On Game of Thrones, they keep your eye on the prize by employing a device that’s now known as “sexposition.”

If two women are having sex right behind the characters divulging the set pieces for the next main story line, viewers are definitely going to pay attention to the screen. And since the women are a little out of focus in the background and being very quiet, their sex doesn’t detract too much from the exposition that’s verbally unfolding at the same time.

Is it gratuitous? Yes. Did you follow the discussion? Probably. Checkmate: Game of Thrones writers, directors, and actors willing to sign those consent waivers.

Watch Game of Thrones: Amazon, HBO Go, Google Play, iTunes
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The Canyons (2013)

Role: Tara
Actor: Lindsay Lohan

Oh, Lindsay. The number of times she disrobes in this movie just reeks of the desperation of an actress whose troubled personal life has overshadowed her professional one so many times that it takes unnecessarily showing her breasts in a movie to attempt to divert attention. It doesn’t work.

Watch The Canyons: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix
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Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Role: Anastasia Steele
Actor: Dakota Johnson

Why am I calling bullshit on this one when actress Dakota Johnson obviously knew exactly the levels of nudity and the explicitness of the sex scenes she was signing onto when she agreed to play Anastasia Steele? Because for all of the body parts Johnson has to expose in the film adaptation of E.L. James’ blockbuster novels, Jamie Dornan, who plays billionaire-with-a-bondage-fetish Christian Grey, doesn’t even have to show his penis on-screen once. And this is a man who's done full-frontal fashion shoots before, so it’s not like he has a problem with it. I’m not going to link to them here, but if you know how to Google “Jamie Dornan penis,” you’re welcome.

After a while, Ana’s nude scenes feel borderline exploitative. Here’s a 21-year-old virgin telling the story of her loss of innocence. Shouldn’t she have a reaction of some sort to supposedly seeing a naked man for the first time? Shouldn’t we, the audience, who are watching the story unfold from her perspective, be treated to said reaction?

I’m saying this not as someone who wants to see some Dornan D (again, I’ve seen it, and so can you), but as a genuine critique of authentic storytelling. In the book, there are definitely quite a few “Oh, my!” exaltations from our quippy protagonist when she sees Christian’s erect member for the first time. I know a boner would take this movie into actual pornographic territory, so we could've kept things flaccid.

Watch Fifty Shades of Grey: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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Entourage (2015)

Role: Various unnamed women
Actors: Noa Lindberg, uncredited

It’s the Entourage movie, so a bevy of topless, unnamed women are basically to be expected. The tits basically slap you in the face two minutes into the movie, when Vinny and the boys arrive on a yacht chock-full of bikini-clad women both with and without their tops on. Sigh.

Watch Entourage: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes
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