Sex On Screen Is Such An Anticlimax For Women. Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Photo by 20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock.
It's unlikely your first time involved a candlelit room, smouldering looks and mind-blowing orgasms. In all likelihood it was more flailing limbs and a heady mix of Glow by J.Lo, perspiration and fear. Forget The Notebook – think more along the lines of Will from The Inbetweeners discovering pelvic floor muscles.
A new study conducted by online doctor service Zava examined iconic sex scenes from 50 films, including Fifty Shades of Grey and Dirty Dancing, and gathered opinions from over 2,000 women. The results revealed that just 4% of Brits think sex in movies is realistic. From Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s mid-shootout action – involving so much wall bashing it’s astounding no one is whisked off on a stretcher – to Skyfall’s shower scene, surely impossible IRL without an anti-slip mat and a pair of goggles, Hollywood’s not interested in real sex. But why?
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The study’s largest discrepancies included "practically non-existent" safe sex, with a laughable 2% of films implying their characters used a condom, compared to 20% of real life respondents who said they always did, while 32% used other forms of contraception. Thirty-nine percent of women climax on screen, against 24% of women who said they had never reached orgasm during sex – a substantial difference. Foreplay, meanwhile, is heavily downplayed, with only 27% of characters engaging in it before sex. Back in the real world, 69% of respondents said they did.
Twenty-seven-year-old design assistant Lotte Morrison takes exception to the very famous sex scene between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. "If you’re that sweaty, it ain’t romantic," she says. "Car sex isn’t like that. Leather seats plus sweat = squeaky, slippery and burns. That was the first sex scene I ever saw, at 9 years old – I thought every boy would be that romantic and 'take me to the stars'. But in reality, if you are shagging in a car, it's probably not going to be like that."
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While heavily stylised scenes can be comical, the gulf between expectation and reality can make women feel inadequate, as Lotte experienced. "Films make the woman being on top the sexual highlight, but I don’t get much out of it. I used to feel bad that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I felt I should. It’s not until I got older that I could accept it doesn’t work for me. We’re all built differently – it doesn’t affect how sexually able or desirable I am."
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Fashion buyer Daisy, 27, says the list of unrelatable portrayals of sex is extensive: "Margot Robbie coming out of her bedroom butt naked in The Wolf of Wall Street – surely that would be awkward in real life? Spontaneous sex is unrealistic. I need to plan, make sure I’ve shaved and am wearing acceptable underwear. Period sex never happens in films – that awkward 'do we put a towel down' situation."
"I think porn’s really affected the way guys have sex now, it’s more fucking than making love. Older movies' sex seems so much more romantic. The sex scene at the beginning of Bridesmaids is realistic, how sometimes sex can be awkward and imperfect – the guy’s probably going too fast because he’s nervous. There’s lots of pressure."
Research indicates so. A study published in The Journal of Sex Research, in which men were asked to imagine a scene in which an attractive woman with whom they were having sex either did or did not climax, revealed that their 'sexual esteem' was higher when the woman reached orgasm, highlighting the pressure on men to please their partners. Psychiatrist Ravi Shah told Heathline that "low self-esteem" and "what sex is like in porn and movies versus in real life" feed into both men's and women's sexual performance anxiety. The 60% of students who turn to porn to learn more about sex – despite 75% admitting it creates unrealistic expectations – demonstrate the extent of the problem.
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Hazel Mead is a freelance illustrator whose sex positive illustrations have garnered almost 90k Instagram followers. Earlier this year, her brilliant 'Things you don’t see in mainstream porn' artwork went viral, depicting all the stretch marks, scars, head banging and other intricacies of sex that the entertainment industry glosses over.
Hazel highlights the detrimental effect of underrepresentation. "When I was younger, my insecurities stemmed from a limited range of depictions. Only a certain type of sex was shown; always penis in vagina (PIV). Having vaginismus (a condition where the vaginal muscles involuntarily contract, making penetration impossible) made me feel insecure I couldn’t provide PIV sex for a partner. I believed that was expected and the only way I could provide pleasure. I felt like less of a woman."
Recently, though, one show has changed this. "Sex Education is an amazing example of the entertainment industry aiming to be more realistic and representative," she says. "Lily’s storyline really resonated with me, when she’s eager to have sex but discovers she has vaginismus and finds penetration impossible. I’d never seen vaginismus discussed in any of my sex education, films or TV – to see an entire storyline about this in a popular TV show made me cry with happiness. I felt seen."
Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock.
Caroline West is a doctoral scholar in sexuality studies at Dublin City University, researching discourse between feminism and porn. She believes that the entertainment industry misleadingly portrays sex "without communication, as though people are mind-readers and know what works. In reality, sex can be messy, fumbling and awkward. Orgasms also don't always happen, and if they do, it may take time and hard work, especially for women. Different representation is important as it opens a dialogue about the realities of sex."
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Mainstream porn, says Caroline, "prioritises male pleasure, with little depiction of oral sex on women or other forms of non-penetrative sex. It usually ends with the male orgasm and lacks verbal communication between partners. Given porn literacy is often missing from sex education, people can view porn as one of the few resources for learning about sex. This lack of education combined with poor societal conversations on porn, sex, pleasure and consent means that sex can be unsatisfactory for lots of people. Films often depict fantasy, where everything works seamlessly. It's been commonly believed for a long time that people don't want to see the realities behind the glossy facade. But the rise of amateur porn or feminist porn depicting safe sex, differing body types and more sexual realities has shown us people want to see this side of sex being depicted. Mainstream TV and films still have a long way to go."
Slowly but surely, we're seeing films and TV shows moving away from male-centric portrayals of pleasure and towards more relatable depictions for women. Netflix has been a forerunner in destigmatising sex for younger generations: alongside Sex Education, End Of The F****** World and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before have tackled everything from awkward sexual encounters to contraception and consent. Fleabag flagrantly embraced all the unsexier elements of sex, while Pure showed the eye-opening reality of living with intrusive sexual thoughts. And a wave of coming-of-age indie films have started stripping away the gloss and adding credibility to sex scenes, from Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf’s realistic, visceral encounter in American Honey to Lady Bird shattering the illusion that the first time is a fairy tale, and the fumbling awkwardness of Booksmart’s lesbian sex scene. Imperfect sex is increasingly being celebrated – it's no coincidence that all of the above are female-led productions.
As Caroline acknowledges: "Lots of films and TV shows are made by men who may not consider or understand a feminist portrayal of sex. The more women producers and directors are hired means greater potential for realistic depictions of sex. Our society often focuses on the problems of sex, rarely do we see nonjudgmental conversations about nuanced forms of pleasure. Life is too short for unsatisfactory sex, so let's start and continue those conversations now."
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