top of page

In Defense of Sexual Taboos On Screen

I am a loud and proud self-proclaimed pervert. I was there for May December’s opening weekend. Jane Campion is one of my most favorite filmmakers, and I think Mary Gaitskill is an American hero. You’d think fifty-six years out from the Hays code’s extinction we’d be a more open-minded, freaky little weirdo accepting culture. But with the rise of sex scene discourse and literary censorship, it appears that the culture at large is becoming increasingly moralistic in its views on media. There’s nothing wrong with approaching art critically, but I’d argue that we’ve moved away from cultural sensitivity and into morality policing. 

If sex scenes in general seem to be loathed more and more every day, sexually transgressive cinema, your Crashes, and The Piano Teachers, ​​are a dying breed these days. This isn’t to say that taboo sex onscreen was more acceptable in previous years, (You Must Remember This’ episode on the nineties Lolita craze is a great exploration of America’s former relationship with taboo), however, the film market was much more diverse in the 1990s than it is now. Most twentieth-century erotic and psychosexual thrillers were mid-budget to indie projects, meaning that they were cheaper to produce. In the golden age of the erotic thriller circa the late 80s and early 90s, the amount of sexually taboo films being released made the controversy around them less dire because they were more common. In a media landscape dominated by superhero movies and legacy sequels, the release of something like Challengers feels substantial because there simply aren’t that many movies like that being funded anymore. On top of this, the barrier to art criticism is becoming increasingly lower.

The internet has drastically changed the culture since its boom in the last 20-30 years. Social media has made it so anyone with a brain can unleash their varied opinions on the world wide web, whether it's warranted or not. In the 20th century, the discussion around cinematic taboos was managed by critics. The discourse was born out of analysis and a genuine desire to start a conversation about the things we were seeing in the media. These days, anyone with a Twitter account can scream their hot takes until they're blue in the face. Obviously, meritocracy is bad, but there’s something to be said about letting qualified people talk about what they’ve spent actual time and effort into understanding. On top of this, more and more people are basing their opinions on art from a moralistic viewpoint, rather than a cultural or artistic one. It’s become less about dissecting what art means to a person and more about finding out who is the secret problematic guy whose opinions are indicative of their badness. 

There are a million reasons why I could defend transgressive art. One is that it’s cathartic. When we consume art that portrays immorality, it allows us to confront our own capacity for such a thing. It also has the power to normalize fringe identities which can allow for cringe culture to become obsolete. But more than anything, sexual taboos on screen are fun to interact with. I like being challenged. I value being uncomfortable. Watching a film like Titane and being allowed to leave cultural norms at the door is exciting, and I’ve become disheartened by the way we’ve started policing our interaction with explicit material. Instead of meeting art on a human level, we’ve been conditioning ourselves to view every piece of taboo art with a moral compulsion. You can’t enjoy a film that depicts immorality, you have to acknowledge what it’s portraying is objectively and morally wrong at all times. This is what happened with May December, in my opinion. So many people viewed the film from the perspective that it's inarguably a horror film purely because it features childhood sexual abuse. Thus, they failed to realize that it’s actually a very funny movie and is encouraging you to laugh at it when warranted. Look at me and tell me Julianne Moore’s hushed, lispy exclamation of “It’s graduation!” after Joe finally calls her out isn’t hilarious. Is it unbearably awkward and at times horrifying? Yes. But it’s not a children’s fable. I can’t imagine watching every movie from this mindset. It’s just so depressing. How would you enjoy anything? And more importantly, how would you grow? Art is meant to challenge us. If you meant every piece of art with the idea that you’re holier than thou, then you wouldn’t learn anything from it. If anything, you’d be stuck. This might sound obnoxious, but I think it must be said: that art isn’t real. You’re not hurting anyone by consuming “problematic” media. Just because it depicts something you, and most people, disagree with doesn’t mean you’re suddenly endorsing it by consuming it. You just might learn something about yourself through such media. Live a little. I promise you won’t become an unequivocally evil person if you go into sexually transgressive films with an open mind. 

I love filth, mess, degeneracy, and anything that makes me feel something strongly whether it’s positive or negative. The world needs sexually taboo art to remind us that being confronted with things we wouldn’t interact with in our daily lives is healthy. Censorship is becoming all too popular these days thanks to a myriad of reasons, from conservatism to cancel culture. As a culture, we shouldn’t further this narrative as we risk ousting others for simply engaging with deviant works. Art that elicits emotion, any emotion, is all the more valuable in a post-superhero movie world. The only alternative to banning explicit material is inoffensive content made for mass appeal. Despite the universality of such media, no one wins in that case except for the suits producing them. If you’re in the mood for some transgression, I’ll leave a list of some great sexually taboo films below. Enjoy!

- Holy Smoke, 1999 dir. Jane Campion

- Notes on a Scandal, 2006 dir. Richard Eyre

- Birth, 2004 dir. Jonathan Glazer

- The Piano Teacher, 2001 dir. Michael Haneke

- Titane, 2021 dir. Julia Ducournau

- Dogtooth, 2009 dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

- Tabloid, 2010 dir. Errol Morris

- The House of Yes, 1997 dir. Mark Waters

- Sanctuary, 2022 dir. Zachary Wigon

Written by Grace Bradley

Photography by AJ Ult

Creative Director, Production Manager: Jazzi Almestica

PA: Rain Mercado

Styled by Jaiden Alexis

Talent: Cecil Atkins and John Rodriguez

bottom of page