With the return of Fifty Shades this week, Dominic Corry asks: What happened to the sex-ridden movies of the past?

When I worked at the iconic Video Ezy Ponsonby (RIP) in the late '90s, there was a section towards the back of the store titled 'Erotic', and it was very popular.

It catered to customers who didn't want to cross the line into watching pornography, but nevertheless desired something ... sexy. Although B-movie queens like Shannon Tweed, Shannon Tweed and Shannon Tweed ably filled out much of this section, there were also mainstream studio movies in there, like 9 ½ Weeks (1986), Two Moon Junction (1988) and Basic Instinct (1992), as well as more art house-leaning films like Betty Blue (1986) and Henry & June (1990). The VHS editions of the David Duchovny-fronted Red Shoe Diaries found a natural home there also.

The release this week of Fifty Shades Darker got me thinking about how this middle ground of mainstream erotica is all but dead, and it has me nostalgic for a simpler time when the prospect of seeing a famous person's bare bottom was enough to make you see any particular movie, even one with subtitles.

At the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, we can mostly blame the internet for erotica's shift behind closed doors. Apparently, there is a lot of pornography on the internet, and it's not hard to understand the preference to make any consumption of it private. After all, customers with a box from the Erotic section back in the day at Video Ezy were noticeably less likely to make eye contact that those renting Labyrinth for the fourth time.


But it's not just the internet's fault - the rise of the blockbuster-driven market demands that movies cater to all sections of the paying audience, and an exposed boob or penis puts that all in jeopardy. Luckily, such organs have found a place in premium television, another private alternative to theatre-going.

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, right, and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker. Photo/Supplied
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele, right, and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the sequel, Fifty Shades Darker. Photo/Supplied

So here I ask the question: Has something been lost with sex's retreat from mainstream cinema? It's the only medium that currently has less sex than it did 20 years ago - rude stuff is blowing up in pretty much every other format. And it should be noted that although sex itself no longer plays as large a role in mainstream cinema, sexual objectification and other regressive sexual attitudes are nevertheless rife on the big screen. Surely a more open attitude to portraying sex is a good way to combat this?

I'm not advocating for some kind of public cinematic orgy, but there has to be something socially positive about experiencing sex scenes together with strangers in a theatre. Even if your parents are there.

I recall a lot of snickering when I saw the original Fifty Shades of Grey, and while we New Zealanders are a reliably infantile bunch when it comes to sex, that film wasn't exactly deriving much narrative power from its sex scenes.

The new trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey dropped Thursday night, and it's dripping with two-and-a-half minutes of sexual tension.

The sequel, which I saw last night, ups the sex quotient, but thankfully isn't so tortured about it (so to speak). In a welcome turn of events, the series is starting to resemble one of those straight-to-video erotic thrillers.

When you think about it, sexual intercourse had a relatively brief run as a major part of mainstream cinema. The freedom experienced by studio filmmakers in the 70s lead to much ground being broken in this arena with films like Don't Look Now (1973) and Coming Home (1978), both of which featured narratively significant explicit sex scenes.

80s cinema quickly commodified the right to portray this sort of thing, which lead to the rise of "classy" erotic cinema like the films ones mentioned above. The '90s saw a boom in these kinds of films in the straight-to-VHS/DVD arena, then everybody got broadband.

These days, with the glaring exception of the Fifty Shades series, explicit sex is almost never used for titillatory purposes in mainstream cinema.


You're much more likely to sex deployed as vehicle for horror, like in Gaspar Noé' s harrowing Irreversible (2002), which features an unflinchingly brutal rape scene. A notable recent example is the sex scene between Neil Patrick Harris and Rosamund Pike in David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014), which couldn't be more nightmarish. Very effective, however. Fincher has been subverting the sex scene ever since he made Edward Norton and Helene Bonham Carter perform theirs via motion capture for Fight Club (2000).

There are of course exceptions to my wild generalisations: the extremely explicit sex scenes in the Cannes-winning French film Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013) are arguably plot-centric, but the film was not without controversy. Irreversible's Gaspar Noé recently made the 3D shag-a-thon Love, which was pretty sex positive.

But it seems like for the most part, the proliferation of sex in other media has significantly dampened cinematic enthusiasm for portraying the beast with two backs. And that's a bummer.