The Thirties Hollywood sex symbol Mae West once said she was a firm believer in censorship: "After all, I made a fortune out of it."

West was speaking in an era when the notorious Hays Code - a set of film industry morality guidelines that banned "nudity, in fact or in silhouette" on screen - was still in force.

Of course, banning something only makes it more popular - hence West saying she'd done well out of flouting the rules, with her saucy winks and double entendres.

I thought of her again after murmurings that the post-Weinstein climate would affect how the film industry portrayed sex. The age of official censorship in Hollywood ended in the 60s, but after a string of sexual assault allegations and the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, what might that mean for carnal scenes on screen?


There are already signs that our appetite for them is waning. The third instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is near release, but the franchise has seen declining fortunes. The first film took £410 million ($791m) worldwide. The second, Fifty Shades Darker, barely scraped £273m.

Then there was Keira Knightley's recent interview with Variety magazine, in which she said her preference for period drama stemmed from the fact: "I don't really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped."

There have been, she added, signs of change: "I'm suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren't raped in the first five pages and aren't simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife."

There's been a shift in tone at the studio level, too: a Hugh Hefner biopic being made by Warner Bros has effectively been ditched, not just because the content seems out of step with the times, but also because (irony of ironies) it was due to be directed by Brett Ratner, who has been accused of sexual assault by six women.

Christian Grey played by Jamie Dornan and Anastasia Steele played by Dakota Johnson in the film adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey.
Christian Grey played by Jamie Dornan and Anastasia Steele played by Dakota Johnson in the film adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey.

Meanwhile, actor James Franco was going to produce and direct Zola Tells All, about a prostitute's trip with a violent pimp. But the project is said to have stalled. Franco is the subject of allegations of inappropriate behaviour, many relating to on-set experiences filming sex scenes.

Where do we go from here? Do we need a manifesto for how to proceed with portraying sex on screen?

The depiction of sex in art has always been a tricky issue. Paul Verhoeven's Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, about a businesswoman who not only decides not to report a sexual attack but seems to be turned on by it, won critical acclaim for its "suave perversity" when released in 2016, but was also accused of glamorising rape.

Danish film-maker Lars von Trier hired porn actors as body doubles to perform hardcore sex scenes in his 2013 film Nymphomaniac. For a poster, the film's stars, including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Slater and Stacy Martin, were asked to strip naked and pose as if having an orgasm. That, Gainsbourg understated later, was "awkward".

Among the accusations directed at Harvey Weinstein was one by Salma Hayek, who produced and starred in 2002's Frida. Weinstein, as head of the production company Miramax, was said to have demanded the addition of a full-frontal love scene. Hayek said filming it caused such distress she needed a tranquilliser to get through it.

In all these examples, it is not merely the depiction of sex that is problematic, but also how it made the actresses feel. Much of the issue undoubtedly stems from the fact that all these films - except for Sam Taylor-Wood's Fifty Shades of Grey - have male directors. The male gaze, and how it objectifies women, is so embedded in the industry psyche it has become the default.

A recent spate of films (Nocturnal Animals, Elle) and TV dramas (The Fall, Game of Thrones) has portrayed women as victims of sexually motivated crime, rape and murder, but fascination with sexual violence has been prevalent in film for years. In 2016, a video clip surfaced that showed Last Tango in Paris Bernardo Bertolucci saying he failed to inform 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider of some elements in a notorious rape scene because he "wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress". Bertolucci said he conspired with Schneider's co-star, 48-year-old Marlon Brando, to shoot an assault by Brando's character in the 1972 film using butter as lubricant - a detail not in the script.

A possible solution is an on-set "intimacy director" who choreographs sex scenes to ensure the least discomfort for actors and least scope for inappropriate behaviour.

Perhaps predictably, there has been huffing and puffing from (mostly male) voices who decry any cultural self-censorship. Marc Simon, an entertainment lawyer, was quoted as saying "creativity and creative opportunity could be restrained".

Ah, the creative process! The "misinterpretation" defence!

It's not that Hollywood will no longer get to produce sexy movies; it's that any sex scene will hopefully be filmed with equal care and attention paid to the women's perspective as well as the male gaze.