In a data-driven world, media has often served as our cultural barometer for the kinds, levels, and complications of national discourse we're having--or want to be having.
As such, pop culture simply cannot be poo-pooed away. Increasingly, academic institutions are recognizing the power of media literacy in the classroom, as a pedagogical tool that empowers new generations of students to practice critical thinking as a precautionary measure for safeguarding against current mainstays, such as fake news, alternative facts, or logical fallacies.
Take, for example, the Nike ad featuring Colin Kapernick, which embraces the idea of political dissent, or the radical new Gillette ad, which deconstructs longstanding ideas about toxic masculinity (even calling themselves out for the ways in which they previously participated).
So, if we hold these truths about popular media to be culturally evident, then current ear-to-the-ground observers will understand that we're seeing a new-ish trend in something troubling: the lack of sex and sexuality in media.
Let's take a step back – this is a complicated thread to unravel.
According to New York Times culture writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham (who host the wonderful podcast, Still Processing), sex in popular culture is notably absent, and the reasons are more complex than you might think. "Sure, there’s sex in film and TV," they write, "but in recent history, there has been an absence of content that treats sex (and the complicated feelings that it can bring up) not as an aside, but as the main event. From “Fatal Attraction” to “Sex and the City” to “Knocked Up” to “Black Panther,” we trace the history — on screen and off — of how we went from lots of bad sex to no sex to hopefully some good sex moving forward."
Morris and Wortham begin their deep dive in the 1980s/90s: the age of the Erotic Thriller.
In the Washington Post's article entitled "Where Have All the Erotic Thrillers Gone?" erotic thrillers were defined as such: "A big-time moneymaker in the ‘80s and ‘90s that largely faded out by the new millennium, the erotic thriller combined elements of film noir and soft-core to sometimes cheesy, sometimes brilliant effect. During the genre’s heyday, before internet porn and a shift from adult drama films toward big-budget franchises took over the culture, straight-to-video erotic thrillers lined the shelves of video stores nationwide, a phenomenon detailed in a recent Vanity Fair article that amusingly dubbed them “the sexpendables.”
Another, more basic way of breaking down the components of an erotic thriller is to ask yourself the question: if this film did not have sex in it, would it still have a plot? Famous ETs of the times included Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Mulholland Drive, Crash, American Gigolo, and many more.
That's part of it--but here's the catch. While cultural thrillers don't really stand alone without their sexual plot points, they arguably aren't actually about sex itself. Which brings up the next point.
Another piece to this very censored puzzle is the emergence of hardcore porn, which has developed a large presence in the last 20-25 years, and the subsequent broad cultural inuring to that explicit imagery. This hardcore media is divorced entirely from relationships when it comes to storytelling. It is about quickly getting to sex itself, whereas Erotic Thrillers were about sex's influence on relationships and individuals.
Where did the surge of erotic thrillers come from, you ask? Happy to expound: the 1980s and 90s were a time when, with the increased presence of video rental stores, prime time television, and HBO/Skinamax, people were staying in more and more to watch films rather than go out. And if movie theaters were going to compete with the raciness of watch-at-home films, the films were going to need to have a lot more sex in them. Morris and Wortham go on to delineate the ways in which erotic thrillers reigned supreme until the Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton scandal– a salacious national event that was simply too real for media to continue down the road of irresponsible, tawdry pleasure-for-sale. They state: "(it was) a culture inflamed with 'erotic thriller sex'--Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the murder of Gianni Versace. "Bill Clinton & Monica Lewinsky was the moment we snapped out of it," due to moralism: Fatal Attraction was no longer appealing because the Lewinsky scandal had become a real life erotic thriller. In turn, this created a kind of cultural panic (American Pie) of people being afraid to have sex.
So, strangely, to recap: while the erotic thriller was born of a desire (pun intended) to access pornographic media, the erotic thriller itself was actually distinctly not porn.
So how did we get from the emergence of erotic thrillers and prevalence of hardcore porn to the sterile media landscape we inhabit today?
There are many answers and ideas to that question, but we can certainly implicate corporations and Disney in the "cleaning up" of that industry. Similar to what happened to the seedy Times Square of the 1970s, Western culture has sterilized mainstream entertainment in an effort to bolster the bottom line. Moralism, once again, has found a strange bedfellow in the entertainment industry. In the present day media landscape, corporations feel more accountable for their content (see also: FOSTA/SESTA regulations), and there there are fewer total corporations with a stranglehold on entertainment media. Meanwhile hardcore and explicit material is now more abundant and ever-present than it ever has been before. Now is also a very timely moment to mention that Disney just bought 20th Century Fox.
The sex is there, but it has been surgically removed from the stories we tell in movies and now lives its own life, nearly entirely online.
It's worth listening to the podcast episode, as they credit the shift in the American zeitgeist and the resulting popularity of Judd Apatow films (in which characters engage in rampant sexual activity but are then invariably humiliated or ruined because of it) to a host of political shifts.
While the NYT article does an excellent job of breaking down the cliff notes of media history over the last thirty years and the roles it plays in constructing the sanitized media we have today, there is a startling lack of mentions of sex work, FOSTA/SESTA, and #metoo that only allows for part of the story to be told.
Let's fast-forward to out current political climate (which we've been discussing a great deal on the Slixa Blog, especially as it relates to current Democratic candidates, as well as the history of media and morality in the United States): we're in a time of not only FOSTA/SESTA, but also of the rampant banning and erasure of adult content from the internet (see: Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram). Coincidence?
We think not.
The loosely-worded laws surrounding FOSTA/SESTA allow for companies to be taken to task for a smorgasboard of reasons, and so social media companies in particular are "being cautious." According to Cookie Cyboid on The Establishment:
"These recently passed laws effectively poke holes in section 230, a 1996 addition to the Communications Decency Act, which states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
For example, if someone decides to tweet a libelous rant about me, I can’t sue Twitter for allowing it on their platform. But under SESTA/FOSTA, sites are responsible for any sex work advertisements hosted on their sites servers, whether they know the content is there or not. To be clear, states can now sue tech companies who have content related to sex work on their websites."
We've already discussed how Sex Worker Exclusionary Feminism (SWERF) has no place for nuanced conversations about sexuality – but the fact is, as a culture, we don't either. The shift from the erotic thriller to the Apatow films, to where we are today (arguably, the sexless world of Marvel Universe movies) in a time of terror around representing sex as a complicated and healthy aspect of a high-quality life – what it shows is that we have moved past the moment of doing the work to represent varied, enthusiastically-consenting sex in media. And we've moved into a no-man's-land where sex just simply isn't acknowledged in a real way.