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Can Challengers make sex hot again? Gen Z are alienated from true eroticism

'Sex is back!' Credit: Challengers

'Sex is back!' Credit: Challengers


May 6, 2024   5 mins

I was the sole audience member at an otherwise-empty afternoon showing of Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers this week, which should have been a rare luxury but instead made me feel like a pervert. Challengers is not a sex movie — ostensibly, it is about tennis — but it is a sexy movie, so erotically charged that it has already prompted at least one public ejaculation, albeit of the verbal variety. When the credits rolled at a pre-release screening of the film last month, one audience member reportedly shrieked, “Sex is back!”, as if sex were a beloved relative, returned at last from war.

This person, of course, is also a pervert — but he’s not wrong. Sex in films has been markedly absent for the past decade or so, an unsurprising fact given the zeitgeist. In a world ruled by superhero franchises and other ripped-from-the-YA-section IP, not to mention a prudish sensibility vis-a-vis R-rated sensuality that arose roughly in tandem with the #MeToo movement, sex became a subject occasionally joked about, rarely depicted and generally sidelined in favour of various acts of CGI sorcery. Arguably, the horniest films of the 2010s featured in the Twilight saga, and even these portrayed the physical act of love as something to be nobly abstained from rather than joyfully indulged in. (Interestingly, this theme persists even after the two central characters are married, when their sole sexual encounter results in the total destruction of an entire bedroom suite and a demon foetus that the vampire husband eventually delivers via C-section with his teeth — you know, PG-13 stuff.)

Hence the excitement surrounding Challengers, which seems to suggest the presence of adults in the cultural room. The producer Amy Pascal said: “It absolutely feels like the pendulum has swung back toward filmmakers exploring adult relationships and sexuality in their projects.” It’s a development she considers welcome.

Naturally, the return of sex on the big screen does not imply its absence elsewhere. Steamy small-screen dramas such as Euphoria and Game of Thrones, as well as the more female-gazey Bridgerton and Outlander, have long trod the fine line between what is sexy and what is soft-core pornography. And then there’s the even smaller screen of the smartphone, which not only comes with a virtually limitless supply of porn but also the possibility for audience participation. Through the glass, you can command bespoke masturbation material from an OnlyFans creator, upload your own videos to an amateur site, or compete for the attention of a camgirl from the comfort of your own home.

It’s difficult to overstate how drastically the paradigm has shifted. A quarter of a century ago, back in the analogue days, porn was not simply available; you had to hunt for it in its natural habitat under someone’s older brother’s mattress. Or in the indecipherable mess of moaning, flesh-coloured something on a scrambled cable TV channel. Or in the cave-like “ADULT” enclave at the back of the local video rental spot, which in my hometown store was separated by a beaded curtain that made an unmistakable rattle every time someone entered the room — so that when you emerged clutching the complete boxed set of College Girls Gone Wild, it was under the watchful gaze of a small cadre of giggling patrons who had assembled to see who the degenerate was. (Mostly, it was nobody my friends and I knew; one time, to the horror of all involved, it was our high-school biology teacher.)

The drastic difference between then and now may explain why Gen Z is not just uninterested in sex scenes in non-pornographic films, but in many cases repulsed by them. The most recent “Teens & Screens” report from UCLA revealed that almost half of adolescents aged 13–24 felt that “romance is overused in media” (44.3%) and that “sex is unnecessary for the plot of most TV shows and movies” (47.5%). That same survey found that just over half of the young people surveyed wanted to see more content about friendships in lieu of romance; a smaller but still significant number said they wanted explicitly asexual content.

Perhaps this was inevitable for a generation that is already known for being the least horny in documented history. If you are eschewing sex and dating, then stories about similarly prudish characters may well make you feel seen. Certainly, it explains the fixation among younger people on whether sex or romance — a.k.a. the powerful drives through which human beings continue to exist on earth — is “necessary to the plot” of the stories we tell. Last year, 40-year-old British actor Henry Cavill briefly went viral after a podcast interview in which he declared himself “not a fan” of sex scenes. “There are circumstances where a sex scene actually is beneficial to a movie, rather than just the audience, but I think sometimes they’re overused these days,” he said. “Is this really necessary or is it just people with less clothing on?”

There’s a lot to unpack here, including the notion of scenes that are beneficial to a film’s audience while somehow detracting from the film itself — as if the people watching his movies are mere voyeurs interrupting its higher purpose. (There’s also the irony of this coming from a man whose career was launched by his steamy turn on The Tudors, but that’s a conversation for another day.) Only in a world in which sexual content had become virtually synonymous with pornography could an actor have such a low opinion of the audience who consumes his work.

“This is not a movie in which sex is necessary to the plot; it is the plot.”

But perhaps Cavill can be forgiven for this failure of imagination, given that we leave virtually nothing to it anymore. If you’ve grown up surrounded by sexual content that is made for masturbation, the notion of sex as a storytelling device — let alone as art — must seem utterly alien.

Which brings us back to Challengers, and what it represents — which, with apologies to the exultant shouter of “Sex is back!”, seems not so much a return to the era of the gratuitous sex scene as a complete, concept-level overhaul of what eroticism looks like on-screen. This is not a movie in which sex is necessary to the plot; it is the plot, the context in which every glance, every utterance, every interaction between the three central characters takes place. The tennis scenes are about sex. The fights are about sex. The two young men aggressively eating churros at each other in a college dining hall? Definitely, and not particularly subtly, about sex.

This is what animates the story of Challengers, and also what makes it genius, particularly coming from a director who is no stranger to the artful and provocative depiction of sex on film. Guadagnino’s previous work, Call Me By Your Name, includes what is surely the most memorable act of man-on-peach intercourse in cinematic history, but the film itself is about desire. Challengers, on the other hand, is about sex — to the point where depicting the act itself becomes unnecessary (although one underwear-clad makeout session tiptoes up to the line). One way to describe this movie would be to say that it contains no sex scenes. Another way would be that it contains nothing but these, just thinly disguised as something else.

In this way, Guadagnino’s film feels like a cheeky rejoinder to the notion that sex and romance can be “overused” or “unnecessary” — as if these were mere dressings drizzled over the top of what it means to be human, as opposed to the essential binding agent they are. Maybe you don’t always taste these things, or maybe you can plausibly pretend as much, but nothing holds together without them. And when Gen Z complains that they just want their stories without any icky explicit sex in it, the simmering, heady eroticism of Challengers winks back. Sure, kids: here’s a nice tennis movie. Enjoy!


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago

The thing about sex scenes these days is that they all look like they were written by an over-enthusiastic, yet thoroughly inexperienced, sex education teacher who is blissfully oblivious as to how cringey she is.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Quite possibly due to all such scenes now having an “intimacy co-ordinator” which takes any ounce of real passion out of it.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

…in our,shake it all about.,.

Emily DeRosa
Emily DeRosa
1 month ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

i strongly disagree! bridgerton is famous for its intimacy coordinators and most people give those sex scenes rave reviews! I think the point of a *good* intimacy coordinator is coordinating the communication between the actors in terms of storytelling and boundaries so that both can plan a really good sex scene for their characters and let loose without feelings of fear or inhibition (of one’s own boundaries being violated, or accidentally transgressing against one’s colleague). I don’t know anyone who watches bridgerton who thinks all those scenes are sterile. Actually, porn is more sterile than those thoughtfully-coordinated and then freely-acted scenes.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago

Oh,B-O-R-I-N-G. Is this some chick journalist whose grown up listening to her Grandma’s stories of how Free and Hot life was in 1970,how Granny,in her Hot Pants +.cheesecloth top could date a different guy every night of the week,have sex with them all,and not only come away(,no pun intended) with no.sexual diseases,but keep her good nice girl of this neighbourhood reputation intact,pining to bring those days back,just like the JSO ones who regret they were born way too late to be at Grosvenor.Square,like their Grandma was,albeit she lives in a mellow ivy covered ancient manor house in rural Dorset now.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

What? How do you make a tenuous jump like that from an article about the general disappearance of sex scenes in films?
Also if somebody’s Nan did behave like that in the 70’s good on them, sounds like they spent their youth enjoying themselves which is exactly the point.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Exactly!

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

You had to be there,unless you were there but that 1960s rule still applied.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Everybody’s Nan behaved like that in 1970. I’m not a Nan because I flunked the social acceptability.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  jane baker

You wouldn’t want to see my granny in hotpants Not even in the 70s.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

After a few beers I’m game for most things

Carl Valentine
Carl Valentine
1 month ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

A libertarian Billy?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  Carl Valentine

When you look as rough as I do you can’t afford to be picky

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Find the old family photo albums,the undigitised ones.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
1 month ago

Oh for that great film of yesteryear, “Women in Love.”

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
1 month ago

The internet, together with dating apps and a cultural acceptance of casual sex and niche sexual practices have resulted in sex losing many of its transgressive elements.

Perhaps we’re discovering that these were actually a very important part of its attraction, and that’s why Gen Zs aren’t hopping into bed with each other as much as one might have predicted.

In the 60s and 70s, an intoxicating aura of the forbidden still hung over sex, much of which is gone. Perversely, perhaps we need to make sex less culturally available in order to put the spice back into it.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 month ago
Reply to  Roddy Campbell

From what I gather teenagers are burnt out on all the readily-available p0rn.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

This is how the pendulum swings – we go from one extreme to the other. I guess the happy medium is not so happy, after all.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

I finally saw “La Piscine” (1965-ish) just recently. My glasses are still all steamy. Once they clear I’ll think about seeing “Challengers”. This essay told me a lot more about the film, which wasn’t really the subject, than any of the reveiws did.

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
1 month ago

Well, in Cavill’s defence, I think his disdain for filming sex scenes may have less to do with any broader cultural shifts and more because of his personal experience working with many a female writer/producer/executive who treated him as little more than a slab of beef to drool over. The horror stories I’ve heard about his time working on Netflix’s adaptation of the Witcher made my blood boil and my nose hair curl, especially considering how much sex is supposed to be integral to the plot of the Witcher.

Victor James
Victor James
1 month ago

Sex, like food, even very fine and expensive food, becomes repulsive very quickly once satiation has been achieved. What does this say about it, fundamentally?
It’s necessary, but, why hyper stimulate the desire? It only causes harm.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
1 month ago
Reply to  Victor James

Didn’t notice your comment before posting my own, on the same comparison. Haven’t seen Challengers, but I do hope it contains lots of eating scenes with plenty of food. That is, after all, one of “the powerful drives through which human beings continue to exist on earth”. Or maybe that’s just my desire for titillation.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
1 month ago

Based on this article, Gaspar Noe’s Love would definitely melt the snowflakes.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago

I don’t really understand the author’s problem with Cavill, who is completely correct – the vast majority of sex scenes in films are useless to the story and are only there to supply titillation. In many cases they also destroy the flow of the narrative.
That doesn’t mean it’s always the case, but more often than not.
I also think, from the actors POV, they create a lot of pressure that is questionable in a workplace setting. Cavill’s experience on the Tudors might give him a better than average insight into that.

tom j
tom j
1 month ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

if you’re going to call a movie set a workplace setting, you’re in no danger of making anything that even hints at the erotic.

jane baker
jane baker
1 month ago
Reply to  tom j

The late Roger Moore in highly amusing chat at Bath Theatre Royal described how erotic it was filming those scenes where Bond is in bed with one or other lovely -( ok I know not porny,safe enough for your maiden aunt and the vicar,but representing…..,and workplace definitely won out.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

Agreed. I’ll take it one step further and suggest romance is overused in movies to the point of being cliche. I have to wonder if Kat isn’t indulging in some nostalgia for younger days, which we’re all guilty of from time to time, because that’s how movies used to be. I remember back in the 80’s and 90s when nearly every movie from summer blockbusters to Christmas movies had a hot babe love interest and/or a romance shoehorned into the plot whether that made any sense or not, because there had to be one to appeal to women and reach a broader audience. I mean if there’s no romance women won’t watch and our picture won’t make money. There was a lot of pressure on those Hollywood executives to make bank. Snorting cocaine off the backs of thousand dollar a night ‘escorts’ ain’t cheap.
But seriously, that was just how things were done back then. It usually wasn’t full on sex but it was usually gratuitous and rarely necessary. This was the age where the summer blockbuster had just been invented and movie budgets were skyrocketing thanks to the film studios all trying to one up one another, or just Spielberg trying to one up himself. The idea was that romance pulled in the ladies and helped the film make up its ridiculous budget. This is the same era that produced the entire rom-com industry, which is the same principle but reversed. Put the cheap romantic filler in as the whole movie and pull in a decent take from women moviegoers on a shoestring budget. It was so ubiquitous that even I noticed it as a teenager. I think what finally tipped me off was when they somehow managed to wedge a contrived romantic subplot into the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. It was, for multiple reasons, the cringiest, most awkward and inappropriate thing I’ve ever seen in a movie, let alone a kids movie, or at least it was until the Mike Myers version of Cat in the Hat rolled around. Poor Theodore Geisel probably turned a couple somersaults in his grave over those embarrassments.
Personally I think Cavill and Gen Z have the right idea. Depending on one’s position on the sliding scale of idealism vs. cynicism, cinema is either storytelling or entertainment. Watching other people’s physical intimacy is almost never critical to the story and not the most entertaining thing there is. If I’m spending the ridiculous price for a movie ticket these days, I want to be engaged in a well told story that makes me think, or I want to be mesmerized by the skill of the filmmakers in making something fantastic, spectacular, and impossible to see in real life through the use of movie magic, effects, etc. If all I want is to watch an animal humping something or someone, my dog does that for free. And, if I do want to engage in the erotic, there’s plenty of porn created explicitly for that purpose and quite a bit cheaper. If I’m going to a fancy restaurant, pay through the nose, and wait hours for a table, I want the experience to be worth it, so I’m going to eat something that I can’t get just anywhere, something unique and worth the expense. I’m not going to order a hamburger. If on the other, hand, I’m just hungry and I want a hamburger, I’ll go to McDonald’s.

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago

Zendaya’s characters – an aggressive tennis coach, a nearly feral desert warrior – strike one as moreso intimidating than appealing.
Flirting or even meeting the gaze of such a woman would probably be hazardous, not intriguing – would I have a drink thrown in my face, or worse? Do I need to lasso a predatory worm the size of an office tower? – and one would probably double fault at the line, or fail to return a volley.
Sex may be back in cinema with “Challengers.” But need it be so challenging?

JB87
JB87
1 month ago

The return of eroticism is long overdue. Once pornography became mainstream it lost any last shred of titillation it may have ever had. The unavailable, unapproachable and slightly forbidden will always fascinate more than that which is rubbed in one’s face.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 month ago

Slightly confused puff piece. If Challengers doesn’t in fact have any sex scenes, then why spend half the piece criticizing widespread boredom with gratuitous sex scenes demonstrated by Gen Z, and people like Henry Cavill?

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
1 month ago

Haven’t seen Challengers, but I do hope it contains lots of eating scenes with plenty of food. That is, after all, one of “the powerful drives through which human beings continue to exist on earth”. Or maybe that’s just my desire for titillation.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

Perhaps the problem with sex scenes today is that young actors today don’t know how to express desire because in real life they don’t.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

I have to agree with Cavill and Gen Z.
Sex scenes are mostly irrelevant to a good film.
No interest in seeing them.
Referencing the propagation of the species is a total red herring.

andy young
andy young
1 month ago

Watched Far From The Madding Crowd for the first time in donkey’s the other day. Troy seducing Bathsheba with his dazzling sword play: now that’s what I call a proper sex scene.

Grumpy Hedgehog
Grumpy Hedgehog
1 month ago

So, you want sex to feel titillating and naughty instead of as banal as eating a sandwich?
Society has spent decades working very hard to demystify and normalise sex. Young people are practically ordered to masturbate for their health. Any and all types of sex are to be accepted, celebrated, and consequently trivialised. Sex has been taken entirely out of any context of relationships or (heaven forbid) reproduction, and turned into a self-care practice. And this is Gen Z’s fault?
Gate, horse, bolted.

Emily DeRosa
Emily DeRosa
1 month ago

This article really makes me want to see Challengers! 😀 It sounds sexy and totally refreshing.

I agree with Rosenfield’s take.

For some, every sex scene that pops up in a movie is like the traumatizing imagery we were violated with via unexpected pop up ads, links, and memes, while exploring the internet unchaperoned as kids as we hunted for pirated TV shows and other innocent adventures. How many times do you have to see men’s power-fantasy images of women getting sexually degraded until you’re allowed to be a little bit grossed out and scared of sex?

Also…Gen Z and young Millennials are also traumatized about sex by our parents. When your parents are the victims of the “free love” movement aka the “get sexually assaulted at wild parties and never speak about it ever again bc if it happened to you it was probably your fault and also stop harshing our buzz” movement…yeah, some of them tended to over-correct a bit and teach us that wild 60’s-70’s style sexy parties are horror zones of trauma…which they were, for a lot of women. 🙁

Everyone likes to trash Gen-Z and Millennials…but no one ever likes to blame the traumatized latchkey-kids who raised us while dealing with the fallout of decades of unspoken sexual trauma or life-destroying teen pregnancies, etc?

God bless Bridgerton, though! That show for me was like a female-gaze oasis in a parched desert of male-gaze brutality, as someone who grew up right at the start of the sexual horror men’s internet porn generation. Literally counting down the days till season 3 premiers!

Matt Sylvestre
Matt Sylvestre
1 month ago

Never understood people who do not at least aspire to romantic love and sincere lust. Even though it may not be obtainable at all times in life or even not at all unfortunately. Still who would not prefer it…

tony morrin
tony morrin
1 month ago

There were at least a couple of decades when you couldn’t watch a blockbuster movie without a “hot” sex scene which was borderline irrelevant and then irrelevantly repeated and likely again repeated. Bridgerton et al sex seems to be for an older audience but it was all for the audience not the art. You can’t impress the young now with a sex scene because they’ve seen it all before and far more at age 8 on their phones so it’s no good for big movies anymore.
Also, “I was the sole audience member at an otherwise-empty afternoon showing” is a painful opener to have to read.