Sex and shame in cinema

I grew up watching a lot of television and once I discovered my love for cinema I piled film viewing on top of that. As I experienced adolescence and early adulthood, I learned to think that women should be ashamed of their bodies. I also garnered the idea that sex was an act women engaged in for the specific aim of pleasing men. Worse still, I believed that getting married and having babies was not only important and necessary for me because of my assigned gender, but also that it was actually what I wanted.

It took a lot of hard work throughout my twenties to eradicate the varying degrees of this insidious indoctrination. I probably still have a long way to go.

What we see on the big and little screen is limited by a number of oppressive bodies. For cinema, the most vocal are the major film studios (which control the dominant portion of production, distribution, and now exhibition) and the classification boards. These gatekeepers are made up of significantly more men than women.

Ever since the introduction of the Hays Code, the authoritative and ideological rules that our viewing is subject to has contained few or poor representations of female sex, sexuality and sexual agency. Though things are somewhat more progressive in arthouse, underground and avant-garde circles, the bulk of what we (as collective viewers engaging in public discourse) see offers little in the way of visible female sex acts or sexual subjectivity.

This issue finds its way into public debate every so often – usually when something happens – the appearance of what is considered ‘ground breaking’ or ‘controversial’. Personally, I can’t understand why it would be considered ground breaking or controversial to see a woman enjoy or initiate a sex act. More puzzling still is why the mere visual of female genitalia outside of pornography is taboo.

In Australia, in 1999, Catherine Breillat’s film Romance was classified R18+. The protagonist, Marie, embarks upon a journey in search of intimacy after her boyfriend refuses to have sex with her, a journey exploring sexuality and subjectivity. The same year, Joel Schumacher’s 8mm was released in Australia, also classified R18+. 8mm follows private investigator Tom Welles (Nic Cage) as he examines the underworld of snuff films. The journey tells us about a man’s response to the exploitation, rape and murder of women.


I personally remember seeing Romance at Melbourne’s Lumiere cinema (a small, inner city arthouse venue) and 8mm at Village Century City Walk (a major suburban multiplex). Evidently, even amongst films given the same classifications, there is great disparity when it comes to how widely that content is seen.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, things aren’t getting any better. Actually, they’re getting worse. Let’s take an example of two films from 2013. Maggie Carey’s The To-do List, starring Aubrey Plaza as a model student and highly strung academic who decides to make a sexual ‘to-do’ list before going away to college, was classified R18+ in Australia and went straight to home entertainment (DVD and Bluray). The film was billed as a female Porky’s. Sex acts and sexual subjectivity are played for laughs and the movie fits into the gross-out comedy genre better than anywhere else. In its classification listing, it scores ‘very mild impact’ for violence and ‘high impact’ for sex.

Also released last year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It was wrist-slapped with an Australian classification of MA15+ for public exhibition, and found its way into Australian cinemas after premiering at the Cannes Film Festival. It didn’t rack up a single ‘high impact’ score but received ‘strong impact’ on three counts: sex, violence and language. The film’s narrative is predicated on sexual violence against women.

According to the Australian classification board, sexual violence against women has lesser impact than Aubrey Plaza dry humping a pillow for laughs.

Following a few Australian film festival screenings, the German screen adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands will get its (limited) Australian theatrical release this year. Though I think it’s fair to discuss the content in the book as ‘graphic’, the film doesn’t show nearly as much of the honest (albeit occasionally pitched as gross-out) content pertaining to the protagonist’s anus, vagina, sexual exploits or exploration and discussion of her bodily secretions. It still gets a R18+ classification. The film scores ‘high impact’ for sex, nudity and themes. Apparently female sex fantasies and fond memories of swapping tampons with a teenage friend are high impact themes. Or perhaps it’s the very idea of discussing (and handling) haemorrhoids that the board believes has the potential to shock and offend.


I can only imagine what the bean counters heading up the major studios would think if they ever saw a Mara Mattuschka film like S.O.S. Extraterrestria where Mattuschka’s onscreen persona Mimi Minus ‘mounts’ the Eiffel Tower and masturbates on it (as revision of King Kong scaling the Empire State Building)”. What’s saddest to me is that my example is so far removed from the mainstream that it can’t really interact effectively with the controlled, trampled and stifled version of public discourse that our mainstream film and television viewing creates. I’d be better off hoping that some mindless executive somewhere stumbled upon Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl and adapted that for the screen because: 1) it’s a story about a strong (young) female protagonist with agency all of her own, and 2) because even though it’s far from ‘ground breaking’, it does at least posit a sexual act (masturbation) as something that doesn’t exist solely for the titillation of men or as a sexual second best after union with a man has been refused in the narrative.

As it stands, the closest thing to mainstream representations of female sexual agency comes from that strange place that sits somewhere between the multiplex and the arthouse. Here I’m talking about predominantly European or auteurist cinema that includes films like David Lynch’s Mullholand Drive (2001), Malgorzata Szumowska’s Elles (2011), and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2013). None of these representations are shining examples, per se, but they do at least go some way to showing us what female sex and sexual subjectivity might look like outside of its predominant depiction as shameful, or as something incidental to its ‘purpose’ of pleasing men.

Though I’d like this conversation to have a ‘things are getting better’ style of ending, it doesn’t. From the perspective of someone whose life is structured around viewing film (for personal and professional reasons), I can only urge others to balance the mainstream, multiplex diet of ideological toxins with as much independent, underground and avant-garde content as it’s possible to get one’s hands on. It won’t solve the wider problem, but from a personal perspective, it’s far more satisfying.

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. The To Do List would have been R18+ some 30 years ago at the height of the Porkies-style sex comedies, but in 2014? That’s ridiculous. Especially when, as you said, Only God Forgives got a mere MA15+ for having horrifically violent acts one right after the other.

  2. Really enjoyed reading your piece, I agree with your assessment. I started a charity to support women and children escaping family violence, evidence has shown that around the world violence is worse in countries where inequality is most rampant. Here we go again!!

  3. Hi Distant Observer,
    Not enough space in just the one article to cover everything unfortunately! In terms of documentary, though, what area specifically are you interested in? It’s very different to narrative cinema with regard to this discussion as I’m mostly focusing on representations of sex, sexuality and sexual agency.

  4. Hi Jenny,
    Thank you and congratulations on such an important initiative. The world definitely needs more people fighting the good fight, great to hear from you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *