40% drop in sex on film suggests Scottish Presbyterian attitudes may be catching on – Aidan Smith

Despite Netflix’s decision to break the ‘last taboo’ about sex on screen, audiences appear to be saying ‘no sex please, we’re Scottish!' and the like

This will be a challenge. I’m going to attempt to write about something without mentioning “it” very often. Ours is a family newspaper, after all, and I’m still mindful of the decency code of an old editor whose false teeth used to waggle in fury at the slightest contravention: “Our readers dinnae want this with their ham and eggs!”

“It”, you see, is an erect penis. There, it’s out of the way early, hopefully never to return, or at least only when essential to the plot. Netflix has just broken what’s been called “the last taboo” by showing one in the drama A Man in Full. Never has a series been better named. My former boss will be birling in his grave. So, too, TV clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse and, of course, Moira Knox, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s matron of moral outrage.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But times change, don’t they? Tastes, too. The streaming service wouldn’t have gone so far – pushing boundaries, prodding them with a fearsome cudgel – if they didn’t think we were ready. Here’s a funny thing, though: it – you remember what it is – has emerged at a moment when screen sex is supposed to have fallen out of vogue.

Aubrey Plaza in erotically charged drama series The White Lotus (Picture: Fabio Lovino/HBO)Aubrey Plaza in erotically charged drama series The White Lotus (Picture: Fabio Lovino/HBO)
Aubrey Plaza in erotically charged drama series The White Lotus (Picture: Fabio Lovino/HBO)
Read More
Aidan Smith: '˜Dear Sir .. has the BBC gone SEX mad?'

According to a new study, sexual content in films has decreased by 40 per cent. From 2000, the 250 biggest box-office hits of each year were scrutinised, which can’t have been the most humdrum material ever to have been collated for a survey. And here’s something else funny – the research was commissioned by The Economist, presumably on a slow news day while waiting for an especially dry Jeremy Hunt speech to drop.

A 40 per cent drop is unmistakably flaccid. It will surprise anyone who’s seen Saltburn, where Barry Keoghan lets it all hang out in the final scene, and Poor Thing, where Emma Stone lets it all hang out in just about every scene – though presumably these films were released too late for inclusion in the study.

Certainly, A Man in Full’s big reveal will surprise anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book about a blustering, bullying, real-estate tycoon foreshadowing the emergence of Donald Trump. I have, and my memory is not of an ending which turns the tale into A Man at his Engorged, Tumescent Fullest. So again: we, the randy viewing public, must want this.

Ah, but not in Scotland. Do you get the feeling that everyone is doing it apart from us? That sexy movies and TV dramas are being produced everywhere apart from here? I do not have the hard, firm, rigid evidence to back this up.

Unlike such an august, er, organ as The Economist, I lack the resources to hire the kind of small army of retirees who would do the heavy lifting for a definitive analysis of Scottish screen sex – a task for which, besides clipboards and stopwatches, they would probably require a steady supply of smelling salts and cold flannels.

No, my theory is based on a hunch, and from having watched, both in a professional capacity and for pleasure, a walloping great chunk of our output of films and shows down the years.

For example, The Field of Blood. Now, a TV drama set in the world of newspapers is probably no one’s idea of sexy, and you may prefer not to think about Scottish journalists copulating, but this is how I reviewed the series in 2013: “I always want sex from BBC Scotland. Correction: I want it when a drama signals it, lets us know that sexual tension will be important to the plot, as The Field of Blood did with the relationship between the editor and the Thatcherite ball-breaker newly brought in above him. I didn’t actually need the protagonists to shag or even remove their ghastly 1980s clothes; just for the show to simmer in a meaningful, confident, grown-up way and not be mimsy-ish and timid like it’s the Morningside Players’ annual production – specifically, that from 1959. These two did end up in bed, but in the post-coital scene I half expected to glimpse a Teasmade and shortbread. Honestly, can you think of any Beeb Scotland drama that’s ever been remotely erotic?” Well, can you? The same applies to STV, by the way, though nowadays they hardly make anything, erotic or sclerotic.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Scottish actors like Ewan McGregor and James McAvoy have enjoyed sexy roles but not in Scottish productions and the same with Bodyguard starring Richard Madden who was security detail for the Home Secretary, baring his bottom (it was our man who did this, in case a horrible image of Grant Shapps or James Cleverly has just presented itself). Also English-made was Doctor Foster where Suranne Jones had sex on kitchen units and dining tables, unlike in her Scottish-made drama, Vigil. And I’ve seen some of the new Rebus but don’t think it’s about to provoke switchboard-jamming at Pacific Quay over daring bedroom scenes.

I know, such scenes shouldn’t be gratuitous, but they don’t even have to reach the bedroom to be sexy. Think The White Lotus and the Harper/Cameron dynamic. The book I’m reading, Miranda July’s All Fours, is engrossing for the sex being all in the mind of one of the protagonists and I’ll be disappointed if eventually they get down to doing it.

Doing it on screen cannot now happen without an intimacy coordinator present. Those in this booming profession exist for very good reasons, of course, although Michael Douglas, who’s featured in some of the most sexually charged movies ever made, laments that the coaches say what goes now and wonders if they perhaps hold too much power.

Which might make a new viewer of Scotland on screen wonder: did this hardline Presbyterian land actually invent the role?



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.