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Sex still sells movies – But not in the way you might think

Research by: Chioma Azeh

Hollywood continues to believe that “sex sells”, even as PG and PG-13 movies dominate investments; Female nudity outpaces male nudity

From Silence of The Lambs to Basic Instinct to Euphoria, graphic and explicit content has spurred discussion and controversy. We examined the top ten grossing movies each year from 1990 to 2019 for the purpose of analyzing the prevalence of graphic and sexually explicit content in movies and found the following:

  • Female nudity is much more prevalent than male nudity in top-grossing films. However, male genitalia is shown in these movies more than female genitalia.
  • Hollywood studios are placing big bets on PG and PG-13 movies, leading to fewer R-rated movies in the top 10. This has produced less sex in top grossing films, but an increase in innuendo. Half of top grossing films since 2000 include innuendos, concentrated heavily in PG- and PG-13-rated movies.
  • Comic book heroes and animated films contain the majority of sexual innuendos in recent years.

The first time we saw a male nude in the last 30 years was in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. A drag queen is seen dancing in the mirror naked with his genitals tucked between his thighs. 

The following year, Basic Instinct includes full nudity, the showing of adult genitalia and female breasts, for male and female characters. By the end of 1992, nine of the top-ten grossing box office movies since 1989 show nude characters. All but one of those movies, Dead Poets Society, fall under the crime/thriller genre.

Compare this to the most recent decade, during which just eight R-rated movies fell into the top 100 highest-grossing films. At the same time, the MPAA designates more than half of the top 100 to include (at a minimum) sexual innuendos, meaning that Hollywood continues to believe that this content is important to sell tickets in films targeted at younger audiences.

Nudity and gender

Hollywood continues to believe that female nudity sells films, as shown in the charts below. However, male genitalia is shown in these movies more than female genitalia.

Content and movie ratings

R-rated films contain majority of nude scenes, but those films aren’t as popular as they used to be. Between 1990 and 1999, there were thirty-one R-rated films in the top 10 grossing movies, yet there were only seventeen between 2000 and 2019. From 1990 to 1999, there were sixteen movies depicting nudity. That number shrinks to 15 for the following decade and to 11 between 2010 and 2019. 

Less R-rated films lead to less nudity and sexual content, but not as much as you might expect. Since 2000, sexually graphic content is awarded a PG-13 rating, even if there are nude scenes. Sex, its innuendos and the implied depiction of it, is almost as prominent now as it was in the 1990s, despite the fact that more family and children’s movies are holding the majority of the box office top-ten grossing positions. 

The biggest offenders are our favorite comic book heroes and animated movies. Looking at the box office numbers for the last 10 years, it makes sense for film studios to continue inserting provocative content into PG-13 movies. All but two of those years have a PG-13 rated movie sitting at the number-one position.

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