Sex doesn’t sell when it comes to cinema—sort of

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A recent study discovered that explicit sexual content doesn’t equate to a film’s success.

The study, "Sex Doesn't Sell — nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema," examined over 900 films released between 2001 and 2005. From this sample group, researchers found that the amount of sexual content doesn’t correlate with the film’s critical or box office success. Even among R rated films, fewer graphic sex scenes usually meant bigger box office numbers.

To give you some perspective, the highest earning films of this period include: Shrek 2; Spider-Man; Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—none of which contain nudity.

Some believe these findings reflect the evolving sensibilities of a post-sexual revolution culture. Sex no longer shocks us. Others go as far as to say that sexual suppression, such as that depicted in Twilight, is now more of a taboo than overt sexuality. In essence, a hint of sex is more seductive than a stripped down, full frontal scene.

I, however, am a bit more skeptical. I’d argue that if you conducted the same study over the entire history of film, you would find the same correlation. Sex has never been the main selling point of a film, (unless of course you’re talking about adult films or skin-emax movies). Studios often cut sex scenes to garner a PG-13 rating for films that will appeal to a wider audience than just the R rated crowd. Take Avatar, in which James Cameron clipped an alien sex scene to insure a PG-13 rating and a Titanic-sized audience. Nudity and sex has become a sleazy camera trick to beef up a bad story or seduce audiences into seeing a movie they'd otherwise ignore. I'd be interested to see how graphic sex scenes impact the success of R rated films with equally bad story lines. A famous nude celebrity might mean the difference between a national theater release and a Showtime original movie.

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