"Sex sells." At least, that's the conventional wisdom. We hear it all the time, as a justification for some of the worst excesses of filmmakers and advertisers. It's not that they're deliberately out to lower our standards; it's all about money, so they say.
Except when it isn't, that is.
The Reuters news service has looked into recent box-office numbers and come up with some intriguing results: Movies rated R for explicit sexual content do poorly in theaters. Their report states, "Last year, five of the top-10-grossing movies were PG. Of the top 25, only four were rated R. `Increasingly, if a movie is rated R,' says producer John Goldwyn, `audiences won't go.'" Movies advertised as being all about sex, like Closer and Kinsey, got great reviews, but they failed miserably at the box office. And last year was no anomaly. In his book Hollywood vs. America, Michael Medved tracked poor audience numbers for sexually explicit films all the way back to the sixties.
Based on its own research, Reuters concluded, "The old adage `sex sells' no longer applies to the movies....As any theater owner will eagerly tell you, American audiences like their movies PG and PG-13, not R, and certainly not NC-17."
Yet we need to be careful not to read too much into these results, because the news isn't all good. For one thing, neither PG nor PG-13 means what it used to anymore. There's a lot more today that slips past the ratings board than ever before. While hardcore sex may not be selling, "vulgar, dumb, funny sex," as Reuters puts it, is selling just fine, and to ever-younger audiences. Producer Peter Guber echoed Reuters's thesis when he explained, "Sex inside a comedy candy-coats sex and allows the audience to feel comfortable...Films can be sexy, but they can't portray the [real] sexual intimacy most people [genuinely] crave....The portrayal has to be violent or funny."
And then, too, there's the fact that portrayals of hardcore sex are available right there in the comfort of our own living rooms, or on our computers. Thanks to premium cable channels and Internet porn-and even much of what's on the broadcast networks now-the market for smut is still thriving.
So the issue is a more complex one than it appears at first glance. But I still think this article gives us reason for hope. Our society's attitude toward sex could indeed stand much improvement; "it's okay if it's funny or violent" isn't exactly a healthy attitude. Yet at the same time, moviegoers, as a whole, seem to perceive explicit sex in films as the exploitation that it is, and they instinctively shy away from it. There's a line there that they don't want to cross.
And this is good news for all of us. If sex doesn't sell in certain venues as much as we thought, then maybe-just maybe-Hollywood will create more room for films that show respect for human dignity and more sensitivity to movie-lovers of all ages. And Christians can encourage this by writing letters; let the studios know when we see a film we like. And also, of course, boycott the R-rated films, which is not much of a sacrifice, come to think of it, because they aren't very good anyway.