Sex (and Sobs) on the Set: Actresses Lay Bare Their Thoughts on Baring it All
Hollywood actresses have been speaking up about how they really feel about performing on-screen sex and nudity.
Spoiler alert: They hate it.
Actress Salma Hayek recently opened up to Dax Shepard, host of the Armchair Expert Podcast, about her experience filming the iconic sex scene in her first film Desperado: “I started to sob and kept saying, ‘I don’t know that I can do it.’” She remembers holding onto the towel wrapped around her. “I would take it off for two seconds and start crying again.”
And Hayek is not the only one. Dozens of actresses have gone on record detailing traumatic experiences they had while filming sex scenes.
- Kate Winslet vented about having to undress: “I hate it.… It’s a profoundly bizarre thing to do…. It's sort of unethical if you think about it.”
- Reese Witherspoon confided about filming the sex scene in Wild: “I started to panic…it took up a tremendous amount of fear in my mind.… I was just terrified.”
- Nicole Kidman revealed: “I felt very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated at times…. I was just lying there, sort of broken and crying.”
- Maria Schneider recounted her experience filming the infamous sex scene with Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris: “That scene wasn't in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea…. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped… by Marlon.”
These don’t sound like women who feel comfortable and at peace with what they are being asked to do on set. To do their “job,” they are forced to drive a wedge between their body and their true self.
Tragically, women in the film industry sometimes resort to the same numbing strategies as women in the porn industry, like the use of drugs and alcohol. Kiera Knightley said that she downed “a couple of shots of vodka – definitely -- beforehand.” Jennifer Lawrence said, “I got really, really drunk. But then that led to more anxiety.” Salma Hayek confessed, “I had to take a tranquilizer, which eventually stopped the crying but made the vomiting worse.”
Most of us assume that actresses sign up for on-screen sex and nudity with eyes wide open but, in reality, they often have no idea what they will be pressured to do on set. It is not uncommon for directors and producers to ambush young, inexperienced actresses with nude and sex scenes that were not in the contract.
The sex scene in Desperado that so traumatized Salma Hayek wasn’t even written into the script. According to Hayek, “It was demanded by the studio when they saw the chemistry” (on set between Hayek and Banderas). In the movie Frida, Harvey Weinstein, the convicted sexual abuser whose victims spearheaded the #MeToo movement, insisted that Hayek again film a nude sex scene that she had not consented to in advance: “I felt an immense pressure to deliver…
my mind understood that I had to do it, but my body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing.”
Emilia Clarke recalled her excitement when offered her breakout role as Queen Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones, only to learn later of the show’s explicit sex and nudity: “Oh, there’s the catch.” She reports that she found the experiences “terrifying” and between nude scenes would hide in the bathroom to cry.
Evangeline Lilly disclosed her experience filming Lost: “I'd had a bad experience on set with being basically cornered into doing a scene partially naked, and I felt I had no choice in the matter. And I was mortified, and I was trembling when it finished. I was crying my eyes out.” A “bad experience” is an understatement. When a person with power corners someone to take off their clothes or simulate sex and the one being asked feels that they have “no choice,” let’s call it what it is: abuse.
On-screen sex and nudity are often justified as artistically necessary but, in reality, they do not add to the plot, the storyline, or the quality of the film. Jessica Alba asserted, “If you look at the movies I have done, getting naked would never ‘elevate’ the picture.” Emilia Clarke agreed: “Most sex scenes you see in films or on TV are gratuitous.” As her celebrity increased, she began to feel empowered to advocate for herself: “I've had fights on set before where I'm like, 'no, the sheet stays up.’ And they're like, 'You don't want to disappoint your Game of Thrones fans.'" She eventually refused to do any more nude scenes, saying, “I want to be known for my acting, not my breasts.”
Hollywood believes sex sells and, sadly, they are right. The female body has been eroticized and commodified. As Hayek stated, “I was not an artist. I wasn’t even a person. I was a thing: not a nobody, but a body.” Actresses are reduced to an object that can be photographed, filmed, and viewed as nothing but a body to be sold to entertain the public regardless of how much trauma is suffered by the actresses on the set.
The question is, are we going to continue buying?
When we watch sex-saturated movies, we are complicit in the denigration of these actresses. We pay for their humiliation. We monetize their trauma. We line the pockets of directors and producers who coerce actresses, ignoring their sobs and overruling their refusals. But at what cost to their personhood?
Hayek explained that her strategy for getting through nude sex scenes is to mentally disassociate from her body. In her words, “When you’re not you, then you can do it.” But after hearing about the deep trauma experienced by many actresses, it is obvious this strategy does not work. It cannot work. What we do with our bodies, whether in or out of character, impacts our whole person.
One Hollywood journalist, in an article subtitled “Sex Scenes by Actresses Who Hate Doing Sex Scenes,” cheered them on: “Way to take one for the team, ladies!” It’s time for those who care about women to switch teams and start voting with our wallets. We need to stop supporting films that sell sex and nudity at the high cost of dehumanizing women.
The #MeToo movement revealed that powerful men have been sexually abusing women “behind the scenes” for decades, but isn’t it time we look at the abuse happening right before our eyes? Expecting women to undress “to take one for the team” degrades women, devalues their bodies, and fragments our view of the person.
Dax Shepard asked Hayek about how she feels about the sex scene in Desperado now: “When you see that scene, though, can you enjoy it?”
“No,” she said.
Neither should we.
Christa Stamper teaches history and literature while studying counseling at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation.
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