Content warning: The following text describes sexual harassment and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
Penn Badgley is no stranger to sex scenes. From Olive Penderghast’s childhood crush turned highschool boyfriend to Serena van der Woodsen’s on–again, off–again fling, Badgley’s used to being cast as the romantic lead and the scandalous activities that come with the part. The lead role of Netflix’s You, a show focused on exposing the darkest aspects of love, was a seemingly natural fit for the heartthrob. Starring as Joe Goldberg in the last three seasons, Badgley’s shown that, even as a serial killer, he is as dreamy and charming as ever.
Badgley has always been open about his conflicted feelings portraying a love interest who doubles as stalker and murderer. In the wake of the release of part one of You's fourth season, Badgley addressed the show’s shift away from explicit sex scenes. Badgley explained on a recent episode of Podcrushed, the podcast he co–hosts alongside Nava Kavelin and Sophie Ansari, that he had expressed his desire to film as few sex scenes as possible to show creator Sera Gamble. He acknowledged that he had agreed to play the character and that sex was an integral part of the series. However, he also acknowledged the importance of fidelity in his marriage and his desire to no longer film any intimate scenes. He spoke positively of Gamble’s response and the direction the show had taken with its most recent season.
Penn Badgley is not the only actor to express discomfort filming intimate scenes and to request less participation. Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney asked show creator Sam Levinson for several nude scenes to be removed from season two of the show. She felt it was unnecessary that she was topless in the context of certain scenes. “I had experiences where I want to go home and scrub myself completely raw because I feel disgusting. I didn’t feel comfortable with my cast mate or the crew, and I just didn’t feel like my character would be doing it,” Sweeney said in an interview with The Independent. Like Badgley, Sweeney reported having a positive experience when expressing her concerns to Levinson. Sweeney’s co–star Zendaya also reportedly has a no nudity clause in her contract, protecting her from participating in any of the show’s many explicit scenes.
Many mainstream actors have similar clauses in their contracts for a variety of reasons. While starring in Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker was the only leading actress to not have a nude scene. Both Megan Fox and Jessica Alba said they felt uncomfortable at the prospect of family members seeing them in intimate moments. Blake Lively, Jessica Simpson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Kristen Bell all simply stated nudity just wasn’t their thing. In an industry quick to sexualize its workers, it’s not surprising how often no nudity clauses are automatically built into actors’ contracts.
As shows like You and Euphoria push the boundaries of placing explicit content in mainstream media, the debate over the necessity of sex scenes becomes trickier by the second. It’s not just a question of what the audiences do or don’t want to see but of what actors are and aren’t comfortable with participating in.
There are upsides of portraying sex in the media: Normalizing sex helps to remove further stigma around sex. Netflix’s Sex Education is a great example of the positive effects of sex scenes. The show revolves around the lives of an ensemble cast of British teens as they explore their sexualities. It handles a variety of sex topics ranging from humorous—such as Connor Ryan Swindells’ character Adam having to come to terms with having a large penis—to more serious issues of abortion and sexual assault. The show takes all of these issues in stride and unapologetically. It’s funny, heartwarming, and more than a little awkward. But most importantly, Sex Education’s portrayal of sex helps to mitigate its stigma.
However, in addition to how some projects may problematically treat the subject, the expectation that actors will at some point in their careers have to act out sex scenes presents a very real and present danger. In the piece “Harvey Weinstein is My Monster Too,” actress Salma Hayek how she was taken advantage of by Weinstein while working on the 2002 film Frida. She was sexually harassed by Weinstein countless times and was forced into full frontal nudity and a sex scene with another female actress. Hayek described how she was crying so violently in between takes she had to take a tranquilizer, leading to her vomiting on set. Hayek’s story of abuse and manipulation that led to her appearing nude in a sex scene against her will is deeply upsetting. It’s one of many where actresses were forced into taking part in scenes they were not comfortable with.
Sex is a natural part of life. While Hollywood is not real life, it’s both a reflection of and influence on society. Normalizing sex and portraying it in a positive light in the media is an admirable goal. But it’s a big ask that actors should be willing to act out these intimate moments for the whole world to watch. There’s a fine line between normalization and voyeurism. The industry doesn’t always walk it well.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to victims/survivors of sexual and relationship violence regardless of whether they make a report or seek additional resources. Both male and female providers can perform examinations, discuss testing and treatment of sexually transmissible infections, provide emergency contraception if necessary, and arrange for referrals and follow up.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 pm to 1 am), A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.
Penn Violence Prevention: 3535 Market Street, Mezzanine Level (Office Hours: 9 am – 5 pm Monday-Friday), 12-5pm Wednesdays & 12-5pm Fridays located in Penn Women’s Center (3643 Locust Walk), Read the Penn Violence Prevention resource guide.
Sexual Trauma Treatment Outreach and Prevention Team: A multidisciplinary team at CAPS dedicated to supporting students who have experienced sexual trauma.
Public Safety Special Services: Trained personnel offer crisis intervention, accompaniment to legal and medical proceedings, options counseling and advocacy, and linkages to other community resources.