A Few Questions About This ‘Sex Doesn’t Sell’ Study

CHATSWORTH, Calif.—The media has been tickled pink by a certain counterintuitive CNN headline: “Does sex sell movies? Uh, not really.” But few are looking behind the article to ask tough questions about the report that spawned the story.

The study, "Sex Doesn't Sell—nor Impress! Content, Box Office, Critics, and Awards in Mainstream Cinema," looked at 900 films released between 2001 and 2005, and concluded that graphic sex in mainstream movies, such as it is, does not guarantee either box office or critical success. But from where I’m sitting—in Porn Valley, at AVN, surrounded by hundreds of videos of real sexual content—the underlying premises of the study are suspect.

First, the message that sex alone will sell something is assumed to be a truism, but has been proven false before. In 2007, for instance, research carried out at the Department of Psychology at University College London came to the exact same conclusion, but with respect to television advertising. People did not remember the brand if the ads contained a lot of sexual activity, they found, especially when compared to ads with no sexual content. So where does this idea come from that graphic sex alone will make a motion picture either successful for popular with the critics?

One answer to that might be the co-author of the study. According to CNN, ‘The study was prompted by an experience almost a decade ago of its co-author, Anemone Cerridwen.

“Cerridwen had been taking acting classes and increasingly became uncomfortable with some of the sexualized content she was encountering. That led her to consider the work experiences of film actresses and the pursuit of data about the lucrativeness of sex in movies.”

"I assumed sex sold, and wanted to know by how much," Cerridwen said. "I braced myself for the worst, and got quite the surprise."

Forgetting for the moment that “lucrativeness” is not a word, what is clear from the quote above is that Cerridwen has a sex-negative bias and should probably not have been part of such a study. Had she no bias, she would hardly have felt the need to “brace for the worst.” The results would have been whatever they were, with no value judgment attached. Unfortunately, however, most of the quotes from the authors of the study, as well as others, are replete with value judgments.

The authors also contend that the fact that the top-grossing films in the study included movies like Shrek 2, Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—all of which contained mostly minor to mild sex and/or nudity—helps to make the point that sex does not sell.

But that is ludicrous. For years, and especially during the years of the study, Hollywood has turned its back on movies with mature themes in favor of films that target teenagers and, if you will, families. They have done this for a very good reason: Older viewers go out to the movies less frequently than they used to. But whether it is a case of the chicken and the egg, and older people go to movies less because the movies aren’t being made for them, or vice versa, the result remains the same.

But the authors contend that even with more mature fare—meaning R-rated films—more sex also did not translate directly into sales. But why would it? The basic error in assumption by the authors of the study is that adults would go to a mainstream movie solely because of graphic sex scenes, which is, frankly, a very stupid assumption. I know a lot of movie lovers who are also sex-lovers, and I don’t think one of them will go to a movie because of a sex scene. The very idea, to repeat myself, is ludicrous.

And even for young males, who everyone presumes have only one thing on their mind, the idea that they will prefer a film because of a sex scene or topless scene is rather insulting on its face, and nothing in the study comes close to proving that assumption. Indeed, the premise of the entire study is built on that unfounded assumption.

But I would go one step farther, and accuse the authors of rigging the study by limiting it to films between 2001-2005, years which just happen to coincide with the explosion of the internet, which made access to porn sites about as easy as … watching a movie.

I also wonder what they would make of the following comments by Ronnie Keonig of MovieFone, who penned a column Tuesday extolling the sexual allure of Robert Downey Jr. in the new Sherlock Holmes. “While the New York Times' A.O. Scott mistakenly deduced that this was a movie for soda-gulping teenage boys to see,” she writes, “he completely overlooked the film's main fan base—thirtysomething women (like me) who are gaga for Downey Jr. or Jude Law (who plays a sexy, mustachioed Watson). Scott says that the presence of a feisty female character, Irene Adler, (Rachel McAdams) ‘offers a little something for the ladies,’ but in fact the reason we're plunking down 12 bucks is to get a glimpse of RDJ naked and chained to a bed. So guys, take your wives and girlfriends to see Sherlock Holmes this weekend. Sure, she may be imaging herself in a cinematic menage a trios with the film's two leading men, but it could still lead to some date night passio—the sort that those Tom Cruise-types could never inspire.”

Does that sound as if sex as a draw for movies is dead, or did the authors also assume that movies only exist for “soda-gulping teenage boys?”

Movies, of course, are about storytelling, and when they are great they also instruct us about the many wonders and tragedies of life, including sex. It makes every bit of sense that all people, no matter their age, respond to the films that tell these stories for them the best, regardless of the amount of sex in them, and that the ability of filmmakers to tease us sexually rather than reveal all is something many of us like.

But to take that and then formulate a conclusion, as the authors have, that less sex is desirable and Hollywood should heed their findings, begs closer examination.

"I do believe that there are a fair number of people in the film industry who want to make better films, and this study may give them some ammunition," said co-author Cerridwen. "I know that Hollywood has been trying to make more family-friendly films for a while (since the '90s) and it seems to be helping ticket sales, so my guess is that this research would complement that."

Does it really need to be pointed out that her reference to “better films” reveals once again a sex-negative bias that has no place in such a study, and that while her “research” is interesting it reveals far more about the authors than their subject matter?

Judging from the media coverage, I guess so.