Reel Sex: The On-Screen Sexual Hodgepodge of the 90s

Although certain politicians and even scientists will suggest otherwise, most agree our basic human desire for sex remains pretty unchanged. Over the centuries we’ve acknowledged that ladies like it just as much as the men folk, both sexes can be completely uninterested, and there’s also the possibility that same sex lovers getting down and dirty isn’t, in fact, dirty. Every new generation accepts something as tame that the previous generation thinks taboo. My mother finds the practice of bondage troubling, but the idea is ordinary to me. Whereas I don’t quite understand her fascination with the word “slutpuppy” because that’s just ooky.

I’m not saying one generation is better than the other, I’m more curious about how we got to the place we are. I am pretty in tune with the going-ons of Gwen, so I have no problem pinpointing a lot of my sexual identity development happening simultaneously with the films and TV that I watched in the 90s. Thinking back, the 90s stand out to me as a hodgepodge decade when it came to sex in film. We had the renewal of romantic melodramas as a reaction to the social commentary-filled erotic thrillers of the 80s, the depiction of realistic sex in comedies, and the rise in popularity of rape culture. Of course all these themes wouldn’t have been possible without the decades before them, but something happened in the 90s that made sex seem pleasurable through love, humor, and invasion.

Romantic Thrill

If you want erotic thrillers, you need to go back to the 1980s. Brian De Palma, Adrian Lyne, and David Lynch cornered the market with their thought provoking and down south stimulating offerings, and as the decade bled into the 1990s the desire for the weird seemed to dwindle. The turn of the decade was a serious time, following years of economic recession and a widening gap between the upper and lower classes. We needed a break from watching bored, rich sociopaths ravage women through sexual games and torment men through power plays. Audiences wanted less Dressed to Kill kink and more Ghost sweetness. Overtly romantic films weren’t slim in the 1980s, but directors like Jerry Zucker, Gillian Armstrong, and Jocelyn Moorhouse took the sexual attraction into the bedroom, just like De Palma, Lyne, and Lynch had taught them. They never shied away from showing sex as sensual, beautiful, and a natural part of a couple’s development. With less generational restrictions imposed on their art, the new American melodrama thrived.

Moorhouse’s How to Make an American Quilt depicts a young woman at a crossroads in her life. Does she marry her faithful, longterm boyfriend who has proposed the night before she flees to her grandmother’s house to finish her Master thesis, or does she leave him behind to explore an unknown future? Finn (Winona Ryder) flirts and takes up (as the kids call it) with a shirtless lifeguard, played by Johnathon Schaech, and eventually finds herself swept up in the excitement of a summer fling. As this is part morality tale, she is racked with guilt following her affair and the surprise visit from her fianc? Sam (Dermot Mulroney) puts the pressure on her to make a decision. After receiving blank stares from Leon the Lifeguard once she confesses to her conflicting emotions, Finn finally realizes sex and love don’t mean the same thing. She is able to say goodbye to the hunky lifeguard and embrace a life with the loving Sam.

Sex in the 90s melodrama was an important element to story development, as it reflected the increasingly liberal nature of the women watching the films. The characters were sexually liberated mainstream feminists, but they were victims to their own romantic weaknesses. They suffered from bedding the wrong man and hoped the right one would come along to fix them.

Mary Meet Pie

The 90s melodrama evolved and all but disappeared by the end of the decade, leaving room for the renovated sex comedy. The economy was good, and people had almost forgotten about the terrible years following the Gulf War. Audiences were ready to laugh and enjoy life, and the later years of the decade provided them with a new hybrid of gross-out comedy and respectful portrayals of sexing couples. 1998’s There’s Something About Mary and 1999’s American Pie played on the familiar hijacks of the sexless man.

It wouldn’t be until 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin that audiences would again see such an honest and goofy example of a grown man’s inability to bed a woman in the mainstream. I’m not saying there weren’t spin-offs, rip-offs, and valiant attempts, but there is a reason these two movies stay in the combined consciousness of audiences to this day. Both Mary and Pie have the heart necessary to engage an audience when they watch a man jizz onto his own ear, only to stay mum as his date mistakes the goo for hair gel. Or to follow a heartwarming kid’s struggle to lose his v-card all the way to him fucking a pie on a counter, after he takes his friend’s musings about a lady pocket feeling just like warm apple pie.

It’s often miscounted how these two films shocked audiences with their raunch, but unlike the gross-out teen comedies of the 1980s, the man-child here is endearing, delightful, and (to a degree) sexy. He opened doors for even more over-the-top zaniness in the aughts, but that’s for another time.

Revenge of the Raped

The most head scratching contribution to film in the 90s was the fetishism of rape. While the sex comedy was rising in popularity by the end of the decade, so did the rape fantasy. Shows like Law and Order made rape seem like a problem only inner city women and prostitutes had to worry about, and many independent films didn’t help detract from this message. I’ve already discussed Larry Clark’s Kids but for awhile in the late 90s anytime there was a funny teen comedy celebrating the awkwardness of sex there was a depressing teen drama suggesting damaged kids deserve, or even like, to be raped.

1999’s Black and White suggested rich white kids wanted to embrace the hip-hop culture as it embodied the complete opposite of their own lives. They found freedom through being sexually “roughed up,” and felt empowered by controlling their own desires. Now, rape fantasy is nothing new or even shocking, but controversial director James Toback hoped to expose rape as a result from tangling with those on the “other side of the tracks,” but instead he offered up kids who delighted in being everything their parents weren’t. During a park threesome between Charlie (Bijou Phillips), Kim (Kim Matulova), and Rich (Oliver Grant), it is difficult to tell how much is consensual and how much is coercion. While they may seem to like it at the time, Toback doesn’t let his characters off easy. They reflect on their actions, reject them, and eventually return to their old lives disillusioned and dissatisfied.

Sex in the 90s wasn’t all romance, laughing, and force, but my take away from the decade will always be that if Bijou Phillips or Dominique Swain appears on the cast list that we are in for a giant dose of crazy.

Get your mind out of the gutter and read more Reel Sex

While Gwen Reyes has only briefly been a film critic and columnist, she's long been telling people what movies they should drop dollars on, regardless if they are listening to her or not. Based out of Dallas, she wants to live the dream by watching movies all day and drinking vodka gimlets all night. She graduated from Sweet Briar College with a surprisingly handy degree in Philosophy and Film Studies--it explains why she spends so much time analyzing the murderers in sexual thrillers (yes, dear reader, that's her excuse!)--and she loves anything to do with gnomes, pot-bellied pigs, and beards. But most importantly, Gwen likes movies about sad people, funny people, naked people, and bearded people.

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