Health

How Hollywood’s Unrealistic Depictions Hurt Women’s Sex Lives

From movies like “Fifty Shades of Grey” to “Pretty Woman,” depictions of sex on the big screen are causing bigger difficulties for women in the bedroom.

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Richard Gere (left) and Julia Roberts (right) in “Pretty Woman.” Image via Buena Vista Pictures

As interesting as they might be, sex scenes on screen have a way of making women feel insecure about their sexual encounters, mainly because they’re often unrealistic.

To get an idea of just how unrealistic they are, a study by Zava, the U.K. online doctor service, analyzed 50 films with iconic sex scenes, including “Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Ghost,” and “Pretty Woman,” and gathered opinions of more than 2,000 women.

The results show there are huge differences between how sex is portrayed on screen and what happens in reality. Nearly 66 percent of respondents said they think the portrayal of sex in movies is somewhat, or very, unrealistic.

“Hollywood glamour is one of the many possible contributors to women’s insecurities when it comes to body image. From unrealistic body types to a lack of age diversity, the display of women enjoying sex in films often misses the mark on inclusivity, which may also add to women’s insecurity,” Dr. Kathryn Basford, lead author of the study, told Healthline.

Basford adds that movies often show young, beautiful actresses performing the most intense love scenes.

“Hair is perfectly in place with a full face of makeup and matching exotic underwear. However, most women are likely to agree this isn’t what they look like during intercourse. Again, this can provoke feelings of insecurity for women who are already facing the pressure to ‘perform,’” she said.

Read on for some of the most profound findings of the study.

On screen, 2 in 5 women reach climax in comparison to 1 in 5 in reality. Furthermore, almost a quarter of women surveyed said they’ve never had an orgasm during sex.

Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the “@SexWithDrJess Podcast,” says women shouldn’t be insecure if they don’t orgasm during sex.

“Your orgasm isn’t a measure of your self-worth or your sexual capacity. You can enjoy sex without orgasm, and you don’t have to climax to fulfill your partner’s needs or stroke their ego,” O’Reilly told Healthline.

Same goes for climaxing in sync. While the Zava study reported that 30 percent of films analyzed show couples climaxing at the same time, data shows this isn’t the case.

“Seventy-seven percent of males say they orgasm most, or every time, they have intercourse, in comparison to just 19 percent of females. This misrepresents the female orgasm, encouraging viewers to believe that women are climaxing when the majority are not,” Basford said.

She notes that another Zava study with 2,000 participants found that 68 percent of women admitted to faking an orgasm with their partner.

“Which suggests that women feel a pressure to perform in the bedroom and potentially worry about not being able to achieve climax,” Basford said.

O’Reilly agrees, noting that simultaneous orgasm isn’t as common in real life as it is in the movies.

“This is because each of our sexual response cycles react at a different pace, making it impossible to be consistently in sync with a lover,” she said. “Orgasm is a natural reflex and a process that varies significantly between people and even within one’s own body. Just as [we] cannot possibly digest food, pump blood, or lose weight at the same rate as our partner, we also cannot expect our orgasmic response to line up perfectly each and every time.”

Films typically don’t promote safe sex, contraception, or condom use.

Of the sex scenes analyzed in the study, only 2 percent implied the characters on screen used a condom.

However, 20 percent of respondents said they always use a condom during sex, while 32 percent said they used different forms of contraception, like birth control pills.

“The omission of safer sex practices from sex scenes in popular shows and movies suggests that this is the norm when, in fact, it is not. Oftentimes, the only consequence depicted involves unplanned pregnancy, and STIs are treated as jokes or emphasizing stigma,” O’Reilly said.

Basford adds that both Hollywood and the adult film industry need to take more responsibility for promoting and normalizing safe sex.

“Directors should be encouraging the depiction and use of contraceptives so that STIs aren’t spread and unwanted pregnancies don’t occur,” Basford said.

The World Health Organization states, “More than 30 different bacteria, viruses and parasites are known to be transmitted through sexual contact. Eight of these pathogens are linked to the greatest incidence of sexually transmitted disease. Of these 8 infections, 4 are currently curable: syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis.”

The four viruses that remain in the body include:

  • hepatitis B
  • herpes simplex virus (HSV or herpes)
  • HIV
  • human papillomavirus (HPV)

Films also rarely depict foreplay. In fact, only 27 percent of on-screen characters are shown to indulge in it before intercourse.

However, 69 percent of respondents said they often engage in foreplay before sex.

“Foreplay is sex. And each person’s definition of foreplay is unique, but most people enjoy building anticipation before the main event, however you classify it,” O’Reilly said.

She says all genders desire foreplay, pointing to a study by the University of New Brunswick that revealed that men and women desire an average of 18 and 19 minutes of foreplay, respectively.

When it comes to desired length of intercourse, men report wanting it to last an average of 18 minutes, whereas women would cap it at 14 minutes.

Additionally, the Zava study found that younger people were less likely to engage in foreplay before sex. Only 27 percent of 25- to 34-year-old respondents said they engaged in it, while 57 percent of those over 55 years old did.

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Demi Moore (left) and Patrick Swayze (right) in “Ghost.” Image via Paramount Pictures

In addition to more foreplay and discussions of safer sex practices, O’Reilly says she’d like to see more movies with sex scenes that include varied depictions in terms of body types, abilities, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex acts, clarification of boundaries, expressions of specific desires, the use of lube, and conversations about what people want to do sexually.

She also says including a range of ages would make sense.

“Sex can get better with age, experience, and confidence. Unfortunately, depictions of sexual relationships are often limited to younger (and skinny, white, straight, monogamous) folks in Hollywood films,” O’Reilly said. “Sex among older folks is often rendered invisible or treated as comical in movies.”

Including challenges that occur in real life would resonate with many moviegoers, she adds.

“Difficulty getting in the mood, mismatched libidos, rapid and/or delayed orgasm, interruptions, erectile issues, practical issues (e.g., kids in the next room), exhaustion, boredom, and a lack of interest in sex,” O’Reilly said.

Until Hollywood makes these changes, Basford says to avoid comparing yourself to actors in any respect, because you’ll likely feel insecure about the way you look, move, and “perform” in the bedroom.

“Hollywood scenes are highly produced. They adjusted the lighting, they’ve spent hours on hair, makeup, and styling. They’ve rehearsed over and over again. They’ve adjusted the camera angles, and they’ve edited out most of the footage. More importantly, the actors are performing rather than experiencing the scene,” Basford said. “In real life, you want to experience sex and likely don’t want it to be a performance.”

She added, “When you view sex as a performance, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the key benefits — especially pleasure and connection.”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.


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