Are ‘erotic thrillers’ dying out?

An opinion piece in The Guardian last week caught my eye. In it, Gwilym Mumford argues that the Erotic Thriller is due for a comeback (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The piece takes as a given that the heyday of the subgenre “seems to be all but dead”. This is a common view, and instinctively makes basic sense when you apply your eyes wide open to the body of evidence. But we don’t need to be bound by this crash of opinions.

Instead, we can take a dive into the data to see what comes up.

I created two datasets:

  1. “User Lists” – 3,094 films that appeared at least once on one of 64 user-generated lists related to “Erotic Thrillers” on IMDb.
  2. “All Movies” – All fiction movies released in cinemas, or by a major Studio during the pandemic, over the past 22 years, for which I could create a measure of their sexual content (3,029 movies). This was achieved by looking at guidance and certificates given to the movies by rating bodies, reviews aimed at parents and audience votes. There is more info about my methodology in the Notes section at the end of the article.

Trawling for sexual thrillers

Let’s start by checking in on the kinds of movies we’re talking about. By looking at the most frequently cited movies, we can learn what most people’s minds jump to when they’re thinking about sexy thrills.

At the top of the “User Lists” dataset is Basic Instinct, which appears in almost two-thirds of such lists.

As you may have already spotted, the majority of the top titles were released in the 1990s. This is true across all movies, with 30% of titles being first released in the 1990s.

Sooooo… case closed?

Well, not so fast, kiddo. Looking at the top titles users cite is only one way of judging the health of Erotic Thrillers. Arguably, this method is too subjective, skewing towards the movies IMDb users most remember from their past and punishing newer films that have not yet reached cult status.

We need to apply some maths to this problem.

Making it hard for ourselves…

Let’s try to zero in on more recent Erotic Thrillers using a more empirical methodology.

By using the measures I have developed to track levels of sexual content in movies, we’re able to see how Thrillers as a genre compare to other movies. The chart below shows the relative amounts of sex, normalised to 1.0 for all movies (i.e. values over 1.0 indicate an above-average amount of sex and vice versa).

As a whole genre, Thrillers look very similar to the overall average. The genres with the sexiest stuff include Romance, Music and Comedy, and the other end of the spectrum are Family, Adventure and Animation.

Does sex diminish over time?

If we look at those levels over time, we can get a sense of how Thrillers are changing.

Over the past decade, levels of sexual material in Thrillers have been diminishing. The chart below shows the average score for sexual content normalised to the level of movies released in 2000.

Soooo.. case closed again?

Hhmmm I don’t think we’re there yet. While it is true that levels of sexual content have fallen among Thrillers, it’s also true for all movies. When we use the same methodology across all genres we see a similar decline.

In fact, this holds true for pretty much all genres I had enough data to study. (The chart below focuses on the past 12 years as the data is too noisy to be readable for the 2000s).

So we’re going to need to throw more analysis at the problem.

Going deeper….

We saw previously that Thrillers as a whole are not especially sexy, slightly under indexing across all movies. Therefore, we’re going to need to break down the numbers a little more to identify our ‘Erotic Thrillers’. i.e. the Thrillers which have unusually high amounts of sex in them.

By placing the figures in four buckets (None, A Little, Some and A Large Amount), we can start to see where the Erotic Thrillers have been hiding away.

By focusing on the Thriller with “Some” and “A Large Amount” of sexual content, I think we have a fair criterion against which to track the change in Erotic Thriller production.

Have Erotic Thrillers experienced a little death or will they come again?

And here it is… the climax you’ve been waiting for… Movies that have large amounts of sexual content and which are classified as Thrillers have, in fact, been….. increasing.

Both as a percentage of all Thrillers released and of all movies in general, we are seeing an increased number of Thrillers with a high degree of sexual content.

It seems that while there is a general effect of reduced sexual content, within both Thrillers and all movies, at the naughtiest end, there has actually been a rise in Thrillers with significant amounts of sex and nudity.

This is another example of a few effects we see often in coverage of industry trends:

  1. Availability bias. We tend to form our opinions on just the small number of examples which easily come to mind. As the biggest such films were in the 1990s, we assume that they are the only ones.
  2. Normalisation. When a new subgenre or category is formed, or really starts to gather pace, it will get a lot of attention, from both fans and detractors. Over time, what was once shocking becomes normal and is folded into the general understanding of movie types. Our relationship with Erotic Thrillers perhaps mirrors real-life relationships, with the start being sexy and exciting, later giving way to normalisation and slow observation via charts and graphs (just me? Oh…).
  3. Journalistic sensationalism. Writing about the death of sexy thrillers is fun – trust me. And I hope it’s fun to read, too. So I don’t blame the press for wanting to write interesting stories about movies, and what’s more exciting than the death of a once-exciting thing? Over the years there have been a vast number of articles covering this topic, my favourite of which asks the all-important question Why Was Michael Douglas In So Many Erotic Thrillers?.

Ok, I’m done. I hope that this was as good for you as it was for me.

Notes

Today’s research looks at live-action movies released in theatre in North America or which were distributed by one of the six/five major studios during the pandemic. Data came from IMDB, Wikipedia, Common Sense Media, Dove.org, MPAA and BBFC.

Films were only included if they were reviewed by a professional organisation (such as Common Sense, MPAA, BBFC, Dove.org, etc) or had at least ten audience content votes on a public site (such as IMDb). I over-weighted the professional sites, to somewhat account for audience vote bombings. For example, Cool Cat Saves the Kids has 289 audience votes for the level of sexual content on IMDb, 93% of which report that it has a “Severe” level of sex. This is clearly a concerted attempt by persons unknown to create a false impression. Fortunately, (a) this is relatively rare; (b) we can create a weighted average to smooth some of this out; and (c) we can prioritise the professional sites’ opinions.

When defining what “sex” means in this context I excluded rape and sexual assault, where I could. This means that if the sole presence of “sexy stuff” is in the form of sex under duress, it would not show up as an “erotic thriller”. That’s because I feel that the promise of an “erotic thriller” is that of titillation and excitement, not the sheer presence of sexual activity and/or nudity.  Sexualised violence (and all forms, thereof) in movies are not designed to be a pleasant watch, partly because that’s not how most normal people think, but also because many censorship bodies around the world would punish (or even outright ban) a movie which glorified such activity. Therefore, I don’t feel it speaks to the focus of today’s piece.  If you want to read more on this topic, you may want to check out my past work sexualised violence in movies. I also excluded films that could better be described as pornography, despite their listing on IMDb.

One aspect of this topic that is hard to track is how our views on sexual content change. I generally expect things to become more liberal over time, meaning that the same act in a movie in 2000 would be regarded as “more sexual” by a contemporaneous audience than if it appeared in a new movie in 2022. Therefore, we can’t disentangle the possible effect of this liberalisation with there actually being less sexual content.

Epilogue

It could be argued that to be a true “Erotic Thriller” a movie needs to be more than just “a Thriller with lots of sex”. I’ve seen some definitions which suggest that the sex should play a vital role in the plot, rather than just being incidental, no matter how graphic or frequent.

This feels like the same kind of argument which still rages around whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. In that case, there are some that would argue that just taking place at Christmas time does not a “Christmas Movie” make.

In both cases, we’re starting to move away from film data analysis into subjective film criticism. These are valid points but not ones numbers alone can answer.

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