Which Hollywood Sex Symbols Actually Have Sex on Screen? A Study.

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When a new image of Oscar Isaac in Dune appears on the internet, it breaks. When People magazine named Idris Elba as its Sexiest Man Alive in 2018, people were like, “Yes, of course. Make him the next James Bond.” When Jake Gyllenhaal promotes Russ & Daughters on Instagram in a tie-dye T-shirt, gold chain, and a man bun, everyone has to take the afternoon off. When Chris Hemsworth as Thor arrives in Wakanda with a raccoon on his shoulder and a teenage tree by his side in Avengers: Infinity War, it is the MCU equivalent of pornography.

Oscar Isaac, Idris Elba, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Chris Hemsworth are just a few of 2020’s finest sex symbols. But truthfully—literally—the characters they play are almost always sexless. While they appear very sexy to us in any context, they are rarely depicted in sexual situations of any kind on screen, particularly in sex scenes.

Cinema is either a reflection or a response to the times, sometimes both. Movies—particularly major motion pictures with major movie stars—shift to reflect American values, and so have sex scenes. The MCU-esque deluge of erotic thrillers in the 1980s was as much about contemporary society as it was about showing America Michael Douglas’s butt: With their sex-reliant plots, these movies were a continuation of the creative freedom and edginess of New Hollywood as well as a rejection of Ronald Reagan’s conservatism and rising Christian values. As the Reagan era progressed, Christian values became American values and America’s complex relationship with sex became even more strained. Going into the early ’90s, erotic thrillers like 1992’s Basic Instinct became few and far between. 1999’s Cruel Intentions, an attempt to introduce a younger generation to the dying genre, became a cult classic for millennials, but it was critically reviled and banned from many homes (including my own). By the end of the decade, sex in cinema became something Americans weren’t comfortable seeing, and faded further into obscurity. Twenty-first-century films then began to home in on this taboo nature, most frequently depicting sexual situations—the ones that weren’t severely romantic, that is—for comedic or gross-out effect, all while Disney’s family-friendly presence expanded. Now we find ourselves in a world where sex symbols don’t have sex. And when they do it’s so brief that it becomes a spectacle, or no one knows it happened.

I’ve spent the past four months watching sex scenes to determine which seeming sex symbols actually, you know, have sex in movies.

After curating a list of 30 men that best represents Hollywood in 2020, I figured out which films each actor has a sex scene in and watched those films, timing the scenes. (The list is exclusively male actors because beyond the creepiness of including women, women are and always have been hyper-sexualized both in and outside film. While it’d be a valid exercise for the ways in which it’d display Hollywood’s unbent history of exploitation, focusing on actresses likely wouldn’t accurately reflect the changes in what our country considers obscene; tracing America’s relationship to sex through actors makes more sense.) Then I added up the data like a scientist doing something important. (This is important, but I also understand there are more important things.)

Thirty actors. One hundred and twenty-eight sex scenes. This process was gratifying, daunting, and sometimes horrifying. On this journey I learned many things, including that Chris Hemsworth has appeared in sex scenes, that Tom Hanks has done a sex scene (it’s troubling), and that actors involved in a billion-dollar universe are probably not allowed to have on-screen sex. Here are my process and, most important, my findings.

The Hypotheses

Sex scene frequency (or infrequency) is inversely proportional to movie star status. The more commercially driven movies an actor is in, the fewer sex scenes the actor will have. Robert Pattinson—who moved toward working with weird, auteuristic directors post-Twilight before signing on to be Batman in 2020—and the Oscar-fare-only Leonardo DiCaprio will have the most sex scenes. Dwayne Johnson and Chris Hemsworth will have the least. Marvel Cinematic Universe leads will have the least amount of sex overall.

Hollywood is a business. This unfortunately means that actors who lead box office hits made by major studios—more specifically, the IP-driven franchises—might have limited creative freedom with their image, public persona, and body of work. Actors like Dwayne Johnson, whose career predominantly consists of big-budget action films for the whole family (save for a few R-rated adventures), and Chris Hemsworth, whose career started with playing Thor—a major character at the center of a successful film franchise now owned by Disney, a family company—fall under this category. Based on this, and the fact that I could not think of one sex scene by either of these actors off the top of my head, I hypothesize that they have the fewest sex scenes.

Furthermore, actors who more frequently star in lower-budget productions and/or “serious” R-rated films—the kind the Academy pays attention to—probably appear in sex scenes more often. Without a major studio in control of a production and an actor’s image, riskier scenes are more likely. Pattinson, who was the star of a (very horny) major motion picture franchise and for the past decade has led weird indie films, falls under this category. He is also the first person I thought of when I thought about actors who have a lot of on-screen sex. A respected Oscar-winning actor like DiCaprio, who mostly stars in R-rated dramas by respected directors like Martin Scorsese, also represents the latter.

Lastly, as soon as I got this assignment I was certain that of all my hypotheses, this one would be proved: The actors who have leading roles in the MCU will have the fewest sex scenes overall, particularly Marvel stars like Hemsworth and Chris Evans, who rose to fame because of their MCU roles. Another part of this theory posits that actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Rudd, who were famous and had long careers before joining the MCU, have not had many sex scenes or any since becoming Marvel stars.

The Method

I am a Claudia. For those who don’t know the personality of every Baby-Sitters Club member intimately, this means that I am not—never have been, and never will be—good at science or math. While I approached this subject as “scientifically” as possible, I am, of course, not a scientist. This is meant to be fun research for a blog on the internet, not for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Before beginning any research, I needed a list of actors to study. This wasn’t the most exhausting part of the process, but it was the hardest. I had to pick a reasonable number of actors that would not take several hundred years to research, and I had to make a list that represents Hollywood in 2020. To make it fair, I started with Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, which include Johnson, Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg, and Will Smith. But even that list isn’t fully representative of the full breadth of Hollywood, in terms of time and movie genres and budgets, so I then selected other popular stars from major motion pictures over the past few years, as well as recent Oscar winners and nominees like Timothée Chalamet, Mahershala Ali, Brad Pitt, and DiCaprio. From there, I added actors who could, for lack of a better term, be classified as Internet Boyfriends. Isaac and Tom Hardy make sense for the list, of course, but I selected them out of pure selfishness.

Once the list was complete, I had to define what a sex scene was in this context. Most importantly, I would consider only consensual encounters. And because this is an analysis of movie stars and trends in the film industry, no television sex was considered—even though there are actors in this study who have had little to no sex on film but plenty on television. I do not, and will never again, have the mental, physical, or emotional energy to watch Girls again, even though Adam Driver—who I very much want to see, unclothed or otherwise—has a lot of sex in it.

To ensure accuracy, the definition of sex that I would time with my stopwatch (the clock app on my iPhone) became: visible humping/suggested penetration, off-camera sex with sex sounds made by the actor or another visual cue that makes it clear sex is occurring, and oral sex under the same criteria. Masturbation did not count, unless other people were involved in it, or if an actor was, for example, fucking a peach. I also did not count Downey sticking his hand inside a dragon’s ass in Dolittle (2020).

Initially, I sought out sex scenes by Googling “actor + sex scenes,” assuming that someone—like, say, the several websites mentioned in Knocked Up—had already done most of the hard work. I was wrong. Sometimes this search worked, but it usually directed me to porn sites that asked for my credit card before I could watch the sex scene from Legends of the Fall. I’m not an idiot: I have owned Legends of the Fall on DVD since I was 14.

So I found another way. I remembered that Christian parents exist, and some of them know how to use the internet. So I went to each actor’s IMDb page and read the Parents Guide. And boy, are those thorough! With descriptions like, “We see a man and woman kiss/make out on a bed about 13 seconds. The woman is in her underwear. Her nipples are somewhat visible through her bra. While they are in bed he squeezes her butt.”

I relied on vivid descriptions like this in the Parents Guide to determine which movies I needed to watch. Sometimes, the descriptions were generous enough to include timestamps. But most were not, so I had to watch (skim) nearly every film. There is also a handful of movies that didn’t have any information provided to me for free in the Parents Guide (annoying), so I automatically added those to the list of ones I had to watch, just in case these god-fearing sleuths missed a sex scene. Once I broke down the list of each movie from every actor containing a sex scene, I watched them and timed the sex scenes by seconds.

The Results

My theories weren’t perfectly accurate, but they also weren’t wrong. I was wrong about who would have the most on-screen sex, but I was not totally wrong about who would have the least. My theory that frequency of sex scenes relates to movie star status appears to be correct, and so was my theory about MCU leads.

The Hollywood Sex Symbol Leaderboard

Actor Number of Movies Movies With Sex Seconds of On-screen Sex
Actor Number of Movies Movies With Sex Seconds of On-screen Sex
Keanu Reeves 50 12 568.92
Robert Pattinson 22 8 410.95
Jake Gyllenhaal 33 10 404.51
Brad Pitt 39 8 392.07
Robert Downey Jr. 53 5 337.14
Mark Wahlberg 42 6 320.26
Leonardo DiCaprio 26 5 260.62
Ben Affleck 40 6 184
Tom Cruise 38 7 176
Timothée Chalamet 10 5 162.33
Bradley Cooper 26 6 151.7
Chris Evans 24 3 135
Denzel Washington 44 5 128.46
Adam Sandler 35 4 97
Chris Hemsworth 22 3 88.23
Oscar Isaac 23 2 69.3
Paul Rudd 37 4 68.48
Idris Elba 26 1 60.6
Tom Hanks 46 1 50
Vin Diesel 22 4 45.66
Matt Damon 43 4 43.06
Will Smith 28 3 36
Dwayne Johnson 27 1 20
Michael B. Jordan 8 1 14.93
Tom Hardy 24 1 13.1
John Boyega 8 0 0
Adam Driver 16 0 0
Mahershala Ali 9 0 0

Judging by the number of sex scenes and the total time of sex scenes, Keanu Reeves tops the list. He has 12 sex scenes that total 568.92 seconds, or 9.48 minutes. I underestimated him, and for that I am so sorry. Reeves started his career strong with consistent sex scenes in the early ’80s, including a scene in River’s Edge (1986) in which his character has sex in a park that is also a murder scene. But do not think that his standing atop this list is due merely to longevity: Compared to actors with similarly long careers like Denzel Washington, Cruise, and Hanks, Reeves is still far more active. He’s been doing sex scenes consistently throughout the past four decades while Washington’s and Cruise’s scenes are primarily from their early careers. Hanks has done only one sex scene, in 2016’s A Hologram for the King, although dialogue in Splash (1984) suggests that he had sex on a refrigerator (no wonder it received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay). Reeves has also appeared in more movies than his peers—50 to Washington’s 44, Hanks’s 46, and Cruise’s 38. And while he has certainly been a blockbuster name since the ’90s, until the success of John Wick and the dawn of the Keanuassance in 2014, Reeves’s draw wasn’t comparable to Cruise (seven sex scenes, 176 total seconds) or Washington (five sex scenes, 128 seconds), who shifted the focus of their careers primarily to big-budget action films. This slightly lower status clearly led to slightly more sex scenes.

But to simply say that Keanu Reeves is the most sex-forward actor of his time is not fair to Keanu Reeves. This man gives everything he has to his sex scenes. For three minutes and 49 seconds in Destination Wedding, Reeves has sex with Winona Ryder on a tarantula-ridden hill while talking about his mom. No one else could have done this. In The Devil’s Advocate, Reeves shows his bare ass and sucks Connie Nielsen and/or Charlize Theron’s toe. And even Keanu’s worst sex scenes (The Matrix Reloaded, Feeling Minnesota, Generation Um...) are better than average because of his skill as a performer.

However, it must also be said that the number of an actor’s sex scenes and the length of those scenes are not the best ways to determine who reigns as our most literal sex symbol. Rate of sex is the percentage of an actor’s filmography (top-five billing; no animation, TV movies, or shorts) in which they have sex scenes. Most importantly, rate of sex answers a question I am asked every single day: What percentage of movies do these actors have sex in?

Breakdown by Rate of Sex

Actor Rate of Sex
Actor Rate of Sex
Timothée Chalamet 50.00%
Robert Pattinson 36.36%
Jake Gyllenhaal 30.30%
Keanu Reeves 24.00%
Bradley Cooper 23.08%
Brad Pitt 20.51%
Leonardo DiCaprio 19.23%
Tom Cruise 18.42%
Vin Diesel 18.18%
Ben Affleck 15.00%
Mark Wahlberg 14.29%
Chris Hemsworth 13.64%
Chris Evans 12.50%
Michael B. Jordan 12.50%
Adam Sandler 11.43%
Denzel Washington 11.36%
Paul Rudd 10.81%
Will Smith 10.71%
Robert Downey Jr. 9.43%
Matt Damon 9.30%
Oscar Isaac 8.70%
Tom Hardy 4.17%
Idris Elba 3.85%
Dwayne Johnson 3.70%
Tom Hanks 2.17%
Adam Driver 0.00%
Mahershala Ali 0.00%
John Boyega 0.00%

Timothée Chalamet tops the chart with a 50 percent rate of sex. This is, of course, skewed: Chalamet is 24 years old and has one of the smallest filmographies among those studied. His rate is incredibly high right now because he hasn’t had a career spanning multiple decades like Reeves (24 percent), Pitt (20.51 percent), Washington (11.36 percent), DiCaprio (19.23 percent), or Hanks (2.17 percent). But compare Chalamet to Michael B. Jordan, who comes close in filmography volume: Jordan’s rate of sex is 12.5 percent, with only one film of eight featuring a sex scene (2018’s Creed II). Jordan has been around longer thanks to his early roles on TV, but quite like Chalamet, Jordan’s ascent to major movie stardom started only fairly recently. This data demonstrates just how different Jordan’s career track—which is primarily focused on action, including a major role in an MCU film—is to someone like Chalamet, whose career so far primarily consists of R-rated dramas from smaller studios and production companies, the kind of films that generate buzz during awards season. Based on the roles Chalamet chooses, we can surmise that he is incredibly aware of his intoxicating fuckboi energy, so while this rate of sex will likely drop over time, it would be surprising if the drop were significant. If films ever get made in the 2020s, Chalamet will probably maintain his lead over alleged sex god (according to me) Robert Pattinson (36.6 percent).

The primary purpose of this research was to figure out which actors have the most (or the fewest) sex scenes. The secondary purpose was to prove that MCU leads are not allowed to. And now we can say with relative assurance that they aren’t.

The Relatively Undersexed On-screen Lives of MCU Actors

MCU Actor Number of Movies Movies With Sex Rate of Sex
MCU Actor Number of Movies Movies With Sex Rate of Sex
Bradley Cooper* 26 6 23.08%
Robert Downey Jr. 53 5 9.43%
Paul Rudd 37 4 10.81%
Vin Diesel* 22 4 18.18%
Chris Evans 24 3 12.50%
Chris Hemsworth 22 3 13.64%

After buying Marvel in 2009, just a year after Iron Man came out, Disney set the tone for what the MCU would become—and it appears that it may have set the tone for who its leading men could be. It is significant that compared to the leads, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, who provide only voices for characters in the MCU (Groot and Rocket Raccoon, respectively), have had sex scenes in films released in the past two years, while the most recent sex scenes for leads is 2014 and 2015 (Rudd in They Came Together and Evans in Playing It Cool).

Besides Thanos’s Adam Driveresque upper body and the horny energy throughout Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok (shout-out to Korg and Miek), the most sexual the MCU has ever been is in its first movie, Iron Man. Early in the film, Tony Stark takes a reporter (Leslie Bibb) home with him. She’s still there in the morning, implying she had intercourse with the billionaire arms dealer whom she was writing an article about for Vanity Fair. But there is no visible, journalistically unethical intercourse. And other than his brief make-out session with Leighton Meester (whom he later finds out is his daughter) in The Judge (2014), Downey has not had any sex scenes in a film since 2006’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, in which Nicole Kidman’s Arbus rides him (hard) for 56 seconds after shaving his entire body.

Before he played a superhero with a piece of metal embedded into his chest, Downey had a 13.16 percent rate of sex. His rate of sex since Iron Man is 0 percent. Honestly, this is a relief. Downey sex scenes are the most haunting: Meg Ryan rubbing Downey’s penis with her foot in the 1996 period drama Restoration sounds intriguing, but it is not. Please, I am begging you, if you love yourself—or even if you hate yourself—do not watch the sex scene from Restoration.

I was also right about Dwayne Johnson, who has a tame scene in Walking Tall (2004), which came out almost a decade before he became what he is now (the highest-paid actor in Hollywood who stars in 5,000 action films per year). It should also be noted, however, that my theory about Hemsworth having the least sex was wrong. He came close with three scenes and a 13.64 percent rate of sex, but his sex montage with Natalie Dormer in 2013’s Rush pushed him just out of the bottom spot. I would like to personally thank Ron Howard for this one day, because it is one of the best sex scenes I watched.

Lastly: Driver, John Boyega, and Mahershala Ali are the only actors in this study who have not had a single sex scene in any movie. Their careers are still young, but all three were or will be involved in major franchises: Driver and Boyega starred in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and Ali will, eventually, play Blade in the MCU. (Perhaps, since Star Wars has ended, those two will begin having sex. It is something to keep an eye on.) Driver and Boyega’s costar Oscar Isaac, whom I assumed would have more sex scenes based on his erotic dancing scene in Ex Machina (a sexual reset), has only two sex scenes. And only one of them is good. But that still means Isaac has had more on-screen sex than Hanks, Tom Hardy, Johnson, and Idris Elba.

Observations

My findings do not end here. I discovered many things in my studies that, while not pertinent to the hypothesis, are worth noting. Things worth noting include disturbing sex scenes (mostly from the ’90s) that keep me awake at night, and other stuff that was too stimulating to discuss on my Twitter account. There are also some observations about sex scenes themselves, notably how similar all of them are.

Expectations vs. Reality

The overarching theme of this section is that our so-called Internet Boyfriends don’t actually have that many sex scenes:

Not-So-Hot Sex

In real life, not all sex is good. And like in real life, not all sex scenes are good, even if there’s a good butt or two. These are all of the sex scenes that keep me up at night:

A Brief Note on Brad Pitt Touching a Cartoon Boob

The most disturbing sex scene I saw in my research is also the most disturbing thing I have seen in my life. Fortunately, it did not involve Brad Pitt: All of his sex scenes are well executed, even the ones from the ’90s, like in Kalifornia when he is a serial killer who has sex in the back of a car with Juliette Lewis. However, in the 1992 film Cool World—a sort of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?–style experience—Pitt plays a human being stuck in a cartoon world. He is a cartoon world detective who is in love with a cartoon lady, but they cannot have sex because they don’t know what would happen, I guess? The closest they get to having sex is when Pitt briefly touches the cartoon lady’s boob. That said, there is a sex scene in Cool World, though when I read the description in the Parents Guide section on IMDb, I wrongly assumed it would feature Pitt. It actually stars Gabriel Byrne, who has sex with a cartoon lady who turns into Kim Basinger while she’s riding Byrne cowgirl style. I haven’t slept more than five hours a night since seeing it.

Some Final Highlights

The Anatomy of a Sex Scene

Watching sex scenes all day for several months, I started to pick up on things: Pitt is a butt guy, even Gyllenhaal has days when he’s phoning it in, and most sex scenes are exactly the same.

First, there’s kissing. Then the kissing becomes making out, always with more tongue than in real life, for dramatic effect. As the song (by a female indie artist) or score gets louder, the actors look each other in the eye and start taking each other’s clothes off (special shout-out to every actor who can undo someone else’s jeans with one hand). Then, they move to a bed or a more comfortable surface. If they’re not in a house, they’re in a car or a very public place. Then there is more making out with somehow even more tongue, and the camera gets closer to the actors’ faces. Then the camera—now at a level slightly above the bed or other sex surface—pulls back a bit so you can see hot bodies, but not so far that you can see anyone’s privates. Moaning begins, a body moves up and down, and the sex happens for, usually, only a few seconds.

Sex performance can transform these repetitive scenes. But there are also a few—with an emphasis on few—filmmakers who’ve managed to make sex scenes edgy and revolutionary. Spike Lee is one of the few filmmakers who has used inventive angles for sex scenes, in movies like He Got Game and Mo’ Better Blues, which both happen to star exemplary sex scene performer Denzel Washington. Lee’s strength is his focus on both participants. Instead of a brief close-up of the woman’s face to remind the audience how much of a good time she is having, he gives both sexes an equal amount of screen time. Lee’s other strength is that he isn’t willing to sacrifice his style when filming a sex scene, like many directors do.

Martin Scorsese’s sex scenes contrast with Lee’s in that he focuses on realism, at least compared to Lee’s elevated approach. The Vera Farmiga–Leonardo DiCaprio scene in The Departed is pretty straightforward (and steamy), but Scorsese’s choice to play “Comfortably Numb” over the scene stands out. It’s not an obvious choice, but it reflects where the characters are in the story, making the scene more meaningful. And even the most obnoxious scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street, such as the scene in which a dominatrix sticks lit candles in DiCaprio’s butt, or any sex scene with Margot Robbie—one of the most attractive women who has ever inhabited this planet—feel authentic because of the style and humor Scorsese injects into them. Much like candle wax into a man’s butt.

Conclusion

First of all, I am The Expert on sex in cinema now, and I was not several months ago. Before conducting this research, the only sex scene I had ever watched repeatedly was the one from Titanic, which I first sampled alone in a private room in my Catholic high school’s library. I told the librarian it was for “history class.”

But this isn’t about me. This is about cinema. One hundred and twenty-eight sex scenes sounds like a lot, but broken down between each actor, it’s not a lot at all. There is not a lot of sex in American cinema. This is the case for a few reasons, including that many actors have reputations to maintain in order to get and/or keep getting lucrative work in major motion pictures. Movie stars have to cater to Americans who have a complicated, unhealthy relationship with sex and nudity—and that’s, well, most Americans. There is also the MPAA, a puritanical organization that has control over the film industry and, like most of the country, shivers at anything even slightly sexual. This is a business that targets the majority of the viewing body, and until there’s a profound shift in what that body is comfortable with, we will continue to have actors who are sexy in theory rather than in practice.

Although I will never be the same after some of the things I have seen, I still believe movies should have more sex scenes because I am now a more whole human being after learning what I’ve learned. So I end my study with one request: Please let people in Star Wars and Marvel movies have sex in other movies.

Carrie is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets (and not just about sex) at @carriesnotscary.

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