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Why We See Less Eroticism in Movies

Transformation of society's values has changed attitudes towards nudity in film.
Study authors:

Violetta Korsunova, Research Assistant, HSE Laboratory of Comparative Social Research (LCSR.

Olesya Volchenko, Research Assistant, HSE LCSR.

The stronger the emancipative values ​​of freedom, equality and autonomy in a society are, the more accepting it is of nudity in films. Korsunova and Volchenko examined the relationship between changing value orientations and the number of released films with adult content.

Their findings reveal, in particular, a recent trend towards more male and less female nudity on the screen.   

Not Just Girls on Camera

In the 1980s, European cinema reached its peak in terms of displaying nudity on the screen, in particular female nudity. Since then, the popularity of adult movie content has declined, as confirmed by the authors' analysis of about half a million European films produced between 1940s and 2010s and featured in the world's largest online movie database, IMDb.

The researchers looked for any correlation between value transformations and nudity display on the screen. According to Korsunova and Volchenko, this is the first ever study of its kind. So far, cinematography has mostly been studied using qualitative methods to demonstrate, e.g., how social change is reflected in one or a few films of a certain era. In addition to taking a different perspective, this study is the first to focus on a relationship between society's values ​​and nudity in movies.

The authors' main hypothesis is that the extent of both female and male nudity in cinematography is positively associated with emancipative values.

The authors were guided by Christian Welzel's concept of emancipative values, such as ​equality, freedom, autonomy and self-expression. These values reflect the degree of liberalisation, i.e. whether people in a particular society value political, civil and sexual freedoms over security, subordination and patriarchy.

The following questions/statements were used to measure values:

Values ​​of equality: "I agree that a woman can be an independent person," "I do not agree that men make better political leaders than women," "I do not agree that education is more important for a boy than a girl."

Values ​​of freedom: "I agree that abortion, homosexuality, divorce are justified"

Values ​​of autonomy: "encouraging creative imagination is the purpose of education," "encouraging obedience is not the purpose of education," "encouraging religious faith is not the purpose of education"

Values ​​of self-expression: "giving people more say in important government decisions is most important," "giving people more say about how things are done at their jobs and in their communities is most important," "protecting freedom of speech is most important."

Erotic Images and Gender Equality  

The study’s findings confirm a positive correlation between increases in emancipative values, in particular those of freedom, ​on one hand, ​and in the number of films containing nudity, on the other. "This finding is consistent with the modernisation theory, since the value of freedom implies emancipation and liberalisation of sexual life, leading to higher acceptance of scenes containing nudity as a legitimate cinematographic technique," according to the researchers.

While other values might not be as important ​​in this case, the study also confirms a broader correlation between the overall index of emancipative values and the acceptance of female nudity in films.

Erotica Replaces Love  

The researchers examined the evolution of European film content over a few decades. The 1950s saw the highest-ever number of movies whose descriptions contained the keywords 'love' and 'murder', later outnumbered by films with the keyword 'violence', and then 'battle' in the mid-1960s.

According to the study, a significant increase in films showing sexual scenes and nudity began in the 1970s and reached its peak in the 1980s, with a corresponding decline in films described by keywords such as 'love' and 'family'.

The researchers also examined other factors which could have an impact on the production of films with adult content. They found per capita GDP to have a distinct positive relationship with the liberation of eroticism in cinematography.

Interestingly, the overall level of education in society seems to have a gender-differentiated impact, correlating positively with male nudity, but negatively with female nudity on the screen. However, in a situation of gender inequality in employment – i.e. where more men than women have jobs outside the home – there is a higher likelihood of female nudity in movies.

About one-third (26% to 31%) of all films produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s contained scenes of female nudity, according to the researchers. By the late 1980s, however, the proportion of such films had dropped down to 12%, only to rise again in the 1990s, when female nudity was shown in about one-fifth (18% to 23%) of all new movies. In the 2000s, female nudity in films was down once again to just 10%-13% by the end of the decade.

For male nudity, the trend was different, with a gradual increase in popularity from 1%-2% of all films in the early 1980s to 7%-10 % in the late 2000s.

This may be interpreted as an effect of gender equality on the nature of eroticism in cinema. "Perhaps it reflects a new perspective on freedom and equality, when people begin to view nudity as objectification and find it less acceptable," the authors suggest. They also note the possible role of economic factors: increasingly targeting the mass market, European film producers may be concerned that adult scenes can affect the film's age rating and limit its potential audience.  

*The study used the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values ​​Survey (EVS) databases.

Authors: Olesya Vólchenko, Marina Selina, June 14, 2017