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What happened to erotic thrillers?

The place sex and sexuality ought to occupy in US society was never something that Americans could firmly decide on in the 1980s through to the 1990s. This era began with the ascension of Christian-right-backed Ronald Reagan to the presidency. His reactionary stance distilled down to its essence was: the sexual freedom and hedonism that defined the 1960s and 1970s were to be left behind, and family values and traditional gender roles were to be restored. Ironically, the era ended with what seemed like the polar opposite, with President Bill Clinton getting impeached for having denied having sexual relations with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. It was between these two bookends that the erotic thriller genre experienced the full life cycle: germination, maturation, and then a rapid decline.

Their origins and formula

There was a confluence of factors occurring at the beginning of the 1980s that contributed to the high concentration of erotic thrillers made during that period. Sex outside of marriage was becoming more commonplace due to the increase in the number of women using the pill, which meant that was being reflected on screen; the new movie rating system meant that censorship was relaxed, allowing for more explicit content; and the new emerging market of rental videos meant that viewers could watch explicit content at home, creating a financial incentive to make them too.

Most important of all was the element of danger that came with sex that was fundamental to erotic thrillers which was, no doubt, a reaction to the AIDS crisis.

Sex on film didn’t have that dimension of life or death. It might have been sanctimonious, pointing out the dangers of pre-marital sex or later on, as a result of the sexual revolution, delving into the complexity of adult sexual dynamics. Although politicians in the US didn’t acknowledge the severity of the AIDS epidemic until the late 1980s, it was a reality that hit many people around the world and Americans much earlier. The fearmongering that occurred as a result of the spread of paranoid-fuelled misinformation bled, consciously and unconsciously, into movies that were being made.

Erotic thrillers, in that time, therefore served as a cautionary tale to remind audiences how overt sexuality is dangerous. The repercussions of having sex that you weren’t ‘supposed’ to were monumental in these movies, and often deadly. As critic and podcaster Karina Longworth noted, erotic thrillers were movies that “took sex seriously, maybe even a little too seriously”.

The Hays Code, a very strict production code which Hollywood studios had to abide by, banned simulation of sex of any kind

They didn’t come out of nowhere. Erotic thrillers had their antecedents in the film noirs of the 1940s. The Hays Code, a very strict production code which Hollywood studios had to abide by, banned simulation of sex of any kind. This meant that either a kiss was the substitute for sex, or it was conveyed through innuendoes or symbolic imagery (like waves crashing on the shore). However, the blueprint of a ’40s noir has the same hallmarks of a conventional erotic thriller. Typically, it involves an ordinary working man, usually a detective of or a PI who is positioned as a little dim, seduced by this mysterious and alluring woman who ends up being responsible for his downfall, and who herself either meets with a bitter end or is revealed to be innocent. How film noirs graduated to become erotic thrillers is that the latter took the film noir formula and made brought sex from the subtext to the integral point of the movie.

The femme fatale and the male ‘victim’

The heart (if you can say erotic thrillers have any heart to them) of many of film noirs and thereby erotic thrillers is the femme fatale. Beautiful and undecipherable, the femme fatale character is motivated by, as Andrew Dickos puts it, “a lust for exciting sex, a desire for wealth and the power it brings, and a need to control everything and everyone around her.” She gets her power by “disorientating the male object”.

What she is, insinuating from this definition, is a male projection of fears about female sexual autonomy. By the early 1980s, nearly 11 million women were on the pill and having intercourse outside of marriage with several partners, meaning that Reagan administration’s appeal to women to fulfil their duties as a homemaker as part of a traditional family was actually rejected by many women. The Roe vs Wade verdict that legalized abortion in many states a decade previously was constantly under attack throughout the 1980s also highlighted fears about women’s sexual promiscuity.

Leading on from that, the femme fatale character is also usually, childless, which also reflects male anxieties about women. Women not bearing a man’s child is as Virginia M Hall says, “an extreme form of destruction of the male…deprivation of his posterity, his immortality”.

The femme fatale is also portrayed as lusting after money as much as sex, if not more.

Women were entering the workplace in record numbers during the 1980s and 1990s. Feminists championed legislation such as Equal Rights Amendment offering support to single divorced mothers and the Women’s Equity Act which was trying to put an end the gender wage gap. Female economic independence was a threat to the traditional idea of the man being the breadwinner, this is why many femme fatales were either materialistic homemakers or more commonly later on, the single working women.

If the femme fatale is the “villain” in erotic thrillers then that means the man is the “victim”.  However, there has been recent reappraisal of this problematic simplification.

However, looking more closely, Dan isn’t that much of a victim at all

The 1987 erotic thriller Fatal Attraction is a textbook example of these rudimentary labels being attached to characters. Michael Douglas plays Dan a married man who has what he believes is a one-night stand with Glenn Close’s character Alex, who becomes obsessed with him and tries to dismantle his ‘perfect’ life. In most audience member’s eyes Dan is a victim of Alex’s crazy obsession. However, looking more closely, Dan isn’t that much of a victim at all. In a very important scene, the two characters, Dan and Alex are in a restaurant debating whether they should spend the night together.  In a moment that may not seem all that important, Alex takes out cigarette and Dan lights a match to her cigarette for her. However, she doesn’t light it until the fire is almost at the end of his match, on the brink of burning him. One the one hand it can be taken as symbolic of Alex bringing about Dan’s destruction but crucially Dan is the one who lights the match and lets the fire almost burn him. In this way he can be seen as bringing about his own destruction.

Have they disappeared permanently?

The erotic thriller died down by the late 1990s and the early 2000s and don’t exist in the mainstream of today. Their extinction occurred for many reasons, but the combination of oversaturation and a decline in quality of erotic thrillers ensured their demise.

The recent MeToo movement also sparked important dialogue surrounding sexual consent, something that is famously absent in erotic thrillers, maybe proving to be the final nail in the coffin.

That being said, there have been a few big-budget ones that have been made in recent memory. From Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water in 2022 to Miller’s Girl starring Jenna Ortega in 2024, maybe this means that perhaps the erotic thriller is having a slow but sure revival?


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