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Penn Badgley’s sex scene comments are a win for puritans

In You season 4, Penn Badgley requested to have no sex scenes. His explanation for that request leaves a lot to unpack about sex, and violence onscreen.

Penn Badgley in You season 4

While speaking on his podcast Penn Badgley recently revealed that, in You season 4, he had asked to have no sex scenes. “I asked Sera Gamble, [the] creator, ‘Can I just do no more intimacy scenes?’ This was actually a decision I had made before I took the show.”

His explanation for his request – not that he needed to give one – was that he felt it was tantamount to infidelity to his wife. He said, “Fidelity in every relationship, especially in a marriage, is important to me. It got to a point where [I thought], ‘I don’t want to do that.’ So I said to Sera, like, ‘My desire would be zero [intimate scenes], to go from 100 to zero.’”

On the surface that will strike a chord with many sympathetic ears. It’s not too hard to imagine several ways in which, for Penn Badgley’s personal life, it might suit him better to ditch the sex scenes. After all, jealousy is a pervasive and unpredictable guest. It will arrive unannounced, ruin your evening, and overstay its welcome. But taken in a broader context, his comments fit in with a decades-old conservative attitude which is damaging for sex positivity within entertainment.

It goes without saying that Penn Badgley is not a performing monkey. If he doesn’t want to act in sex scenes, and if they are making him uncomfortable or causing him personal issues, then good on him for refusing to do them. I hope any actor in the same position would feel able to make the same demand.

Yet his conflation of a simulated sex scene in the thriller series, and real, genuine sex has the potential to be damaging. It transposes the theoretical morality of a fictional moment and places it into the context of the real world. Much like the conversation about violence on screen and its impact on society, it suits puritans with a limited and prudish worldview.

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But it shouldn’t be the place of anyone to challenge Penn Badgley. He has his views and he’s entitled to them. When it comes to challenging the broader principle, though, it’s all fair game.

If an onscreen sex scene, performed in front of cameras and directors and intimacy coordinators, amounts to real world infidelity, why not a kiss, or flirting, or the holding of hands? Why is an actor able to detach themselves from their character when they commit a plethora of murders, but not when they have sex? Fictional murder is all fun and games, but having sex appears to be a line that cannot be crossed, apparently.

The answer, of course, is that sex scenes and nudity are perceived by many to be undignified – more so, even, than the onscreen killing of women. There’s a reason why you see so few penises, and even fewer than aren’t prosthetics, on your TV screens.

Penn Badgley in You season 4

Whether it makes you uncomfortable or not, sex is a fundamental aspect of life. Turning it into more of a taboo than it already is doesn’t do anyone any good, not least of all the actors who are already frowned upon for being open to nudity, or sex on screen. Just take Sydney Sweeney. The actor has been upfront about the way in which her role in Euphoria was dismissed because of its nudity, in contrast to her role in, for example, comedy series The White Lotus.

What’s more disheartening than the comments themselves is the predictable positive reception they received. Look online and you’ll see thousands of reactions praising Badgley for his faithfulness to his wife, or broadening out the conversation into how there are too many sex scenes nowadays, anyways.

That may never have been Penn Badgley’s intention. But especially given the sexlessness and sterility of modern mainstream movies and TV series, the resurfacing of this particular beast threatens to be a step backward.

For more on You season 4, check out our many guides on the show including everyone who dies in You season 4 part 1Joe’s stalker and the Eat the Rich killer, and we’ve answered burning questions like what happens to Joe’s son, what happened to Marienne, and whether we’ll see Love return in You season 4.