Clockwise from left:  Risky Business; Basic Instinct (Photo credit: Firooz Zahedi); Seven Pounds
March 14, 2013 at 06:18 PM EDT

Whether romantic, playful, or dangerous, the sex scene has always been a Hollywood staple. Suddenly, it has disappeared. EW investigates.

We all remember our first time, right? If you were growing up in the ’80s, it could’ve been when Tom and Rebecca broke every public-decency law on that train in Risky Business. Or if you were a ’90s teen, it might’ve been Demi and Patrick getting clay in places clay should never, ever be, in Ghost. For the millennials: maybe Reese and Ryan playing tongue tag in Cruel Intentions?

The first love scene you saw in a movie is hard to forget. But what’s hard to remember these days is the last time any of us saw one on screen. Not just a sexy moment but a bona fide hot, unironic, don’t-watch-it-with-your-parents love scene between big stars in a big Hollywood movie. You definitely didn’t see one in any of last year’s nine Best Picture Oscar nominees, which featured characters getting killed, saved, sick, and angry — but never, under any circumstances, lucky. That includes Silver Linings Playbook, in which Jennifer Lawrence’s character is a self-proclaimed sex addict.

Actually, chances are you didn’t see one on the big screen at all in 2012. In a year when TV shows like HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s Homeland had more pants-down action than a urologist’s office, only one out of the 25 highest-grossing movies had a genuine roll in the hay: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1. It wasn’t just last year, either. Christopher Nolan has never shown a sex scene, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox never got it on in the Transformers series, and apparently one marvel of the Marvelverse is that not even a superhero can get past second base. In fact, the last time a movie with a real star-on-star love scene topped the yearly box office — and no, Avatar‘s gratuitous ponytail play between CGI cat people doesn’t count — was 16 years ago when Jack and Rose fogged up the inside of a town car in Titanic.

The recent drop in onscreen sizzle is no fluke. According to Vincent Bruzzese, president of the film division of media marketing firm Ipsos, which analyzes scripts for major studios and filmmakers, the once abundant Hollywood Sex Scene is now officially an endangered species. “The number of sex scenes in the scripts we assess for our clients has absolutely declined in the last two years,” he says. “Writers are just leaving them out because they know they’ll get cut. And when they are in the script, our clients want to know, ‘Is this absolutely necessary?'”

“Would Fatal Attraction get made at a studio today? Not in a thousand years.”

If sex sells, as every clichéd ad exec ever in a movie has told us, how come Hollywood isn’t stocking it anymore?

Part of the explanation dates back to the ’90s, when studios began targeting teenage boys, those walking hormone piñatas, as their most reliable customers. Badass heroes, explosions, and tight-shirted ladies? Yes, yes, and oh-boy-please yes. Romantic subplots? Boooring. And forget about substantial nudity; teens might want to see it, but the MPAA doesn’t want them to — not until they turn 17.

“Now that young people drive the box office, if your film can handle a PG-13 storywise, then there is no reason to go R, because you’re just limiting the number of people who can see it,” says Michael Sucsy, director of last year’s hit The Vow. That movie was one of the few recent romances to make a buck — 125 million of them, actually — thanks in large part to its PG-13 rating. Which is to say, it scored because Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams didn’t. (Well, not that we saw.)

Adrian Lyne, the director of erotically charged successes like Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal (i.e., the guy responsible for an entire generation of worn-out rewind and pause buttons in the VCR era), says this is one reason for the blank space in his filmography since his racy 2002 hit, Unfaithful. “Would Fatal Attraction get made at a studio today? Not in a thousand years,” he says. “Maybe it would go to Sundance. I can’t think of the last relationship piece that was a success — I’m not sure the studios even make them anymore. Which is apparently why I haven’t done something for quite a while now.” (Lyne is now developing an adaptation of the Oprah-approved novel Back Roads.)

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