Sex, Lies, and Videotape 25 Years Later

Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 classic foretold the rise of webcam girls.

About halfway through Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, philandering pretty-boy attorney John (Peter Gallagher) confronts Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), his wife’s sister and the woman with whom he’s been having an affair, about a liaison she had with Graham (James Spader), his old college roommate, earlier that afternoon. (It’s a complicated dynamic.) Cynthia confesses, with a bit of a smirk, that she allowed Graham to record a video of her divulging her sexual history in lurid detail before stripping and masturbating for the camera, an experience she admits proved as gratifying for her as for him. John is both dismayed and confound: “Why doesn’t he just buy some magazines,” he grumbles, “or some porno movies?” Cynthia has a quick retort. He has to know the women,” she explains. “He has to interact with them.”

If he doesn’t, it’s just a page, a screen, an image. It isn’t real.

It’s been 25 years since Sex, Lies, and Videotape was released—to a mixture of praise and horror—in the United States, and over the course of that quarter century a lot has changed. The third word of that title, for one thing, dates the film before it even begins. But, though the novelty of home video has worn off, recording technologies and human sexuality have only become more entwined.

Remember: Videotape doesn’t simply mean video. Prior to the introduction of camcorders, which recorded directly to tape, amateur auteurs had to have their work developed in a lab.

The most obvious erotic benefit of the camcorder was that it allowed couples to record themselves having sex without having to worry about developers watching (or selling) their film debuts. That might sound ridiculous now, but when the celebrity sex tape emerged out of nowhere in the late 1980s courtesy of Rob Lowe it scared the hell out of everyone. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is both a product of and a reaction to that cultural moment. Graham’s obsession with recording women and getting off to the result—and his promise to the women that nobody but him would lay eyes on the material—wouldn’t have made sense or have been feasible a few years earlier. The film is about sex and lies, but it is also a film about evolving technology, which is why it still feels relevant.

John thinks Graham ought to settle for a bit of pornography, but that’s not what Graham wants.  If he was getting off in 2014 rather than in 1989, Graham almost certainly would have enjoyed the company of camgirls and tried to sneak his iPhone into the strip club. We’d watch Sex, Lies, and Webcams or Sex, Lies, and Skype. Sex, Lies, and Snapchat could work too, but it might make more sense as a short film.

The number of tools at our disposal for bringing us together—or, put another way, for putting up a digital barrier between our bodies—has multiplied exponentially since the popularization of the humble camcorder. One of the most remarkable things about Soderbergh’s film is that it articulates a kind of sexual experience that over time would come to be second nature for anyone with a broadband connection and a potential lover in another country, city, or room. Technology has allowed us to be peeping toms with prior consent. Like James Spader—whose entire career is arguably based on his ability to do this—we get to be creepy without actually being creepy.

Watch Sex, Lies, and Videotape again and you’ll end up admiring Soderbergh’s prescience. You’ll probably also end up thinking that the whole thing seems quaint. Graham isn’t the weird; John is. 

Photos by Miramax / Everett Collection