Anne Fontaine
"Two Mothers" was one Sundance film that was noted for its abundance of sexual content.
The festival, being as diverse as it is, shows all kinds of content, and that gives the audience a chance to choose. That’s not quite so available in the main marketplace. —Sundance founder Robert Redford

Sex was definitely on people’s minds at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

The annual celebration of independent filmmaking that takes place each January in and around Park City raised more than a few eyebrows with what many felt was an overabundance of sexually explicit content from this year’s lineup. There were depictions of deviant, taboo and, in some cases, illegal sexual activity.

Before Sundance even got under way, a Utah conservative think tank called the Sutherland Institute posted a petition on its website asking Utah to end state funding of the festival based on what the group described as obscene and pornographic content, making reference to specific movies from the 2013 lineup.

“What would you call a film festival airing movies that explore the lives of porn stars, adulterous relationships between mothers and their friends’ children, and teenagers competing to lose their virginity?” wrote Derek Monson on the Sutherland Institute website. “To the state of Utah, evidently it is simply ‘economic activity.’”

During an opening day press event, Sundance founder Robert Redford dismissed the outcry, saying, “Sometimes the narrowest mind barks the loudest.”

As the festivities got going, though, it wasn’t just conservative groups that took note of all the racy subject matter.

Reporting from Park City, Brook Barnes of the New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog quoted an anonymous senior executive at a major Hollywood studio who said, “I’ve seen five movies today, and (the sexual content) has been nonstop. I’m no prude, but it’s a little much.”

The amount of explicit sex in movies this year even led Barnes to coin a new name for the prestigious event: “Porndance.” Other journalists quickly snatched up the unflattering moniker.

The subject of pornography, in fact, was present in many films. At least four focused on pornography as a major thematic element.

As Kyle Smith of the New York Post jokingly commented, “America’s most G-rated state has gone triple-X.”

Notable names such as James Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Amanda Seyfried and Naomi Watts were part of films that were noted for explicit sexual content.

If Redford is to be believed, it’s just the times we live in. In an interview with the Associated Press on the festival’s opening night, the 76-year-old actor and philanthropist said, "We just show what's there. We don't predict anything. We don't shape anything.”

Comparing this year’s Sundance to his early career, Redford said, “When I got into the film business in the early '60s, it was a romantic time. Sex and romance were pretty well tied together. Now, 40, 50 years later, we see that sexual relations have moved to a place where it doesn't feel like there's so much romance involved. ... Relations have changed, and they've changed because of changing times and because of new technology. People are texting rather than dating and all that kind of stuff.”

Franco, though, has his own theories. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times, the actor and former Oscars co-host said, "I think there's something happening with all these sex movies. We've been using violence as a storytelling device for decades but we've only just begun to use sex that way instead of as simply something to shock."

One thing is clear about the issue, though: sex sells.

Despite what looked like early signs of a bad year for distribution deals at Sundance, films with explicit content were among the first to sell, according to the Wall Street Journal, and negative reviews didn’t seem to get in the way.

For fans of independent cinema hoping to avoid sexually explicit content, though, all hope should not be lost just yet. There are still plenty of options from this year’s Sundance to explore as they hit theaters, home video and on-demand services in coming months.

As Redford notes, “diversity is the point" of the entire film festival. Altogether, 119 movies from 32 countries screened during the 2013 program, including many that would be suitable for family audiences.

“The festival, being as diverse as it is, shows all kinds of content, and that gives the audience a chance to choose,” Redford said. “That’s not quite so available in the main marketplace.”