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‘Basic Instinct’ Was Everybody’s Screwed-Up ’90s Sex Education

How did I enter adulthood? Perhaps from seeing the highly erotic thriller when I was 11 years old.

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At age 11, I was led into the movie theater by my father to witness a man being stabbed to death with an ice pick while orgasming beneath a nude woman thrashing her hair until the cries stopped and rigor mortis set in. If you grew up in the ’90s, I imagine you’re a lot like me, and that in a deranged way, Basic Instinct was your first intro to sex education. Did this movie scar ’90s me for life? 

Days after I saw the movie, I carried my plastic lunch tray across the cafeteria and told my friend Scott about the curious motion picture called Basic Instinct. We drank our chocolate milk as I shared the story of a San Francisco novelist who — in addition kissing other women and snorting coke — was probably also a serial killer and definitely didn’t wear any underwear. I couldn’t tell if he was jealous, but he was definitely interested. Neither of us wondered why a parent would allow a child to see this movie. When you get access to illicit material at a young age, you don’t question how you got it.

Released in 1992, Basic Instinct was controversial by design. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who broke into Hollywood with 1987’s Robocop, upped the ante on explicit sex as never before. A cunnilingus scene had to be cut to secure an R-rating, which made Basic Instinct plausible to play in my small desert town, known for its innumerable churches and a military base whose claim to fame was helping design the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Was Basic Instinct, trying to teach me about the ironies of adult life? Unclear.

“Parents need to know that this film is about a murderer who kills people with an ice pick,” advises the parental website Common Sense Media in 2019. “There are many scenes involving full female nudity and male-female intercourse. The main characters drink heavily and use cocaine, and the male protagonist sexually assaults a main female character.” The fact that a contemporary review of Basic Instinct warns new parents against letting their grade-schooler watch this movie might seem laughable now. But, the fact remains, I was a grade schooler who saw this movie, so clearly, this warning is needed, albeit, several decades late.

To be fair, my dad might not have realized Basic Instinct was inappropriate in 1992. Although I’m not sure how? The publicity build-up had been insane, and I can recall reading about the troubled production in Premiere magazine as a 6th grader. The sex scenes that took days to film. LGBT activists protested the production. While Verhoeven had pushed the limits on violence in his previous Hollywood blockbusters, Robocop and Total Recall, his new work was primed to do the same for sex, a subject on which Americans were decidedly more touchy.

As we were getting our tickets torn at the door, I recall being blocked by a speculative theater manager who looked down at me, and then over at my father and cautioned my dad that Basic Instinct wasn’t really for kids. I had never seen this happen before.

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For years, I had been taken regularly to our local movie theater to see such wholesome R-rated attractions as Die Hard, Terminator 2 and Cape Fear. No one batted an eye. What made this movie so different? I considered what hidden doors to adulthood it would open if they weren’t now suddenly closed.

My father gave the theater manager a scornful look, and walked on, saying something about knowing what his kids could handle. I was ready, I guess?

As an 11-year-old, I was awed. There were boobs yes and very long sex scenes. There was the famed interrogation scene in which I caught of glimpse of Sharon Stone without any underwear, which elicited a loud DAMN! from someone in the row in front of us. But the lasting effect of Basic Instinct is about more than skin — and it’s taken me over 30 years to realize this. It’s a mainstream movie that jettisons the whole notion of likeability and redemption and justice. (Chuck Klosterman riffs on this idea in his book, I Wear the Black Hat. Read it!)

Sharon Stone is the center of the movie, not just because she fucks a lot — but mostly because she doesn’t give any fucks. The investigating detective is a recovering cokehead Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is on warning because he accidentally shot a bunch of Frisco tourists while high. So he’s not so heroic, as is also evident from his sex scene with police shrink Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn).

If Basic Instinct taught me anything, it’s that the adult world, as it’s often presented to children, is bullshit. That people don’t live their lives according to values. Just as Nick Curran will risk dying to achieve an orgasm, in the coming years Bill Clinton will nearly lose his presidency. The movie marks the end of a sanctimonious era, premiering as the Reagan and Bush presidencies were coming to end.

Nevertheless, as a father now, It’s obvious to me that letting an 11-year-old to watch Basic Instinct is probably a mistake. What did my adolescent viewing do to my developing psyche? And just as often I wonder whether a steady diet of PG-13 whirligigs, an all-ages procession that began with Jurassic Park and hasn’t ceased since, would have caused more damage. They’re entertaining, but they’re immature. They infantilize both adults and the young.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so bad. Basic Instinct and other R-rated movies were for me a door to an adult world. As silly and awful as they could be, they were intended for adults, not children. They were also a gateway to artier movies I’d discover on my own, as a teenager with a video rental card, such as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Bad Lieutenant and Taxi Driver. They dealt with sex, violence, loneliness, and loss. Not always in ways that make one feel good afterward. Neither did Basic Instinct’s feel-bad, fuck-you ending.

Today, we live in a world in which the urge to protect kids is stronger than ever, but in some ways largely meaningless. Because the biggest threat to them is in their pocket and isn’t designed to be turned off.  

It’s interesting that in the aftermath of Basic Instinct, Hollywood was never really able to replicate its forbidden fruit success. The list of erotic thriller flops includes Body of Evidence, Jade, Sliver, The Color of Night, and Basic Instinct 2. Imagine if John Carpenter made Halloween, and every other slasher movie bombed. It’s bizarre. But then again, Basic Instinct was never really about sex, but a psychodrama of adult desire that was both deeply thrilling, seductive and troubling.