The easiest way to get a standing ovation these days is to denounce violence in movies and TV (even President Clinton can get applause this way), but try shifting the subject to sex and audiences get squirmy.

Maybe this is understandable in view of the mixed signals evidenced in our pop culture. At a time when “family values” are buzz words and repression seems politically correct, there are more and more signs that things, nonetheless, may be opening up.

Consider the following:

* MGM plans a wide release for “Showgirls,” the new Paul Verhoeven picture that seems preordained to have an NC-17 rating. This could turn out to be the first project that tries to go wide with such a rating.

* Miramax has just spent $3.5 million to acquire the rights to a new movie called “Kids” that bumps into another taboo – it depicts graphic sexual encounters involving barely pubescent-looking boys and girls. The film, which even shocked the battle-hardened crowd at Sundance, should also stun the ratings board, not to mention the folks at Disney, owners of the truculent independent.

* The Arts and Entertainment Network this weekend is showing a widely praised movie called “The Boys of St. Vincent,” dealing with yet another taboo topic – the molestation of young boys by Catholic priests. Though A&E made a few trims of shower scenes and the like, the movie is both graphic and uncompromising.

* Terrence McNally’s new play, “Love! Valour! Compassion!,” last week triumphantly moved to Broadway after a successful Off Broadway run and, in terms of nudity, this show makes “Oh Calcutta!” look like “The Sound of Music.” Indeed, some have suggested retitling it “Members Only.”

* In bookstores, the newest attention-grabber is a tome called “Defending Pornography” by a law professor named Nadine Strossen, which rips into the Catherine MacKinnons of the world, who have argued that depictions of female nudity are akin to rape.

* On primetime network TV, the displays of naked butts and breasts have become so commonplace that the webs don’t even post their pious “advisories” at the front of shows anymore. Even Ted Harbert of ABC was moved to ask fellow execs at a recent panel whatever happened to these advance warnings.

Perusing all this, one might conclude that a fresh breeze was blowing across the land and that the Bible Belt no longer held us hostage. But, as I said earlier, when it comes to sex, the message is always mixed.

It may be true that the constraints of censorship are receding, but if one examines the way sex is treated in many movies, the results can be pretty depressing. The five movies nominated for best picture this year by the Academy, for example, depict prison sex (“The Shawshank Redemption”), mob sex (“Pulp Fiction”) and even retarded sex (“Forrest Gump”), but “normal” interpersonal relations seem to be avoided.

Not surprisingly, the filmmaker who’s most aggressively pushing out the boundaries, Paul Verhoeven, is a European – a brilliant and thoroughly eccentric director who holds a doctorate in mathematics.

Europeans, to be sure, often complain that Hollywood movies are high on violence and low on sex, and Verhoeven, since transferring his focus to Hollywood, has decided to have it both ways – he’s making violent sex movies.

The man who once gave us such superb small films as “Spetters” and “Soldier of Orange” came to Hollywood to make “Basic Instinct,” and now, angry over the censor’s snips, has set out to make “Showgirls,” an explicitly sexual film with an NC-17 rating.

Verhoeven insists his picture must be graphic to be true to its material. The story is set in the smarmy sex parlors of Las Vegas, with the central character a “lap dancer” who spins naked on the laps of her male customers.

Although Verhoeven has shot his film to be too “true” to get an R rating, MGM believes it can still find a wide audience for the picture. “It’s uncharted territory,” concedes Gerry Rich, executive vice president for marketing at MGM/UA. Many newspapers will run ads for an NC-17 movie if they feel the movie is worthy, he notes, and TV stations will play commercials after 10 p.m.

Some marketing veterans, however, are less sanguine. “It comes down to landlords,” says one studio distribution chief. “The guys who own the malls don’t want circuits to book NC-17 pictures because they fear losing the family crowd. They’re the obstacle, and you don’t even know who the hell they are.”

Then there’s the other question: Will “Showgirls” turn out to be “sexy,” in the traditional sense of the word, or simply repellent – the sort of anti-sex sex movies that Europeans like Verhoeven criticize Americans for making.

Hence, two distinct issues present themselves: On the one hand, despite the widespread expressions of public piety, society seems prepared to accept an easing of media taboos.

On the other hand, it’s unclear whether our artists are prepared to use that freedom to advance their art rather than to exploit it. As I said at the outset, when it comes to sex, the signals are always mixed.