Step 1) Man kisses woman lustfully. Step 2) Man pushes woman against a wall, or onto a bed, and rips off garments. Step 3) Indistinct shot of man’s back or shoulder. Three thrusts. Step 4) Close up of woman, eyes shut, screaming in ecstasy. It’s a scene we all know too well, and one we know doesn’t exist in real life.
Thankfully, over the past decade, sex scenes have moved away from the hackneyed, straight, male-centric bedroom scenes we’ve long been fed into something more even-handed. Sex has become more "real" on TV. Where sex scenes once largely imitated porn, they now mimic real-life intimacy, with all of its awkwardness and consequential human bodily functions.
Sex on screen today is more egalitarian. More scenes embody the nuances of (and trend toward) female pleasure. We see diversified gender identity and sexuality, reflecting the changing cultural norms of sexual engagement. Intimacy on TV is more experimental, normalizing the expansive and varied range of sexual desires more openly discussed in 2019. And it’s messy – sex scenes give viewers true-to-life relatability of those times when you need to get it on while menstruating or wonder if your partner will notice your butt sweat.
Unlike the male gaze-curated sex scenes of the past, intimacy on-screen today characterizes the desire and discomfort inherent to real-life sex.
Dr. Michael Aaron, a New York-based sex therapist and psychologist, says traditional porn-inspired sex scenes with dramatized moaning and exaggerated orgasms create unrealistic expectations. “You see non-normative bodies and stamina, and if that’s where people learn about sex, people have unrealistic expectations of sex and feel bad about themselves,” he says. “Realistic TV shows people experiences they can relate to, and shows a more realistic experience that people have of sexuality, not just a fantasy that no one can really meet.”
Change Is Coming
TV is changing the way we see — and maybe practice — the act(s) of sex.
In Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, the TV adaptation of the 1986 Spike Lee film, protagonist Nola Darling’s eyes well up with tears of joy after one of her three partners goes down on her. She literally cries from cunnilingus. We see a single woman empowered to take control over her sexuality as Nola rotates among four sexual partners – three men, one woman. Her fierce ownership of her body dispels the stigma that a woman having lots of sex must be a sex addict. She doesn’t need to tell us that men with multiple partners are praised, while women who have casual sex are shamed; her lifestyle is the act of rebellion. Nola’s self-proclaimed “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual” character flips the double standard. "I'm not a freak, I'm not a sex addict, and I'm damn sure nobody's property,” Nola Darling says in season 1, episode 1.
In HBO’s Insecure, main character Issa, another twenty-something black woman navigating young adulthood, calls her man-juggling her “hoetation.” In one scene, we see Issa’s best friend Molly break up with a new partner while he is giving her oral sex. Showing this level of female sexual liberation used to be rare, especially from women of color. But the role of the sexually-active woman dating multiple partners is almost a television trope now. And that’s a good thing. Relationships in TV reflect societal shifts, and sexual culture has tipped over into female-centric pleasure, racial diversity, and the positive representation of queer and trans relationships. TV today is at the core of the sex positivity movement and calls sexual privilege into question.
Sex positivity is a cultural call for change, says Dr. Carol Queen, an author, sociologist, and sex educator, with a doctorate in sexology. “It means creating a cultural space for diversity, for information about sexuality within its diversity, for consent and for an end to shame about sex and sexual difference,” Queen says.
We see this shift in FX’s Pose, with scene after scene of respectful, tasteful, erotic depictions of queer and trans people having sex. You won’t see ambiguous camera pans in scenes of Angel and Stan’s (or Angel and Papi’s) intimacy. In Netflix’s Dear White People, Lionel, freshly out of the closet, timidly attends a gay sex party and is greeted with a blow job – what he calls “the gay hello.” He eventually leaves the dungeon-like house party with his crush, Michael, who reassures Lionel that group sex and orgy parties aren’t for everyone.
With more experimentation on screen, sex on TV today helps answer the fundamental human question of sexuality: “Am I normal?”
See It to Be It
Sexual experimentation on screen gives society permission to, well, experiment. Seeing sexual acts that were once taboo or considered extreme normalize the nuanced range of human desire. Consider the infamous analingus scene in Girls – the season four premiere when Marnie has her *ss eaten by her partner Desi. While shocking in 2014, that scene contributed to the mainstreaming of oral-anal sex.
In Comedy Central’s Broad City, in season 2, episode 4 we see Abbi grapple with the decision to peg her neighbor Jeremy after he pulls out a strap-on dildo during sex. She calls her best friend Ilana from the bathroom for a pep talk and finds the confidence to go for it. We see Jeremy on all fours as he says, “right in the butt,” and then Abbi from behind, dildo dangling.
The sex positivity movement is mirrored on screen in scenes of solo pleasure as well. Through decades of classic television moments of men masturbating (think Weeds, Skins and Entourage), female masturbation was reduced to comedic scenes of getting caught with a vibrator or fetishized scenes directed in the male gaze. Now, female self-pleasure is depicted as normal, natural and expected. Finally. Women who know their bodies can speak to what they like and what they don’t; they have agency to prioritize their desires. Depictions of female masturbation in popular culture strip away the taboo, and dispel the notion that masturbation is just for men.
In Netflix’s Sex Education, British high school teen Aimee (played by Aimee Lou Wood)has lots of experience with men but admits she has never touched herself; multiple jump shots of Aimee masturbating all over her house ensue. She tells her friend she wore herself out so much that she “ate a whole box of crumpets.” In Amazon’s comedy-drama Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge starts touching herself while watching videos of Obama. The scene is remarkable because it’s perfectly unremarkable – no sexy writhing, no longing look at a sex toy; she’s wearing a t-shirt covered in crumbs and eating snacks in bed.
How You Shoot a Sex Scene Matters
A big part of normalizing sex is changing the way it’s shot and directed. Sex is messy and awkward. TV today doesn’t shy away from the very real human bodily functions involved in real-life intimacy. Female-created and often directed Broad City (over 50% of the episodes are directed by women) doesn’t use soft lighting, expensive lingerie or exaggerated orgasms for on-screen intercourse. In season 2, episode 1, Abbi and Seth Rogen’s character engage in some summer heavy petting in an apartment without air conditioning. Abbi sticks paper towels to her perspiring armpits and Seth Rogen confesses to sitting in his own “butt sweat.” In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, an entire song – “Period Sex” – celebrates sex while menstruating. In Insecure, Issa get semen in her eye after performing fellatio – a rare TV on-screen ejaculation. The awkward, often embarrassing interactions of body fluids and intimacy let viewers know that self-conscious sex is normal.
In Dear White People, Lionel and Wesley, two queer black men, illustrate the mechanics of anal sex and the importance of lubrication. Lionel starts with one pump of lube and Wesley turns around to pump ten more squirts of the gel into Lionel’s hands, in season 3, episode 7.
Experts say these scenes are especially important for teens wrestling with existential questions of identity. “This is life or death stuff,” Dr. Queen says. “Especially for trans kids, queer kids, people who aren’t always represented; it’s amazing that they’re seeing themselves reflected.”
Messy, authentically human sex on screen is not limited to the physicality of intercourse — we also see characters realistically navigate conversations around insecurities, consent and trauma. In Sex Education season 1, episode 6, lead character Otis falls into a panic attack during foreplay, flashing back to his parents’ traumatic divorce.
“In our culture, most people get their sex ed from popular culture. They watch TV, they watch porn. They watch rom-coms for ideas about what their relationships should be like – God help us,” Dr. Queen says. “But with this kind of honesty that people are trying to put in a script, there’s a lot of potential for social change, there really is.”
Intimacy in TV strips away the shame of human sexuality, and that’s good for everyone. There is still progress to be made, but TV producers are on the right track. We’re satisfied, but give us more.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue