Sex on Television


Yesterday I had a post about nudity on television. I was inspired after seeing a post by Alyssa Rosenberg and particularly a video to which she linked. I am happy with the way the post turned out and while I was thinking about it last night I realized that although I had written the post I intended to write, I had missed Alyssa’s point in her post, which is summed up below.

Sex itself doesn’t actually appear that interesting to most prestige television shows. And there’s still a sense that more explicit–and more realistic–sex scenes constitute pornography in a way that might cause prestige TV to get stripped of its “art” designation. But that should be a challenge, not a closed door.

I wrote a post on my feelings about nudity but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sex, at least on television.

The issues with sex on television are complicated, as Alyssa mentions in her post. In most cases, sex is something that is generically shown to have happened and the show is really about the consequences of sex. In most cases, the sex scenes don’t offer a significant amount of characterization, which doesn’t really make sense.

We reveal ourselves by what we say but especially by what we do. Have you ever revised your opinion about someone after watching them eat? Or after riding in the car with them? Or seeing their closet? Sex is another thing that conveys information about who we are or how we feel. The problem is that in most cases we don’t know much about how other people have sex. We don’t learn much from television and we learn even less from porn.

In 2007, HBO had a series called Tell Me You Love Me which bridged the gap between traditional TV sex and porn. The show featured three couples who visited a therapist to discuss their issues with sex. And rather than just tell the audience about their sexual issues, the show explicitly depicted the sex. (It’s important to note that all the sex was simulated.) We have become desensitized to violence on television because its ubiquitous and often unrealistic. In the same way, we have become desensitized to sex on television, even if it is less ubiquitous than violence, because it is also unrealistically depicted. Just as watching a show that featured realistic violence would be disturbing, so too was watching Tell Me You Love Me, which I mean as praise.

Tell Me You Love Me was not a hit, with less than one million viewers watching the premier. The series lasted one season, ten episodes. It was renewed for a second season but the creator was not able to figure out how to do another season. If any later series had depicted sex as honestly in service of character development, Tell Me You Love Me would have been a landmark. Instead it’s a footnote in the story of HBO’s success with dramatic series.

Of course, not every network could show what HBO showed in Tell Me You Love Me. However, that should not be a hindrance. HBO and Showtime (and Netflix) have greater leeway than basic cable or broadcast with regards to nudity and violence and swearing, but that hasn’t prevented those other networks from producing brilliant work. Limitations can often inspire innovation. Mad Men and Breaking Bad on AMC are considered two of best series of all-time.

It’s too late for a show like Mad Men to alter how it depicts sex. (Tellingly, the most revealing thing involving sex happened in a conversation between Don and Betty last season. After sex.) But there is no reason that a new (or newer) show has to follow convention with regard to its depictions of sex. As regular TV viewers, we probably know more about how to kill someone and dispose of the body than will ever be useful to us. Wouldn’t it be great if we learned something about sex from television besides the unimportance of foreplay and the pervasiveness reverse cowgirl?


I am aware that Masters of Sex is debuting on Showtime at the end of September. It will be interesting to see how that show depicts sex.

Tell me what you think. Thanks.