Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out/Channel 4/ABC)

Film

A short history of sex and sexuality on TV

@SamWKemp

Picture the scene: You’re an adolescent positively groaning with hormones. You and your family are sitting on the couch debating what to watch. You settle on something seemingly innocent. “It’s got dragons in it”, your dad says, “it’s supposed to be very good.” Your mum replies wearily with a nod and a smile. For a while, everything feels pretty ordinary. Then, two of the characters start eyeing each other up hungrily. Your dad shuffles his newspaper and clears his throat loudly, but it’s no good. As the characters begin furiously rutting, a dreadful realisation comes over you: At this very moment, you and your parents are all watching soft porn as if it’s the BBC news.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when TV was pretty much absent of sex. So what changed? We’d like to take you on a journey through television history to explore how depictions of sex and sexuality have changed over the years.

1950s television wasn’t what you’d call liberal. TV censorship was corset-tight, meaning that on-screen couples weren’t even allowed to be shown (heaven forbid) sleeping in the same bed. I Love Lucy is the perfect example. The lead characters, Lucy and Ricky, were always shown lying alongside one another in two separate beds, even though actors Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were married in real life. Lucy wasn’t even allowed to use the word ‘pregnant’, always referring to herself as being ‘with child’ or ‘having a baby’.

In the 1960s, a relaxation of moral censorship allowed TV to become more open to the idea of discussing sexuality. The BBC aired Ken Loach’s Up The Junction in 1965 as part of its The Wednesday Play series. The drama follows three young women, Rube, Sylvie and Eileen, who live and work in Battersea, London. The programme sparked moral panic among more conservative viewers for its discussion of sexual relationships outside of marriage and depiction of a back-street abortion.

By The 1970s, couples were not only sharing mattresses but talking about sex, sexuality and contraception. But despite this new openness to discussions surrounding sex, the act itself was still rarely depicted on-screen. Take I, Claudius, for example, one of the most memorable moments of which is when Messalina challenges a member of the Guild of Prostitutes to have sex with as many men as she can. It’s the kind of merry bonking the makers of Game of Thrones would have loved. However, in I Claudius, all of the action occurs behind closed doors. Still, it was pretty strong stuff for the time.

Things took a step backwards in the 1980s. While TV networks did their best to bring previously closeted discussions about sex into the open air, most of the stories focused on beautiful cis people having heteronormative sex. At the same time, shows began leaning into anti-sex narratives, portraying sex as a taboo act to be avoided unless those participating were willing to wrap themselves in three inches of bubble wrap. This trend continued into the 1990s. Shows like TeenNick’s Degrassi: The Next Generation frequently focused on the negative aspects of a sexually active lifestyle, such as STIs, teen pregnancy and assault.

The 1990s also saw an increased focus on female sexuality. With the fight against sexual inequality supposedly won, the world was introduced to a new kind of sexually liberated woman. TV networks scurried to cater for this wave of ‘post feminists’, for whom sexual promiscuity was a political act. Grey’s Anatomy, with its cunnilingus scenes, lesbian relationships and coining of the term ‘Vajayjay’, is a prime example. Then there’s Sex And The City, the protagonist of which is a female sex columnist who – somewhat unsurprisingly – has a hell of a lot of sex. Although why anyone thought Carrie Bradshaw would make a good sex columnist, I don’t know. Her view of sex is extremely limited. Not only does she not believe in bisexuality, but she also teases her friends about their sexual encounters and publically shames one of her own sexual partners for his kinks.

The 2000s placed even more focus on the sex lives of women. Tipping The Velvet, which featured Keeley Hawes as a cross-dressing Victorian music hall star called Kitty, sparked outrage among Daily Mail readers for its various lesbian sex scenes. The show’s depiction of a female orgasm was something of a watershed moment, as was Secret Diary of A Call Girl, which was at once an admirable attempt to redefine the portrayal of sex workers on TV and an excuse for leary men to see Billie Piper in her underwear. But compared to what was about to follow, it was all relatively tame.

In the 2010s, HBO shows like Masters of Sex, Game of Thrones and Girls made the act of shagging a very big deal Indeed. As well as featuring three or four beheadings per episode, the first few seasons of Game of Thrones contain incredible amounts of full-frontal nudity, multiple depictions of rape, and countless sun-baked orgies.

In the present day, shows like Sex Education and Big Mouth have done an excellent job of reimagining the sex-centric teen drama, bringing an honest, respectful and hilarious tone to a once-clinical genre. Both shows’ use of comedy has allowed them to engage with young people on their own terms, and o discuss issues like safe sex, assault and healthy sexual relationships openly and honestly. Phew. Clearly, a lot has changed since the ’50s.