Porn magazines, Tumblr, anatomy books, Youtube videos, advice columns: young people learn about sex, more often than not, from self-propelled research and pop cultural exposure. Still, one medium stands above the rest in terms of cultural influence; like it or not, we’ve all been molded by what we’ve seen on TV.
Almost since its inception, television has been broadcasting conflicting messages about sex. In the ‘70s, ABC After-School Specials often portrayed sex as scary and out-of-control even as they were purported to be educational, while a few channels over, Maude’s titular character contemplated an abortion in a progressive, level-headed plotline. In the ‘80s, The Golden Girls broke new ground discussing the sex lives of women of a certain age, while at the same time many a sitcom was still equating LGBT+ characters, especially trans women, with perversion.
Degrassi is perhaps the best indicator of 20th century TV’s mixed-bag portrayal of sex. The seemingly eternal Canadian teen soap (the series has been on and off the air under different titles since 1979) has in turn been progressive and damning, confident in its assertion that sexuality is healthy and there’s a whole spectrum of identities and experiences out there, and equally redundant in its assertion that whatever bad thing you can imagine–teen pregnancy, slut shaming, STDs–can and will happen to pretty much everyone.
There have always been bright spots in the sex-shaming landscape of prime time TV–the ‘90s were a highlight, with Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and My-So Called Life all cultivating candid, positive conversations about sex–but there’s no denying we’re in a sex-positive renaissance right now. There is an unprecedented variety of currently or recently aired shows across networks, genres, and demographics which are both affirming and gently educating (or re-educating, in the case of common misconceptions) in their portrayals of sex and its relation to gender, identity, and culture.
In perhaps an even more impressive step, there are also plenty of series’ whose sex positivity–a phrase which describes the idea that sexual autonomy in all forms and across all spectrums of experience, within the limits of consent, should be celebrated–is so deep in their DNA that it’s not even explained, just lived out. Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, Sex Education, Big Mouth, Pose, Grace and Frankie, and recently ended series like Girls and Sense8 are all part of a new wave of varied and largely non-judgemental representations of sexual identity. For young people growing up in an era of endless information and mixed messages, or adults who live with deep-seated shame or confusion based on the sex-negative messages they grew up with, this brave new world of entertainment is invaluable.
Netflix’s astoundingly great new series Sex Education is, if not leading TV’s sex positivity movement, at least perfecting it. The series follows a teenage boy named Otis (a neurotically funny Asa Butterfield) who is at once knowledgeable about sex thanks to his mom’s (Gillian Anderson) career as a sex therapist, and inexperienced due to his own psychological hang-ups. Otis is quickly pushed into the role of a high school sex therapist, a plot which allows the series to take on a case-of-the-week approach that is at once entertaining and, for actual high schoolers watching, likely educational. The series works well on both levels. Like another Netflix show, Big Mouth, Sex Education makes the insecurities, fears, and desires of young people–and their elders, who still don’t have it figured out–central to its premise rather than incidental. This allows for a type of representation and normalization that doesn’t feel forced but acknowledges a truth that is more apparent now than ever–that kids are going to learn from TV, so we’d better make it good.
In one of the most memorable plots of Sex Education’s first season, a leaked nude photo circulates the school, provoking discussions about body shaming and revenge porn and leaving the picture’s subject anxious and ashamed. During an assembly at which the photo’s subject is set to be revealed against her will, one high school girl after another stands and proudly yells, “It’s my vagina!” culminating in the real subject, arms linked with her classmates in a demonstration of sisterhood, shouting the truth as well. It’s an unorthodox show of solidarity that at once acknowledges the power of shame and demonstrates the solution–support and understanding–in a way that’s at once funny and empowering. To the age-old question, “Am I normal?” which has in reality been asked a thousand different ways by a million different people, Sex Education and other shows like it offer a significant and resounding “Yes.”
These lessons existed before these shows, but this era of sex-positive TV is different from past ones for another reason; its stories refuse to flatten the diversity of human experience. Another Netflix series (in my research, Netflix and The CW emerged as two of the networks with the most clearly sex positive shows), the family sitcom One Day at a Time, is more didactic in its presentation of sex and gender, using the familiar very special episode format but focusing on nuanced discussions. When Penelope (Justina Machado) finds out her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez) had sex for the first time, she acknowledges that her reaction is different than expected because Elena is in a queer relationship. Though it goes unstated in this episode, Penelope’s status as both a single parent and self-professed overprotective Cuban mom also clearly influences her reaction. Rather than arrive at some pat, one-size-fits-all conclusion, the series acknowledges the intersections of sexuality, class, gender, and race that influence this particular scenario. The series takes a similar approach in an episode about consent, airing the perspectives of several main characters–a rich white man, an older religious woman, a young queer couple–without shying away from the complicated power dynamics informing each person’s position. In the post-MeToo era, there cannot and should not be such a thing as a simple conversation about sex, and One Day at a Time knows it.
Fortunately for anyone who’s ever struggled to have that conversation, or conceptualize their own sexual identity within the once-limited frame of reference offered on the small screen, the list of sex-positive modern series goes on. There’s FX’s 80’s-set drama Pose, which delves into the particulars of transgender and gay sex and acknowledges that while advice and mentorship are important in the queer community, no two people have the same experiences and preferences. There’s bawdy New York comedy Broad City, which consistently imagines a world in which women can be both gross and sexy, confident and uncertain, and autonomous and dependent on friendship. On The CW, the Rachel Bloom-led musical Crazy Ex-Girlfriend features songs like “Period Sex” and the wonderful male bisexuality celebration “Gettin’ Bi” while Jane The Virgin celebrates its protagonist’s ability to be both celibate and sexual. Animated series Big Mouth mixes gross-out humor with factually accurate information about both the anatomical and social sides of puberty, while Grace and Frankie addresses the age-specific sexual concerns that affect older people.
After years of one-dimensional representation and unrealistic moralizing, TV is finally catching up to reality as we experience it. There’s still work to be done–plenty of network sitcoms still give into easy jokes that reinforce outdated stereotypes, and topics like sex and disability are still largely invisible on screen–but the pop cultural landscape has come a long way. Mostly gone are the days of TV when your “first time” is always presented as a magical, love-infused experience with a presumably offscreen condom. LGBT+ sexuality, women’s health and pleasure, and the varied experiences and expectations of masculinity are no longer played for a punchline. Sex is and always will be a formidable topic, but it’s also an important and personal one. Lucky for us, our favorite shows have finally caught on.