Sex and the TV: how television evolved from pregnancy scandals to ‘pegging’

The proliferation of television has brought more extreme sex, the invention of sexposition and portrayals of sexuality that havent been seen before

A man lies on the floor in his boxer shorts with a gag in his mouth and his hands are hogtied. A dominatrix stands above him smoking a cigarette and tells him that hes in need of correction. She puts her cigarette out on his chest. He grimaces in pain but doesnt seem fazed.

You would think such a scene would be in a porno or on a fetish site like Kink.com. You would be wrong. It is actually the opening scene of Showtimes Billions, which stars Damien Lewis. The man being dominated is Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti. This is the very first image of the show, one that sets its stall out with extreme sex as its opening act.

Sex on television is nothing new, and there have been plenty of scandals since Lucille Ball, who was pregnant during one season of I Love Lucy, wasnt allowed to use the word pregnant on screen. Maude made headlines in 1972 when the title character had an abortion, and that was four years before Charlies Angels brought in the age of jiggle television, which was lambasted for being salacious. In the 80s a number of advertisers pulled out of a Thirtysomething episode that featured two men lying in bed together. Five years later, ABC almost pulled an episode of Roseanne where the title character kisses a woman.

The 90s saw sex on TV push more boundaries. In 1990, Madonnas Justify My Love video was banned on MTV, but three years later, NYPD Blue made it safe for some cursing and backsides to be shown on network television. The TV sex scandal of the 00s was the Super Bowl nipple heard around the world, when Janet Jackson suffered a wardrobe malfunction in 2004. Despite all the outrage at the time, CBS has never paid a fine for the incident. Now weve gotten to the point that sexposition (the combination of exposition with sex scenes) is an actual thing on Game of Thrones.

There have been all sorts of flagrante delicto happening on screen, but there is something about the sex that were seeing now that is much more extreme.

On FXs American Horror Story: Hotel, depictions of group sex in all sorts of gender configurations were about as common as one of Lady Gagas fierce outfits. ABCs Mistresses also ventured into the threeway frontier. A whole episode of Comedy Centrals Broad City revolved around Abbi really getting into pegging with her new man. On ABC, the same network that almost didnt air the Thirtysomething gay episode, How to Get Away with Murder not only shows oral sex between a man and a woman, but also explicit contact between two men. That really makes that Thirtysomething kerfuffle seem quaint, doesnt it?

And lets not forget about the more specific fetishes out there. Foxs Scream Queens had a character who was really, really into necrophilia, though we never see him carry it out. The Knick has a story that revolves around a foot fetish. And Game of Thrones most prominent couple has been committing incest before our very eyes for six seasons now.

The biggest trend [with sex on television] is the pornification of mainstream television, says Melissa Henson, a program director at the conservative Parents Television Council, which tracks images of sex and violence on broadcast television. Were seeing not only more references to pornography but more behaviors associated with pornography: threesomes, BDSM or other kinky fetishistic behavior treated as very normative.

Littlefinger
Littlefinger is Game of Thrones sexposition specialist. Photograph: Helen Sloan/HBO

Bob Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, agrees that there is more extreme sex on television than ever before. There is more sex on television because there is more everything on television. There is just more television, he says pointing not just to the rise of scintillating images on cable and premium channels like HBO, but also the original programming thats being created by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Also, unlike network television or even cable, all of these new places for television content dont have the same rules and restrictions about how graphic they can be.

Because of that proliferation of television, not only are the stakes higher than ever to get attention, but so is the competition. After 15 to 16 years of these great shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, writing a TV show now and making an effort to have it stand out and doing original things is getting harder and harder to do, Thompson says. One of the ways one does that is through portrayals of sexuality that havent been seen too much before.

Dr Sari Locker, a sexuality educator at Columbia University who worked in the television industry, says that the sitcoms of the 90s like Seinfeld, Friends, and especially Sex and the City pushed the envelope. She says that when those shows went into syndication and started airing during the middle of the day, it allowed shows on later at night to be freer than ever before.

Still there has been a change since then. We went from hearing about oral to anal contact on Sex and the City, when they talk about tuckus lingus, to actually seeing it on Girls, she says, referencing a scene last season where the characters Marnie and Desi engage in an activity that isnt usually covered in a sex ed class.

Thompson points out that the change from prim sitcoms where married couples slept in separate beds to Samantha having sex in a sling on Sex in the City was pretty quick. Up until the 70s, regular human beings had way more sex than people on TV because they werent having any sex at all, he says. By the 90s people on TV were having way more sex than regular human beings.

Locker says that translates into viewers everyday sex lives. Many Americans feel their sex lives are not hot enough, they feel the need to spice up their sex lives to keep with TV sex scenes, she says. As soon as a topic is seen on TV, my email inbox is flooded with people asking questions about whether or not they should try that act. People are impacted by images they see. That is a direct effect that is occurring after every episode.

The Parents Television Council is worried that will have a negative impact on Americas youth. An unfortunate consequence is that its putting pressure on young men and women to engage in behaviors that would have been previously considered extreme and do things they may be uncomfortable with, she says. Its putting an expectation on them to do things that are distasteful or uncomfortable to them, that they have to do it in order to fit in.

But now that the cat is out of the bag (dont worry, cats in bags is not a sexual term) its going to be hard to stop the escalation of sex on television. However, once the more fringe areas are explored, its also going to be harder to push the boundaries. What we saw for the last 10 years, it was like TV sexuality was settling into a new frontier, Thompson says. What were seeing is that frontier is more populated. There are fewer empty lots.

From HBOs The Cathouse to Showtimes Gigolos, there are reality shows that are unafraid to give the audience softcore porn, if thats what theyre looking for (and occassionally, that is just what Outlander looks like as well). Its only a matter of time until one of the dramas on a subscription service or cable is just as raunchy as the Skinemax movies of old. After that, the only way to push the envelope will be to show straight-up penetration. As libertine as we might be, it doesnt seem like the American public is nearly ready for that. But if Billions gets bored with hedge funds, maybe it could become about the porn industry in season two. Theyre halfway there already.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2016/apr/27/sex-tv-television-girls-sex-and-the-city-game-of-thrones

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