“Sex Education,” “Broad City,” and How TV Sex Scenes Embrace Reality

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.

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