Type keyword(s) to search


The Sex Scene Discourse Is Overblown

For all of this talk online, TV shows don't appear to be scaling back on sex scenes.
  • Jonathan Bailey in Bridgerton Season 2, though you'd be forgiven for thinking this was Fellow Travelers (Photo: Netflix)
    Jonathan Bailey in Bridgerton Season 2, though you'd be forgiven for thinking this was Fellow Travelers (Photo: Netflix)

    It feels like you can’t spend more than two minutes on the internet without coming across some form of the dreaded “sex scene discourse.”

    For those blissfully unfamiliar with the concept, it’s basically the debate over whether there’s too much sex in TV and movies these days. The discourse — which largely lives online and tends to skew younger — spans everything from the supposedly gratuitous amount of “unnecessary” sex scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (there are just two) to the recycled “Euphoria should have been set in college” take that goes viral on Twitter every other month to teens unintentionally advocating for the reinstatement of the Hays Code

    A lot of this conversation has been centered around Gen Z (born roughly between 1997 and 2012), who are quickly becoming known for supposedly being less interested in sex than previous generations. A 2023 study by UCLA’s Center for Scholars & Storytellers found that 51.5% of the Gen Z-ers surveyed would prefer to see more friendship than romantic relationships depicted in TV and movies. Additionally, nearly half of the participants also felt that sex scenes were not usually necessary for the plot. 

    “There’s this kind of weird paradox that’s happening whereby we [Gen Z] supposedly are a less horny generation,” Nicholas Galitzine, who stars in Mary & George and The Idea of You, told The Cut in a recent interview. “But then you spend five minutes on Twitter and everything is sexualized. I’m kind of confused about where we are as a society right now.”

    For all of this talk online, TV shows don’t appear to be scaling back on sex scenes, nor does it seem like anyone is actually opting out of watching just because of them. Starz’s Mary & George is incredibly horny; Galitzine’s character has sex with numerous women and men throughout the limited series. Netflix’s popular historical romance Bridgerton, which will premiere its third season on May 16, has never shied away from sex scenes. Teen drama Ginny & Georgia not only features sex scenes, but also covers previously taboo topics like female masturbation. Seemingly everyone tuned in to watch Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones hook up in Normal People during the COVID-19 lockdowns. And let’s not forget about House of the Dragon, Outlander, The Sex Lives of College Girls, Sex/Life, and Elite

    So, is all of this discourse overblown? Are these findings about Gen Z actually driving any changes when it comes to TV or is this more of a “you’re too online” thing? As tempting as it is to merely dismiss the conversation as just ridiculous Twitter nonsense, it’s worth taking a thorough look at how sex on TV, along with viewers’ attitudes toward it, continues to shift and evolve.

    Obviously, sex scenes garnering controversy isn’t anything new. American broadcast television, which is regulated under the FCC, has always been particularly conservative about nudity and sexuality. Classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show famously showed married couples as sleeping in separate beds; the 1952 I Love Lucy episode “Lucy Is Enceinte,” in which Lucy tells her husband Ricky she’s pregnant — coinciding with Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy — was deeply controversial at the time because it implied the existence of (gasp!) sex. In the 2000s, The CW’s original Gossip Girl embraced outrage from critics and groups like the Parents Television Council as part of its marketing strategy, distributing posters with quotes like “a nasty piece of work” and “very bad for you” front and center as if they were accolades. 

    Premium cable networks, which have never been beholden to the same FCC restrictions as network TV, brought sex scenes into people’s homes even more readily than VHS. HBO led the way with shows like Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions, then graduated to more prestigious fare like Sex and the City (The Sopranos is heavier on nudity than actual sex) and Game of Thrones, before pushing boundaries even more with shows like Euphoria and The Idol. And let’s not forget “Skinemax” or the role Starz played in bringing male full-frontal nudity into the discourse. 

    Streaming has pushed the envelope further with shows like Sex/Life, Normal People, and now Prime Video’s Maxton Hall — The World Between Us. Max even has a fully nude (literally, nothing is censored) dating series called Naked Attraction. Streaming also comes with additional freedoms, like the ability to experiment with episode lengths and formats — shows don’t necessarily have to rush through sex scenes or fade to black if they’re not stuck with strict 22-minute confines. 

    Yet, despite there being plenty of horny shows to go around, sex scenes continue to be controversial. Penn Badgley sparked a whole new round of discourse in 2023 when he revealed that he asked the You producers for fewer sex scenes out of respect for his wife. “My fidelity in my relationship [is] important to me,” he told Variety in 2023. “That aspect of Hollywood has always been very disturbing to me — and that aspect of the job, that mercurial boundary — has always been something that I actually don’t want to play with at all.” 

    It’s also worth considering how the #MeToo movement, which saw a resurgence in 2017, has shaped the conversation. In addition to holding powerful Hollywood figures accountable, it has sparked crucial discussions about power dynamics on set, more protections for underage actors, and the need for intimacy coordinators. It’s also led to closer examination of how sex scenes are written, as well as more widespread criticism over graphic depictions of sexual violence on shows like Game of Thrones. TV’s portrayal of sex has gradually become more layered, and that’s a good thing — it’s no longer rare to see topics like consent, LGBTQ+ relationships, reproductive health, and trauma depicted on screen. 

    As for the notion that Gen Z is only against “unnecessary” sex scenes, most racy scenes arguably do have a greater storytelling purpose. Sure, Euphoria probably didn’t really need to have 30 penises in that one locker room scene, but that’s hardly the norm across TV. Bridgerton has plenty of sexy moments — after all, it’s based on an equally steamy historical romance novel series — but they all exist to move the plot forward or establish something important about the characters and relationships. For example, Anthony and Kate finally having sex in the garden towards the end of Season 2 firmly cements how strongly they feel about each other. 

    “We never do a sex scene for the sake of doing the sex scene, and we never will,” former Bridgerton showrunner Chris Van Dusen told The Hollywood Reporter in 2022. “All the intimate scenes, they have a larger purpose. They’re all telling a story and they’re all pushing the story forward.”

    Ultimately, this online discourse may stem from a larger shift in attitudes about sex. Gen Z is reportedly having less sex than previous generations, even ditching dating apps. Despite Challengers (which notably has no on-screen sex) being all over social media, the actual amount of sex scenes in movies is rapidly declining. Fandom spaces have also become consumed with “anti-shipping” discourse, resulting in a growing purity culture across the internet (see: the term “puriteens”). There’s a ton of potential factors at play.

    But sex has always been a crucial aspect of art and culture, and that notion predates any internet discourse. In the end, sex scenes may shift and change and evolve, but they'll never truly fade away — at least, not if the Bridgerton fanbase has anything to say about it.

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.

    TOPICS: Bridgerton, The Great, Mary & George