For all the talk about how brilliant and incisive small-screen fare has become in the past decade, you’d think sex scenes might have caught up with the rest of it all. Yes, there are exceptions; the standout episodes of shows that focus on a woman getting off or feature the once-in-a-lifetime depiction of 69’ing on network television get called “revolutionary.” But, by and large, when men and women on prime time start boning, they go about it in the same boring, unrealistic way they have since that stuff started being allowed on TV. Sure, they’re doing it in more places now — I think we’re definitely in the golden age of sex in darkened hallways and stairwells and other improbable, lurid locations — but the specifics of what happens remain largely the same.
I was reminded of this while catching up on Season Two of “The Affair,” which has expanded its focus to abandoned spouses Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson). To the show’s credit, the first episode of this season featured a hilariously uninspired sex scene between Helen and her new boyfriend. But it was one between the show’s central pair, Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West), that struck me as a missed opportunity, considering that the show is shaping to be about, not an affair or a murder, but the tricky nature of memory itself and the wild variations in people’s perceptions of any given event.
Surely there’s no better fodder for this than sex, especially on a premium cable network like Showtime, where you can basically get as graphic as you like. But the bedroom seems to be the one place where co-creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi don’t seem particularly interested in depicting Alison and Noah’s differing recollections. Take Episode Three of this season, which begins from Noah’s perspective as they’re having missionary-style sex on the couch in Noah’s cottage. She wants him to come, she says; he wants her to come, too. “I will,” she says, “just keep going.” Afterward, she glows, out of breath. “That was great,” she raves. This ought to be good, I said to myself when the Alison segment started. I was really curious to see what the sex was like from her viewpoint, because I assumed he’d been totally oblivious to the fact that a) she looked really uncomfortable with her head on that sofa arm and b) it’s highly unlikely she had an orgasm that quickly. But nope, her segment began later on in the evening, with a shot of Alison admiring her new diamond engagement ring from him. And so it goes with these two. The show’s sexual raunchiness made headlines when it first came out, but I really can’t remember any scene in particular that seemed daring in any aspect other than its nudity level.
It’s not all about what Alison and Noah are doing — hell, maybe she really was that into the uncomfy couch sex. It’s just that sex from her point of view is so rarely considered. The default, on “The Affair” and most other shows featuring straight couples, is regular old missionary sex, which, sexologists regularly inform us, is infrequently as enjoyable for women as it is for men, and certainly doesn’t yield the type of rapturous mutual orgasms we see on TV most of the time. (A Cosmo female orgasm study from earlier this year has the with-a-male-partner orgasm percentage at 57%, as opposed to 95% of the men.)
As a corrective, I was reminded of this scene from the “Outlander” wedding episode, which eventually delved into all kinds of sex, but the first time was definitely rendered from a woman’s underwhelmed perspective. Check out Claire’s reaction both during and after this awkward clinch.
Mostly, the shows that really seem to be giving space and thought to their sex scenes are the LGBTQ ones: “Orange is the New Black,” “Looking,” “Transparent” (though Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away with Murder” is also getting notice for its multiple oral-sex portrayals).
As far as straight people go, I think Amazon’s “Catastrophe” is a lot more thoughtful about the woman’s point of view than most. Shoring up that belief is this bit (which actually dates from before the show) from its stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, doing a gender reversal that then moves into the absurd.
And, of course, Lena Dunham, who has publicly been critical of stupidly “glossy” sex scenes, has also done more than most to put awkward, realistic coupling on camera. In general, though, it’s still the case that “everyone knows what they’re doing, and no one EVER pees afterward,” as this blogger aptly puts it.
The stubborn staying power of one-type-only sex on TV has mystified me for a long time, as it seems a natural area for show creators to test more boundaries than they are. But I suspect it connects to the broader theme, explored in this recent New York magazine piece, that “outside of sexual assault, there is little critique of sex. Young feminists have adopted an exuberant, raunchy, confident, righteously unapologetic, slut-walking ideology that sees sex — as long as it’s consensual — as an expression of feminist liberation. The result is a neatly halved sexual universe, in which there is either assault or there is sex positivity. Which means a vast expanse of bad sex — joyless, exploitative encounters that reflect a persistently sexist culture and can be hard to acknowledge without sounding prudish — has gone largely uninterrogated, leaving some young women wondering why they feel so fucked by fucking.”
Sure, we shouldn’t be relying on our TV shows to do a ton of heavy lifting when it comes to the politicization of sex. And fiction is always going to be the realm of fantasy. But it certainly doesn’t help to have strong, otherwise feminist female characters — on “Homeland,” say, or “Scandal” — who regularly appear in implausible, boringly beautified sex scenes that don’t seem likely to give them any actual pleasure. Just because they’re into having sex doesn’t mean they’re having good sex.
On a brighter note, the same cannot be said of the brilliant “Broad City,” which every responsible showrunner should be watching for tips on modern-ing up your erotic content.