Let's Talk About TV's Complicated Relationship With Sex

Let’s Talk About TV’s Complicated Relationship With Sex

It’s no secret: people love to talk about sex, baby. But what Salt-N-Pepa left out of their groundbreaking, envelope-pushing, hit single was “on television.” As one of the more democratic mediums — and often the one preferred by younger viewers (at least before YouTube and streaming platforms took over) — television has long been a battleground over the ways in which sex, gender, and related issues are portrayed. And while some critics lambast television for how certain shows may negatively influence viewers’ beliefs and behavior, television has also been praised for the ways it can fill in the gaps of understanding, helping to create better informed and healthy relationships with sexuality for its viewers.

Over the past few decades, television has played a key role in shifting the representation of sex away from a restrictive, patriarchal binary to a more open, authentic, and accurate reflection of varying perspectives and experiences. And in recent years, the way television has approached issues surrounding sexuality has expanded at a rapid rate, as writers and producers are interrogating sex in ways they either never had the opportunity to do before or never chose to do before. Thanks to shows like Steven Universe and Sex Education, TV is carving out space to provide viewers of all ages with a progressive education on sexuality and gender that will hopefully further the conversation for this generation and the next.

But while we’ve come a long way since I Love Lucy‘s married protagonists slept in twin beds, it’s not as though TV has magically solved issues pertaining to outdated boundaries, biases, and misconceptions surrounding these sensitive issues. For every groundbreaking series like Vida, there’s another that continues to let down their viewers again and again when it comes to its approach to sex (sorry, Game of Thrones, but yes, we are talking about you), and the way sex scenes are filmed still has a long way to go before they’re consistently safe for the performers involved.

In order to take a close look at the ways that TV is pushing boundaries forward — and the ways in which it still lets us down — TV Guide is dedicating the next five days to all things sex. As part of Sex Ed Week, we’ll explore television’s relationship with virginity, puberty, sexuality and everything in between. Check out our coverage below, and be sure to check back throughout the week to see what’s new.

The Deuce

A complete lack of norms, systems, or safeguards surrounding sex scenes was par for the course for decades in Hollywood. But as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements began rocking the foundations of the industry, leading to a widespread reckoning with offscreen abuses and imbalances of power, people started to wonder whether a similar discussion was in order surrounding what happens on camera. Suddenly, intimacy experts weren’t just being listened to; they were in demand. TV Guide caught up with two of these pioneering women to learn more about how they’re helping Hollywood have better sex.


Though the anthology series may not court the same kind of nostalgia and cult following other shows of the era enjoy, Undressed was incalculably important to those of us who grew up as sheltered teens in the late ’90s. While young girls found themselves in the middle of a tug-of-war over how sexually charged the female idols of the day should be, Undressed refused to accept the Madonna-Whore binary and broke the mold about what adolescents could and should see about sex on TV.

Sex Education

It’s impossible to miss the exquisite style of Sex Education, which excels at finding unexpected vibrancy in the midst of vulgarity. Filmed in a lush, scenic town in Wales, with most of its action taking place at a school that looks like Riverdale and sounds like Skins, the series seamlessly juxtaposes influences that would clash on most shows. Director Ben Taylor explains how he created the Netflix hit’s unique aesthetic.

9 1/2 Weeks

One of the most pure domestic traditions is gathering the kids around the television for family movie night… until things on screen get very unpure. We all have stories of awkward situations from our childhoods where we were trapped in a room with our parents while watching a show or movie where people were doin’ it, and they still give us the shivers. We asked the TV Guide staff to dig deep into our repressed memories and unearth those moments where sexy time met family time, and the responses are pretty hilarious.

Degrassi: The Next Generation

Over the course of The Next Generation‘s 14 seasons, the series provided many millennials with their first examples of kids their age facing relatable issues like wet dreams, STIs, menstruation, and more. But while the issues the characters faced were relatable, their responses were rarely anything to repeat in your own life. Degrassi was definitely not always a show that followed the “teach by example” method, but it did teach nonetheless. Look back on 129 (often outlandish) things the show taught viewers about sex, dating and puberty, for better or for worse.

Sex Education, Jane the Virgin, The Bachelor, The Big Bang Theory

TV has only begun talking about adult virgins in recent years thanks to shows like Jane the Virgin and The Bachelor. But the conversations around this sensitive topic are still shrouded in shame and don’t fully capture the experience of those who waited past adolescence to have sex for the first time. With so much content, why aren’t we having more sensitive, honest conversations about sex — and specifically about not having it?

Veep, Atlanta, American Gods, black-ish

Amid cultural changes that have made people more comfortable with salty language, as well as increased open-mindedness about sex and the rise of the no-holds-barred streaming services, the sharp delineations of yesteryear regarding what’s acceptable on TV are being sanded down, making today’s rules a sometimes nebulous mix of old-school restrictions and self-restraint… or in some cases no rules at all. And the rules are changing by the day.

Game of Thrones

The HBO hit can be riveting when it comes to friendships, frenemy confrontations, and charged encounters between people who have no interest in slipping between the sheets. But it continuously disappoints when it comes to romantic and sexual pairings. Game of Thrones‘ limited and pessimistic view of sex has become predictable, but here’s why series continues to excel when it comes to platonic pairings.

One Day at a Time

Millions of immigrant families have been ripped apart because of the insidious seed of fear of not being a “good immigrant,” particularly if their kids are queer. While fear makes people react in wild and uncertain ways, a major part of the problem is there’s little to no blueprints to navigating major upheavals. Where a child sees the freedom to be themselves and find true happiness with a partner, a parent sees only what society could and will inflict. Enter shows like One Day at a Time and Sex Education, which are finally giving immigrant parents a cultural frame of reference on how to deal with their children when they come out.


While the sex in Vida is often political, it is never gratuitous or contrived. Instead, the series effortlessly flows in and out of sexual encounters as though they were any other scene — because another thing Vida does better, perhaps, than any other show right now is embrace sex as another layer in storytelling. Creator Tanya Saracho and stars Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera take us inside how the boundary-pushing scenes reveal far more than just skin.


TV is still going through growing pains when it comes to the inclusion of fat people, and fat women in particular. But shows like Shrill and its rare predecessors, including Girls and Empire, are taking the necessary steps to depict women as actual people — with career aspirations, romantic problems and sexual encounters — regardless of their size. Because if a fat character’s entire story revolves around losing weight, and they succeed, then what do they have left?

Steven Universe

The appeal of Steven Universe s obvious: A half-alien, half-human boy tries to get a handle on his Crystal Gem (read: superhero) powers while stepping into a mantle left behind by his alien mother to defend and protect Earth. That’s a call to adventure that’s practically inescapable, but what calls to many viewers instead is watching Steven navigate the overwhelmingly masculine blueprint of heroism by remolding it into something softer, kinder, more Steven. It’s the story of a perpetual becoming, one where said boy learns to let himself be himself and fall in love with all the feminine, masculine, human, alien, and otherwise unquantifiable energies that lie within.

She’s Too Young

Lifetime’s 2004 movie about a high school syphilis outbreak became a campy cult classic in some classrooms that showed it as part of the sex education curriculum. But looking back on the film 15 years later, it’s hard not to admire the movie’s surprisingly progressive message that gave its young audience the knowledge they needed to make informed decisions about their own sex lives — and made them LOL at the melodramatic twists and cheesy one-liners along the way.

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