TV has always had trouble portraying sex realistically, from Sookie and Bill's cemetery tryst on True Blood to pretty much any Riverdale romantic storyline ever. And one majorly problematic trend? All those scenes that proliferate the unrealistic idea that sex is always a 0-to-60 kind of endeavor, with characters going immediately from chaste kissing to full-on intercourse. While there’s no shame in sex happening in one fell swoop, of course, the frequency of this on TV — Blair’s first time with Chuck in the back of a car in Gossip Girl, or Rory and Dean’s first time on Gilmore Girls, or Hannah and Zach's sex scene on 13 Reasons Why, for instance — is problematic. These scenes ignore the fact that sex encompasses a wide spectrum of things beyond kissing and penetration, whether it be non-sexual acts of intimacy, sexual acts other than vaginal penetration, or discussions about the power dynamics between the two parties.
The prevalence of these fast-paced storylines — take Broad City’s pegging episode, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s depiction of Buffy having sex with her vampire nemesis, Spike, or almost every sexual encounter on Sex and the City — is startling, so much so that a new rom-com, Isn't It Romantic, even parodies the trope by showing its leads go straight from kissing to the aftermath of sex, with literally nothing in-between. The frequency makes sense, considering how a screenwriter’s primary interest is in keeping the story moving. But by seeing kissing directly lead to sex, with no levels of intimacy in-between, we tend to lose a sense of realism; after all, IRL couples — especially teens — often explore many other aspects of sex before penetration takes place. In addition, only showing two steps of a typically larger process can feel devaluing to some viewers who deem sex to be an intimate, built-up event full of relationship dynamics that deserve to be discussed.
As said, sometimes sex is straight-to-the-point, and there is value in depicting a realistic situation like a quick hook-up. Yet there's also value in showing foreplay and non-penetrative sexual acts taking place over longer periods of time, too, especially when you consider the reality of female pleasure. While it’s well-established that men typically are sexually aroused by visual stimuli, women are generally more complex in this regard. For women, arousal can be a more holistic process that involves other sensory stimuli, and often puts a premium on emotional connection. So to only see TV scenes in which sex is a 0-to-60 interaction — without depictions of oral sex, sensory pleasure, or other actions — can be troubling.
It's true that it can be hard for many TV shows to really show much in between a make-out scene and a clothes-off, post-coital moment due to network restrictions. But cable TV is guilty of the trend as well, as are movies. And the few works that do dare to show more often face consequences. The 2010 movie Blue Valentine almost received an NC-17 rating for daring to show female oral sex, for instance and there was significant controversy surrounding Blue Is The Warmest Color, a 2013 film that featured intimate, realistic sex scenes between women.
Thankfully, there are a few recent examples of sexual build-up on TV, thanks to a new era of television seemingly conscious about proliferating images of sex that don’t magically hop from point A to B. Take Jane the Virgin, which had a three-season build-up to Jane having sex for the first time. During that time, the show insinuated that Jane and Michael did other things, like oral sex and foreplay. Additionally, Jane portrayed realistic reverberations of sex within moments after the act, with Jane’s confession that she faked her orgasm. Unlike many other shows and films, this series chose to present a nuanced, real-life portrayal of female sexuality and sex overall.
In 2016, Jane the Virgin's showrunner, Jennie Snyder Urman, told BuzzFeed that it was important to her that the show's sex storyline emphasized Jane’s personal changes within her romantic relationship. "I wasn’t sure what her emotional journey was going to be until we started to really talk about it and talk about how much of Jane’s identity — even though she didn’t want to be a virgin — was tied up with being a virgin,” Snyder Urman said. “From that discussion about her emotional life, we came up with the fact that maybe it wasn’t so great, and that’s so much of what the show is about: the space between reality and fantasy. And Jane’s expectations would be so big, we knew that she was really setting herself up for a letdown.”
Then there's Netflix’s new series, Sex Education, which chronicles a teen named Otis' decision to help several of his high school peers grapple with their budding sexualities. Given that the entire show is dedicated to picking apart the underlying emotional blocks, individual baggage, and intimacy issues haunting a relationship or hook-up, it’s unsurprising that moments like Otis attempting to sleep with a fellow virgin, Lily, feel so real.
Having these kinds of varied depictions of the physical and emotional steps in between kissing and having sex allows for bigger conversations surrounding things like codependency and female masturbation to surface and get some much overdue screen-time. As Sex Education actor Aimee Lou-Wood told Teen Vogue recently, she appreciated the show's relatability and realism with sexuality. "I think [the show debunks] some of those myths about if a boy plugs away, a girl's going to have a great time, but no, girls need to be like, 'No, this is what I want,'" said Lou-Wood.
In a TV Guide interview, showrunner Laurie Nunn elaborated on the series' commitment to sex realism, saying, "That's at the core of the show... Nobody really knows what they're doing! You've got to always be open and honest."
Shows like Jane The Virgin and Sex Education are clear signs of progress, but pop culture overall is still lacking in sex realism. Part of this is seemingly due to the entertainment industry’s proclivity to serve the male gaze, in which women are filmed from a masculine perspective. Even when a show is not directly geared toward men, the male gaze can often lead to female pleasure being cut short on-screen or glossed over completely. On Game of Thrones, for instance, there's a frequent focus on the female body when it comes to male pleasure, but a marked lack of male full-frontal nudity and depictions of female pleasure.
So what’s the solution to this all? More shows like Jane and Sex Education, for one thing, but also more comprehensive representation of sex overall on-screen. Viewers need to see that there can be far more in between kissing and penetration, and pop culture needs to set better examples of the myriad of different ways people can experience physical intimacy.