From the 'Brady Bunch' bed to that 'Dawson's Creek' kiss, here are the on-screen moments that pushed limits and changed minds on sex.
This silent film is considered by film buffs to be the first time a woman was featured completely nude in a non-pornographic way in an American movie. Munson played a model who poses for an artist in the movie; she's also shown partially nude in Purity (1916). It's almost impossible to track these films down, but you can still see Munson all over the place; because she was a professional nude model who just happened to be cast in Hollywood movies. There are 15 statues of Munson's nude form in New York City alone.
Although an early review called this sitcom from the now defunct DuMont network "overly cute" because of the wife's "squeals," Mary Kay and Johnny (played by Mary Kary and Johnny Stearns) were the first couple to share a bed on TV. The show, which took place in their fictional Greenwich Village apartment, eventually moved to CBS; though because it was recorded and broadcast live, most of the episodes are considered lost.
Although they slept in two single beds pushed together in the first season, once their fictional son was born on the show, the couple spent the rest of the series sleeping in two twins in the same room. Bonus trivia: while Lucy was expecting her son onscreen, you still couldn't say the word "pregnant" on television, as it was considered too crass.
In "Plato's Stepchildren," Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) are forced to embrace by aliens. The episode aired just one year after the Supreme Court ruled on Loving v. Virginia, striking down states' bans on interracial marriage, so it was still considered provocative.
Although the Munsters and Bewitched's Darrin and Samantha were also married couples who shared a bed on national television, The Brady Bunch was the first depiction of a human couple to share a duvet.
In this ABC original movie, Hal Holbrook plays a divorced man who has been living with his lover, Gary (Martin Sheen) for years and has to come out to his teenaged son. The movie won the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries, along with a Writer's Guild of America honor, that year. While there is no sex scene, per se, it was the first time a gay couple was portrayed on television with compassion. Holbrook's character tells his son, "Gary and I have a kind of marriage. We … we love each other.”
In this PBS adapted version of Bruce Jay Friedman's off-Broadway play, Steambath, the characters wake up in a sauna and learn that it's a version of the afterlife. Perrine, who Vice has dubbed "the thinking man's sex symbol," drops her towel on camera, resulting in the first full frontal nudity scene on public access television.
In this made-for-TV movie that aired on primetime NBC, Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) comes home to tell his parents (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara) and grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) that he's gay — and HIV positive. This was the first time HIV/AIDS was mentioned in mainstream pop culture.
In ABC's made for television flick, Mariette Hartley's Gail, in trying to get over her dead husband, falls for Lynn Redgrave's Marjorie. While the will-they, won't they sexual tension was at the heart of the film, the New York Times wrote at the time that "passion between the two women" was not shown, and instead their intimacy was restricted to "rather tentative hugging" and "washing each others' hair."
ABC's Soap was controversial throughout its four seasons for all kinds of reasons, including Billy Crystal's character Jodie, an openly gay man, actively dating other men. Although it was meant to be a parody of daytime soap operas — hence the patricide, mother and daughter "sharing" a tennis pro, and characters getting "sex changes" — the series still pushed the limits of what made for "acceptable" primetime viewing. Here, a gay man was a punchline more than anything.
Mindy Cohn's character Natalie has sex with her long-term boyfriend. The story was originally written for Lisa Whelchel's character Blair, but she reportedly refused to appear in the episode because of its sexual content.
Although women have likely been faking orgasms since the beginning of time, this scene of Ryan's Sally breaking the news to Billy Crystal's Harry over a pastrami sandwich at Katz's Deli was a massive deal.
When ABC's sitcom portrayed Russell (David Marshall Grant) waking up in bed with an art gallery owner after a one night stand in the episode "Strangers," advertisers revolted. The blowback was so big that when the series was packaged for syndication, "Strangers" was left out of the package.
During "He's A Crowd" Abby (Michelle Green) and C.J. (Amanda Donahue) share a kiss after a work success. While it's remembered as the "first lesbian kiss" on network television, critics note that it was more of a "stunt kiss," since it happened during sweeps week and neither character ends up being a lesbian on the series. Picket Fences (1993, "Sugar and Spice") and Roseanne (1994, "Don't Ask Don't Tell") also featured similar kisses during sweeps week in a ratings grab.
ABC's NYPD Blue is largely responsible for implied and explicit sex scenes becoming the norm on primetime television. It incorporated partial nudity and sex from its premiere — think butts, side boob, and a lot of women wrapped in sheets while sitting up in bed — causing watchdog groups to protest to the Federal Communications Commission. In 2003, those groups succeeded — the FCC issued a record $1.4 million fine for showing a partially nude woman onscreen before 10 p.m. The case reached the Supreme Court and wasn't dropped until 2011, when it ruled that the organization couldn't sue the network for breaking "vague" decency guidelines.
This was the second time Keitel's penis made the big screen — the first was the year before in Bad Lieutenant, in which he plays a cop who sexually harasses women. However, The Piano was the movie that made the award circuits that year, with only the women taking home the highest honors. Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin, and Jane Campion took home Oscars for Best Actress, Supporting Actress, and Original Screenplay, respectively. Keitel's full frontal didn't get a nod from the Academy, but he did win Best Lead Actor at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.
While sex was at this point in time often depicted on TV and in movies, explicitly or not, it was still rare for characters to talk about contraception. In this episode of the NBC primetime sitcom, Elaine orders a case of a sponge contraception being taken off the market. The limited supply has her weighing her options with men she wants to sleep with, lest she wastes one. In the same episode, George struggles to open a condom in the heat of the moment.
NBC didn't show the characters kiss in "The One With The Lesbian Wedding," likely due to the fact that the network was overly concerned that the mere suggestion of gay marriage on a network show would cause advertisers and viewers to flee. But Americans were more ready than the network's legal team gave them credit for. Co-creator Marta Kauffman told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, "Everybody was up in arms. [NBC] put 104 operators on for fear of getting a million phone calls. They got two. A month later, they got the letters, but nobody called. And the letters were all from the Rev. [Donald] Wildmon. What a putz!," she said.
Other primetime shows primarily depicted two women kissing each other to generate attention around sweeps week only to then abandon the lesbian characters altogether. ABC's Relativity, written by Jan Oxenberg, was the first to portray an actual lesbian kiss between Rhonda (Lisa Edelstein) and Suzanne (Kristin Dattilo).
Although it seems very dated now, HBO's comedy series about four wealthy women in New York City dating — and having casual sex — was revolutionary when it premiered. It wasn't until this point that vibrators, Brazilian waxes, the idea of choosing to be single, and female orgasms in general seemed to enter the collective consciousness. And all discussed over brunch, too!
While the movie might be most famous for Jason Biggs masturbating with a pie, it's Tara Reid and the "Tongue Tornado" that makes it a legendary teen movie. In the film, Reid's character Vicky receives oral sex from her boyfriend Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) who diligently checks his notebook the whole time for technique. While likely unrealistic in terms of how quickly Reid comes, it was one of the first times most millennials probably saw oral sex onscreen.
In February 2000, Will & Grace aired an episode in which Will and Jack go to the Today show to protest a sitcom not showing a gay kiss. In the heat of the moment, and on live TV, the two friends share a kiss. That might technically be the "first gay kiss," but it was a quick, non-sexual, unromantic kiss. Later that year though, Dawson's Creek would make queer history when Jack (Kerr Smith) travels to Boston to declare his feelings for Ethan (Adam Kaufman) and they share the first romantic (and therefore more) meaningful kiss between two men on network television.
Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Lynn Ann Searcy, and Jill Marie Jones played Joan, Maya, Lynn and Toni, four adult, professional women navigating relationships. The show was groundbreaking in that it celebrated (instead of judged) sex positive women just living their lives. And trademarking their own sex moves, like the "The Lynn Spin."
A remake of the U.K. drama about gay men living their best, highly sexualized, lives is adapted for Showtime. In terms of sex, this show pretty much ran the gamut and some of the scenes are so steamy, they're even archived on porn sites.
While many consider Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) to be the true OTP of Josh Whedon's now iconic vampire series, magic or some other force (like the WB's decency guidelines) often got in the way of intimacy. It wasn't until Kennedy (Iyari Limon) showed up after Tara's death and the series moved to UPN that things really started to heat up. In "Touched," Kennedy and Willow slide under the sheets together and kiss as a camera pans to something happening beneath the sheets, and a montage of the other couples getting it on runs, lest anyone try to pretend Willow and Kennedy are doing anything other than having sex, too.
The L Word quickly garnered a devoted audience for its soapy, steamy depiction of queer women's lives both in and out bed. Young women everywhere learn how to illegally stream video in a pre-Netflix era.
Adapted from Annie Proulx's novel of the same name, this love story (and intense sex scene) between two ranchers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) in Wyoming was a critical darling the year it came out. Not only was it a widely released film about an affair between two men, it also challenged the notion that masculinity and homosexuality are somehow mutually exclusive.
While oral sex in movies might be more common, the CBS series made history for this steamy scene in which Alicia (Juliana Margulies) receives oral sex from her estranged ex husband (Chris Noth) in the bathroom. Throughout the series, Alicia would be unapologetic about her sexuality and her needs, even fantasizing (and eventually having) an affair with her colleague (Josh Charles) in later episodes.
Well, kind of. After fans created a Facebook petition to beg the creators to have Cam and Mitchell (Eric Stonestreet and Jesse Tyler Ferguson) be physically intimate onscreen, Season 2 opened with an episode titled "The Kiss," in which the couple shares a peck. While Modern Family is often celebrated for its depiction of a gay couple raising a daughter, there's nothing modern about how ABC hasn't shown the two men be affectionate with each other aside from the rare arm pat or cursory embrace. This has been explained away by Mitchell's "fear of PDA," and the fact that the other couples on the show aren't especially touchy-feely either, but come on.
Glee was the ire of watchdog parent groups since it premiered for depicting sexually active teens — and gay ones at that. Still, the Fox series persisted. Eventually, Kurt and Blaine, played by Chris Colfer and Darren Criss, respectively, have sex for the first time in an implied, yet still passionate, sex scene. Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith) also have sex with each other for the first time in the episode. Fan fiction ensues.
When MTV premiered an American version of the British teen drama, Skins, in which teens experiment with sex and drugs, it immediately had the attention of conservative parent groups who likened it to "child pornography," leading to its cancelation after just one season. The network said in a statement, "Skins is a global television phenomenon that, unfortunately, didn’t connect with a US audience as much as we had hoped. We admire the work that the series’ creator Bryan Elsley did in adapting the show for MTV, and appreciate the core audience that embraced it.”
Plaza's character Brandy sets out to accomplish all of the things she hasn't experienced yet, including sex. Although female masturbation has been hinted at onscreen before (and even more overtly shown in Sex and the City), this frank scene in which a young woman does it just because feels important — especially because it's done through a female lens (the director is Maggie Carey).
Broad City on Comedy Central quickly became known for its frank and often hilarious portrayals of sex and female masturbation. But "Knockoffs" took it to the next level when Abbi ended a date with a strap-on, making Ilana ever so proud, and sparking a conversation among millennial viewers everywhere about whether or not they should try it themselves.
The science fiction series on Netflix, created by transgender siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski, was hailed by audiences for its queer representation — everyone on the show is pansexual, sexually active, and as happy as possible. Although it's set in a science fiction world, the series is also one of the first to portray a loving — and super hot — relationship between a trans character (played by trans actor Jamie Clayton) and her girlfriend, Amanita (Freema Agyeman).
In "Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, pleasures her estranged ex-wife, played by Judith Light, while she's in the bathtub. Even today, it's quite rare that we ever see "women of a certain age" having sex at all, let alone with their transgender ex-husbands. "We don’t see sex between people of our ages on television, and so many outlets in the TV world will tell you that the only thing that is really important is the demographic from 18 to 49,” Light told Entertainment Tonight at the time.
In "Hella Blows" Tiffany (Amanda Seales) invites Issa (Issa Rae), Kelli (Natasha Rothwell), and Molly (Yvonne Orji) to a sex positive blowjob tutorial, where the women end up debating the merits of performing oral sex on a man. Later, Issa goes down on Daniel (Y'lan Noel ) at his house and he ejaculates on her face. Fans were torn about whether the episode was groundbreaking or regressive — but it definitely had people talking and tweeting. It's also probably the first non-pornographic facial in television history to date.
Since its premiere in 2015, Rachel Bloom and her team of writers have never backed away from usually taboo topics like mental health and female masturbation. But it's not until "To Josh, With Love" that the show REALLY made history by being the first network series to get away with saying "clitoris" on a network TV show. "I had to have many conversations with legal," Bloom later recalled, according to BuzzFeed.
Instead of pretending like going down on a new partner is easy or without its hangups, ABC's Freeform featured Kat (Aisha Dee) and Adena (Nikohl Boosheri) having a frank conversation about how the newly out Kat was nervous about performing oral sex on her more experienced partner. It's a long way from "tentative hugging" and hair washing.
While the NBC sitcom can be credited with increasing LGBTQ visibility, there was always a lack of sex, unless it was Grace having it or Karen talking about it. According to an interview with Logo, Will & Grace co-creator Max Mutchnick was told by filmmaker Joel Schumacher to not "get too butt-f*cky" before shooting the 1998 pilot of the now iconic sitcom. And the initial run of the series did largely ignore Will and Jack's actual sex lives outside of dinner dates. In the reboot, however, Jack is seen showering with his partner, and a "top-bottom" scene is reportedly in the works, according to the same aforementioned interview. Above all, the series is no longer pretending that gay men don't have sex.
Hulu's original series is being praised for its portrayal of what it's like to be a 7th grade girl — and that even includes an entire episode devoted to Maya exploring all the different ways she can masturbate. If only her BFF would stop calling.
The world's come a long way from not being able to say "pregnant" on primetime television, but there's still a long way to go when it comes to representing sex, sexuality, and everything in between on screens both big and small.