The 15 Healthiest Portrayals of Sex on TV
It’s been a long time coming (pun intended), but TV is finally starting to do better when it comes to healthy, realistic depictions of sex and sexuality.
Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, a research fellow at Ryerson University specializing in sexual health, helps us break down the strides that have been made over the past decade by highlighting 15 television series or specific episodes of television that tackle sex in an affirming way.
From conversations about consent to women asserting their sexual agency, here are some of the healthiest portrayals of sex on the small screen.
One Day at a TimeIn Season 3, Episode 2 of the acclaimed sitcom, a secret Instagram account leads to a family discussion about sexual harassment and consent, and according to Dr. Sparling, it’s important to see this in an accessible format like an episode of TV.
“These kinds of conversations are incredibly important because it gives people — especially young people new to navigating sexual situations — an example, or even a sort of script to follow. For all the beautiful creativity we do have as humans, we still need to see examples of how to handle potentially uncomfortable or complex situations. By showing examples of how conversations around consent can look, we provide valuable tools for people to use when they are in these situations themselves. And it’s really important to see these examples in popular media. Getting these examples in school (through role-playing or educational videos) doesn’t always have the same impact for young people.”
RELATED: Sex tips to give to our younger selves.
Sex EducationIn this series, a teen with a sex therapist mother (played by Gillian Anderson) sets up an underground sex therapy clinic at his school along with one of his classmates, and there are many reasons why Dr. Sparling believes it to be among the best examples out there.
“It even more purposefully takes on challenging topics related to a HUGE variety of sexuality topics. They talk about sexual pleasure. One character learns to take ownership of her own enjoyment during sex and it’s a powerful and empowering thing for her. They talk about expressing individuality in ways that don’t fit with traditional gender norms. There’s a male character who enjoys wearing beautiful eye make-up and we follow him negotiating how he wants to present himself in the world, trying to balance authenticity with safety. And there is lots of unpacking of unhealthy ideas around sexuality and sexual health. It’s just a tremendous show.
OutlanderDespite some troubling scenes throughout its first four seasons, this series is one of the most sex-positive. It also stands out among the rest because the sex is very much seen through a female lens. Even before Claire (Caitriona Balfe) travels back in time, she has a satisfying sexual relationship with her husband, and is not scared to ask for what she wants. On her wedding night with Jamie (Sam Heughan), a virgin, she helps him navigate her body and teaches him about his own body during their first time together. It’s still a relatively new concept to see women asserting their sexual agency in media, and there needs to be more of it.
“In so many parts of the world, women are still thought of as the partner who has sex happen to them,” says Dr. Sparling. “Putting women in this kind of passive role in the ways we talk about, think about, and show sex happening is really harmful. Sex is fun (or should be fun) for everyone. Seeing examples of women who assert their sexual agency shows people of all genders that it’s normal for women to want sex and it’s normal for women to enjoy sex. This helps men see women as equal partners in sexual encounters, and helps women empower themselves to seek out gratifying experiences that are more positive for themselves. It’s the kind of thing that leads EVERYONE to have better and more satisfying sex lives.”
SEE ALSO: 10 countries that have the most sex.
Brooklyn Nine-NineOne of Dr. Sparling’s top recommendations may be one of the funniest sitcoms of the decade, but it also shines in its way of portraying sex and the sexuality of its characters.
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine takes on topics related to sexual orientation in ways that are accepting and affirming. For example, two of the central characters are queer and their sexual orientations are never the butt of a joke. The writers don’t take cheap shots or make “easy” jokes at the expense of this aspect of these characters and they don’t fall back on tired stereotypes related to sexuality."
RELATED: 10 of the most misunderstood things about bisexual women.
Big MouthIt may be an outrageous series about tweens and their hormone monsters, but Big Mouth also tackles sexuality with both humour and insight. In Season 2, there is an entire episode about Planned Parenthood and how it has affected the lives of several characters. Dr. Sparling emphasizes the importance of education and information.
“When we keep sex in the shadows or use it in toxic or lazy ways, media producers can cause a lot of harm. The more information people have, the better understanding they have, the more they can make informed decisions and get along better with their neighbours. And when we give good, empirically supported information about sex and sexual health to young people, we see that they typically delay having sex — because sex is now not something unknown. Instead, they are waiting to seek out more satisfying experiences.”
Accurate representation of sex in film and television can help us avoid believing sex myths everyone thinks are true.
The Bold TypeThis series about three twenty-something friends who work together at a magazine is very sex-positive and has taken on quite a few important topics. One of the characters, Jane (Katie Stevens), goes from someone who sees a sex therapist because she’s never had an orgasm, to a woman who isn’t afraid to ask for exactly what she wants in the bedroom. When she’s faced with an issue that could affect her fertility, she weighs all of her options and we see how it affects her relationships.
SEE ALSO: Why millennials are having less sex than any other generation in human history.
Broad CityFrom the beginning, this comedy about two friends living in NYC took a non-judgmental approach to sex and sexuality. Masturbation was never a forbidden topic. One of the characters, Ilana (Ilana Glazer), discussed the merits of monogamy versus polyamory with a partner who wanted to settle down. The show was so sex-positive that they even created a line of Broad City-themed sex toys!
“As a society, we get ourselves into trouble when we make sex and sexuality a taboo topic, or when we handle these topics disrespectfully or enforce unhealthy standards,” shared Dr. Sparling. “Sexual health is an important part of our health and sex is a topic that needs to be handled openly and with care to consider the nuances that exist. This is part of why the shows mentioned have been so successful — because sex and sexuality have the power to add really interesting narratives to television.”
ShrillBased on the memoir by Lindy West, Shrill is the story of Annie (Aidy Bryant), a woman who is trying to change her life without conforming to unhealthy beauty standards. Television has never done a great job with body-positive sex, but this a show that begins to turn the tide. The desirability of a woman does not correlate to her dress size, and Annie is not defined by her weight.
RELATED: Can you be body positive and on a diet?
Black MirrorThe anthology series Black Mirror has always provided commentary on the effects of technology on our lives and the potential future implications from being so reliant on it. In the episode “Striking Vipers,” starring Anthony Mackie, they waded into some interesting territory about sexuality and diverse relationships, and Dr. Sparling was intrigued by it.
“I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it, but it really impressed me with its messages about the importance of open communication in relationships and flexibility around how people choose to carry-on fulfilling sex lives and interpersonal relationships. The models we often see enforced in the media don’t leave a lot of room for the diversity that actually exists. When we try to restrict people to narrow viewpoints, we don’t help them gain the tools they actually need to navigate complicated situations and this can cause a lot of intra- and interpersonal trauma, a.k.a. hurt feelings all around.”
Grace and FrankieBesides being a fantastic comedy starring the legendary Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, this series has shown audiences of all ages that women are still sexual beings after a certain age. These friends and roommates are not only navigating life after their husbands come out as gay and leave them, but Grace and Frankie are also rediscovering sex and their sexuality. They even launch a line of yam lube and ergonomic vibrators to enhance the sex lives of other women their age. Just because people age doesn’t mean that their sexuality should be dismissed, and Dr. Sparling brings up an interesting topic.
“Sex drives often slow down as we age, but they don’t go away. Old people like sex too and can still be very interested in having a fun time! It seems like such a small concern but it translates into real-world health impacts.
We are seeing outbreaks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among older adults because they are not receiving the education or resources they need. In older adult living facilities, the sexual needs of the residents are largely ignored, so STI testing and prevention efforts are not being carried out. And aside from STIs, healthy sexuality includes being permitted to enjoy consensual sexual experiences. This is not something that people realize needs to be facilitated in assisted living residences for older adults. This is as simple as recognizing that it’s courteous to knock before entering a resident’s room because they might be masturbating or having sex.”
Jane the VirginAnother great example of showing that older adults are still sexual beings is Jane the Virgin. In a Season 4 episode, Jane (Gina Rodriguez) takes her grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), to buy her first vibrator. By the fifth season, not only does Alba have several vibrators, but she also shares that Barack Obama is one of her go-to fantasies.
RELATED: Why masturbating regularly can help improve female health.
Crazy Ex-GirlfriendBisexual erasure is a problem both on and off-screen, but storylines like the one on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are a step in the right direction. One of the characters, Darryl (Pete Gardner), comes out with a musical number called “Getting Bi,” and it was a much-needed change. Dr. Sparling echoes that sentiment.
“I’d like to see more bi-affirming storytelling. So often bi characters are erased and their identity is not validated. One example I can think of is Piper from Orange Is the New Black (disclosure, I only watched the first two seasons). Her character really seems to be written as bisexual. She has had romantic and sexual relationships with women and with men, but when she gets into a relationship with a woman in prison, people demand to know if she’s a lesbian now. And there are SO many more examples of bi-erasure and bi-phobia.”
Good TroubleThis spinoff of The Fosters continues the stories of sisters Callie (Maia Mitchell) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez) after they’ve graduated college and move to Los Angeles to begin their careers. It’s a very sex-positive show but also doesn’t shy away from serious topics. Bisexuality and body positivity are prominent, but so are the realities of sexism in the workplace and the implications of dating a co-worker.
SEE ALSO: 10 accidental microaggressions you might be making.
VidaThis show is a shining example of portraying sex in a healthy light. The story is told through a female, non-heteronormative lens, and represents the queer Latinx experience. The women on this show assert their sexual agency, often by communicating or verbalizing what they want and need. The stories are told in a way that feels real and never exploitative, and it’s been a refreshing and often groundbreaking contribution to the small screen.
RELATED: LGBTQ+ celebs leading the way for positive representation.
Game of ThronesIn a series known for its gratuitous “sexposition,” the final season included a storyline with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was a much-needed change. Unlike her sister, Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya lost her virginity on her terms while asserting her sexual agency. But this one scene doesn’t erase a dangerous trope that Game of Thrones will always be associated with.
“I’d like to see sexualized violence against women used less frequently as a vehicle to further other characters’ actions or character development,” Dr. Sparling told us. “It even sucks to see this used as a plot device to further a female character’s development. It’s cheap and lazy storytelling and Game of Thrones is guilty of this on so many counts. That’s not to say that sexualized violence against women should totally disappear from storytelling in the media. It is a thing that happens, and it shouldn’t be a taboo topic to include in a plot. I would just like to see it used in a more sophisticated and nuanced way, that feels less exploitative.”
SEE ALSO: 21 toxic on-screen relationships we accidentally romanticize.