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 certain shows 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 Time
“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," Dr. Sparling says. "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.”
“It even more purposefully takes on challenging topics related to a huge variety of sexuality topics. They talk about sexual pleasure," she says. "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."
“In so many parts of the world, women are still thought of as the partner who has sex happen to them,” Dr. Sparling says. “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.” countries that have the most sex.
"Brooklyn Nine-Nine takes on topics related to sexual orientation in ways that are accepting and affirming," she explains. "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."
“When we keep sex in the shadows or use it in toxic or lazy ways, media producers can cause a lot of harm," she says. "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.”
The Bold Type
“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,” Dr. Sparling says. “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.”
“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," she says. "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, AKA hurt feelings all around.”
Grace and Frankie
“Sex drives often slow down as we age, but they don’t go away," she explains. "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 Virgin
“I’d like to see more bi-affirming storytelling," she says. "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.”
Game of Thrones
“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 says. “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.”