If you’ve been online at all within the past week, chances are you’ve seen the multitude of posts regarding sex is media. Is there too much sex on TV right now? Should we go back to a “simpler” time? The discourse seems to swirl around the dual premises that we have both over-sexualized media and that we as an audience lack the ability to consent to viewing sex scenes on TV. With You star Penn Bagdley coming forward to share that he requested to stop doing intimacy scenes out of respect for “fidelity in [his] relationship”, these conversations have reached a fever pitch.
Who Believes What
As someone born in ’99, I have the unique perspective of sitting in the middle of Millennials and Gen-Zs, a fact which does not initially seem relevant to this conversation but has become increasingly so. Based on my online and in-person interactions— which skew extremely liberal and under 50— it appears as though the Sex In Media debate has become a generational divide, with younger people advocating for a more sexless era. This isn’t the first online debate that has felt this way. Earlier this year, I wrote about the queerbaiting, the definition of which has gotten skewed among younger people online.
These are far from the only two examples. Having grown up in an era of greater sexual freedom and an emphasis on LGBTQ+ and POC rights, Gen-Z liberals have an entirely different perspective than their Millennial counterparts. It seems that with the possibility of mainstream acceptance looming closer, there has been an uptick in conservatism and conformity among leftist online young people. While it’s understandable that many of these teens just want to fit in with mainstream culture as much as possible, it feels spurned onward by a lack of respect and knowledge for somewhat recent history. That is why I am launching this new series, Zillennial Discourse (open to name suggestions) where I, the self dubbed “Gen-Z voice on Millennial Media”, research and share information about whatever the most recent discourse is that falls along these generational divides.
The History of Sex on Screen
In the early 1900s, sex on screen is very similar to what you would expect to see today3. There was a diversity of relationship statuses, women were able to date and have sexual lives, and there was generally a lack of censorship toward what was portrayed. It wasn’t until the uptick in conservatism after the Great Depression that William H Hays took over the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) and instituted what is today known as the Hays Code.
While informal, this code dictated the amount of sex, nudity, and violence in a film, as well as the depiction of religions, sexualities, and morality2. It is (part of) the reason you do not see any Black people on-screen during this time period, as well as the reason all gay people in film were forced to end up miserable or dead. The banning of sex has historically been tied to puritanical values regarding morality; sex was an initial point on which to hinge much larger moral arguments.
It wasn’t until 1964 in Bewitched that we saw the first couple in the same bed together, or even the first couple not married in real life to be in the same bedroom. Since then, the ability to show sex on TV has steadily increased, with a lesbian sex scene shown for the first time in Tipping the Velvet (2002)6. The fact that sex was not prominent on TV and movies until 50-60 years ago is not because people were less sexually inclined, it is because it was banned.
Safety in the Present Day
That takes us to the present day. While some people are proclaiming that there is too much sex on screen today, we also see other people claiming that we are in the most “sexless” era of film and TV to exist in a long while5. While I was unable to find any research to back up either of these claims, the fact remains that there is likely not any more sex on television today than there has been in the past 10-15 years, given that laws around these things have not changed dramatically. However, the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBOMax certainly give more freedom to showrunners and directors who wish to take it.
The one aspect of sex in film and TV that has most certainly changed is the presence of intimacy coordinators. Going back to as recently as 2018, actors were often put in uncomfortable positions on-set and forced to film stimulated sex scenes in ways that they weren’t comfortable with7. It is only recently that intimacy coordinators have become a regular part of any set filming intimate scenes. The coordinator’s job is not just to choreograph the stimulated sex act, but also to negotiate boundaries with the actors and directors and ensure that nobody’s boundaries are being pushed or crossed9. They are there as advocates for the actors to make everything safe.
Filming a sex scene is not the same as participating in an off-screen, personal sex act, and these measures are in place to keep everything professional and safe. Interestingly, the topic of sex on screen has come up now, in 2023, when arguably there has never been a safer time for actors.
Bagdley’s claim that the sexual “aspect of Hollywood has always been very disturbing to me”1 should not be ignored. He, just like everyone in the industry, has a right to opt out of doing any type of scene (regardless of sexual nature) that makes him uncomfortable. In the overarching debate, it appears to be lost on many that this should just be summed up as a matter of personal choice.
Bagdley’s individual decisions do not speak to the industry as a whole, and Hollywood should not feel pressure to conform to one man’s opinions. Even with intimacy coordinators, it is perfectly reasonable to opt out, at long as that decision is made on a person-to-person basis instead of by the industry at large. For every actor like Bagdley who makes the decision to not film intimacy scenes, there are others, such as Viola Davis, who find the act of portraying sexuality and their bodies on-screen empowering8. It should not be ignored that this discourse kicked off with a conventionally attractive white man requesting an end to sex scenes, when it is people who look like him who already have the most representation.
In the same regard, viewers who do not want to watch sex scenes in media do not have to. While the Hays Code, as discussed earlier, forced media to shrink content to conform to the sensibilities of all possible viewers, the lack of such a code today does not mean all people are forced to abscond their current comfortabilities and start watching graphic sex. There are plenty of shows that don’t contain any sex or nudity at all. Participation in filming sex scenes and watching sex scenes is something that people actively opt into. In the interest of diversity of culture and opinions, it is in everyone’s best interest to watch what they feel comfortable with without censoring the tastes of other people.
We can learn from the Hays Code, as well as other instances of censorship in the last, and avoid decrying sex in media just because we personally do not wish it see it. Keep individual decisions individual, because sex is only the tip of the iceberg.
Sources include articles used for research as well as Tweets and social media posts used to demonstrate general public opinions over the course of the article. Just because something is listed as a source doesn’t mean I agree with it!