Love & Sex

Why TV Needs Awkward Sex

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How can people contest the awkwardness of old school seduction when there are movies called "How To Marry A Millionaire"?

There's a scene in a recent episode of Mad Men where one of the copywriters, Michael, sums up the firm's nascent ad campaign in curiously abstract terms: “The strategy is about some kind of love transaction,” he says. Michael is referring here to the gift of a car, but the line is tongue-in-cheek because Michael might as well have been referring to love and sex in general. Eros-as-transaction is a powerful trope in contemporary culture, especially on television. Yet “Sex on TV…is incredibly unsexy” , complains Ginia Bellafante, blogger for The New York Times. According to Bellafante, there's "plenty of sweaty-bodied, unexpurgated sex, but what’s striking about the current depiction is how much of it just isn’t sexy — how much of it is divorced from any real sense of eroticism or desire. The audience, at home in bed in need of diversion, is betrayed. What they get instead is sex that is transactional, utilitarian." Another woman wonders for The Atlantic, “Is Sex Still Sexy?” 

There's something to that idea. But I wouldn't call contemporary TV sex unsexy, exactly. The spy sex on The Americans — what Bellafante calls "the trade of sex for information" — might not get a NYT author's rocks off, but calling these scenes universally unsexy is an obvious misstep that probably underscores the demand for pageviews more than Bellafante's real world hubris. A better word than Bellafante's “unsexy” would be “transactional."

The fact is that sex doesn't just happen: there are all sorts of pre- and post-sex transactions. PSAs will tell you to “use a new condom every time you have sex” (and don't double wrap). Planned Parenthood educates women that they can take pills – “one a day” – as birth control. Blogs will tell you to “read between the texts” to decode your bootycalls. And college halls everywhere remind students to get a formal yes before they fuck. These are all formulas. If penis, then condom. If “yes” then fuck. Negotiating birth control options can be awkward in life; why not let television reflect that? I feel badly for people who think sex on TV is too transactional, but not badly enough that I don't want to see the sausage getting made. Atlantic author Emily Smith muses, "If we want sex to be sexy again, perhaps we should speak less about it." But she's proposing a transhistorical fantasy of eroticism that never existed. See: any Marilyn Monroe movie ever. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe seduces a guy on a ship because she likes bling. How can people contest the awkwardness of old school seduction when there are movies called How To Marry A Millionaire?

But Bellafante and co are right that the portrayal of sex on television has changed. For one thing, there's more of it. The Kaiser Family Foundation found in their most recent study on the topic that “the total number of sexual scenes [in TV] has nearly doubled” since 1998. When journalists complain about the unsexiness of TV sex they might just be falling prey to the wider variety of sex we're now showing on the boob tube.

The changing nature of television is especially salient when we compare sex on television to the same in movies. Bellafante provides Fatal Attraction and 9 ½ Weeks as examples of “raw sex and untrammeled desire,” but she never points out that her examples of the heart/clit/penis snoozefests supposedly taking place on television — shows like “The Americans,” “House of Cards,” and “Homeland” – aren't playing on the same kind of screen as Fatal Attraction. Movies are a closed medium. If you portray sex as unsettling or transactional a few times over the course of 90 minutes, you'll probably fail to titillate most of your viewers and you'll never get the chance for erection-redemption. In the movies, the transactions take place off-screen. You buy a ticket, you buy popcorn, then you sit in a seat.

When you have to check screening times before watching the latest summer blockbuster, eroticism can happen on screen and feel comfortably different. In contrast, television is an open medium. A modest five season, 12 episode drama has 2,700 minutes to fill. If sex felt erotic to folks like Bellafante every time it happened over the course of those 2,700 minutes, sex scenes would either cease to stimulate or else TV programs would become priapism marathons. 'Boring' sex on TV helps make more conventionally erotic scenes stand out all the more. If cultural critics like Smith and Bellafante are really that bored by the sex they watch on television, maybe they should just skip to the season finales. There, for better or worse, conventional eroticism replete with meaning, refinery, and emotional release hasn't changed all that much.