Why Female-Centric Sex Is Everywhere on TV Now

Photo: Maya Robinson

Welcome to Sexpositions, a weeklong Vulture celebration of sex scenes in movies and on TV.

It’s an excellent time to be getting laid on TV.

The last few TV seasons have been hotter, kinkier, funnier, and more enthusiastic about more kinds of sex than any era in recent memory, thanks in large part to the post-antihero era. Sure, antiheroes get laid, but it’s often pretty similar — a sad-sack wife who provides perfunctory occasional intercourse, an enthusiastic but vacant mistress who just loves the feeling of fresh air on her breasts. But as the antihero tide ebbs, TV has filled the vacancy with a lot of other kinds of shows, mercifully including shows about the interior lives of women. And many of those shows include some pretty good sex.

TV has a long history of implied hot sex between white, heterosexual, able-bodied couples — lots of shots of hands wrapped in sheets, some nondescript writhing, and then a cut to the following morning with the two people cheerfully glugging orange juice. As for the antiheroes, whatever cultural sexiness is associated with a devil-may-care attitude does not necessarily translate into actual titillation: Many people consider Don Draper sexy, but has he ever been in a truly great sex scene? Even shows with very explicit sex, like True Detective or Californication or Game of Thrones, don’t always seem particularly sexy, given the shows’ propensity for degradation.

But current TV sex, on network, basic, and premium cable, is a lot more diverse, honest, direct, and inventive than in years past: The Mindy Project dedicated a whole episode to the ins and outs of hetero anal sex, Scandal has done more for the reputation of manual stimulation than a million sleepover conversations ever could, and The Americans portrayed TV’s most emotional 69. Use protection, friends.

One way TV is expanding right now is through female-centric sex scenes; it’s not that they’ve never existed before, but the volume and variety is at an all-time high. The straight and lesbian sex on Transparent, for example, is part of creator Jill Soloway’s depiction of the female gaze: The show sees and approaches bodies and sexuality through women’s eyes in ways that tend not to objectify women. Women are still eroticized, certainly, but it’s for their pleasure. We see that again on Outlander, with Claire’s desires as a central idea and the hunky Jamie being more of the object. Orange Is the New Black is the industry leader in female-driven sex scenes, and that’s a show that likes to have it, well, both ways: Some of its nudity can be a little cheesecake and mainstream-porn-y, but other scenes are vividly authentic. Most important, gaze politics aside, across all these shows, naked female bodies are not the backdrop against which we can see how tortured and sad men are. (Do better, True Detective.) These women are active participants who have sexual agency.

And that agency is often depicted as an emphasis of female sexual pleasure. Broad City’s focus on women getting what they want in bed is part of the show’s subversive charm, and only that series could find the true romance in lines like “I’m gonna respect your dick later” and “Dayum, that penis is pink!” On Being Mary Jane, one of the first ways we get to know our protagonist is through a heated conversation with her boyfriend’s wife. (Yes, Mary Jane is the mistress.) “Does he go down on you? I mean, do you let him and does he offer?” the wife asks. “It’s required,” a stony Mary Jane replies immediately. It’s immediately — sexily? — clear that this is a woman who is in charge. Virginia on Masters of Sex scientifically and socially seems to introduce the idea of women enjoying sex, and we see her coach some of her partners in how to please her. On Scandal, trained assassin Jake never seems more lovable and boyfriend-worthy than when he cheerfully tells Olivia on the phone, “Call me later if you want me to do that thing to you.” (He means a sex thing, presumably the same thing he provided when the two of them were privately ensconced on Finger-bang Island.) After years of needlessly prudish editing, The Bachelorette finally admitted its star got some. People have sex! Women people! And they like it!

Just as the patriarchy harms everyone, the decline of the antihero is good for everyone, men included. Looking aimed for mumblecore-realistic gay sex and gave viewers a Leather 101 episode. How to Get Away With Murder is really into anal play, with one throwaway dude-character noting Connor’s particular prowess: “And he did this thing to my ass that made my eyes water,” the banker bragged. It’s a line that’s been clandestinely recorded, and we hear it a few times in the episode, lest we forget.

Similarly, even shows that should have that traditional antihero sex scenes have been breaking out of that mold. House of Cards, a show with a substantial amount of nudity and some generic cable-esque banging, conquered new territory with Agent Meechum and the threesome smooch heard ‘round the world. This season had plenty of other sex in it, but this was the standout moment by far. It was part of a larger trend of outside-the-box TV sex, one that was present on shows with long histories of sexual ambition: Hannah and Adam on Girls, never big on vanilla sex in the first place, tried some awkward role-playing; Sons of Anarchy, again, not a show that’s afraid of out-there stuff, had Lt. Jarry insist her biker boyfriend have sex with her in a public parking garage, in plain sight of one of his biker minions; The Good Wife finally putting Cary and Kalinda together — together together — lead to some interesting power-play scenes, though Kalinda’s lesbian romances remain far hotter.

Oftentimes what makes sex sexy is an element of naughtiness and transgression, and there’s nothing more transgressive than breaking away from the established straight-white-dude perspective. TV has a long way to go in terms of parity, but if characters all have to have exciting, entertaining sex on the path to enlightenment, well, so be it. Somehow we well all find the strength to watch this journey unfold.