Baring it All: Sex on Television and its Implications

We’ve all heard the Family Guy theme song. It’s ironic, bemoaning the lack of old-fashioned values on television, mostly because Family Guy represents anything but old-fashioned values. But it does lead to a few interesting questions. How much sex on TV is a good thing? How much is too much? How much is enough to sell a show convincingly? Is being left to the imagination better than no holds barred? Are our appetites for sexual simulation causing problems in society? Do we even care?


Sex on television is a difficult thing to get done. Because of the FCC controlling the airwaves, there is a set of rules. We’ve all seen the side-boob. That sliver of skin right before the artfully cut shirt or bathing suit. And if you’ve ever seen a show on the CW, you know that they sell sex, or at least the premise of sex, heavily on their shows. It’s a lone episode when someone doesn’t take their shirt off, male or female. For example, The Secret Circle has been on for only a handful of weeks, and on many of those episodes, the same character has taken off his shirt. But, one could argue that that’s what viewers want to see on the CW.


Sexy characters make an appearance on all of the big five networks and on cable. If you’ve ever watched an episode of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, sex is mentioned about 50 times in every single episode. Secret Life, however, is a ridiculous television show, used by ABC Family (and therefore Disney) to show the hazards of sex, and the overcomplicated relationships of teenagers in high school. But on a lot of shows, talking about sex is all that anybody does.


Recently, the new fall show The Playboy Club was cancelled by NBC. Not because it was too sexy or racy, but because it’s viewers weren’t high enough to justify making more episodes. It’s particularly interesting for this show, because it was supposed to be so risky and sexy, and it ended up being a huge flop. I don’t know if people were turned off by the sexy characters in this show, or if they thought there wasn’t enough sex. Either way, the show was cancelled, and we won’t be seeing anymore scantily clad bunnies hop their way across our TV screens.


MTV is infamous for its ‘sexy’ shows; shows that feature oversexed, under-clothed people running around trying to have sex with each other. One such show was Skins, which was the remake from the heavily popular UK version. The UK version is still ongoing and has quite a bit of a cult following here in the states. MTV’s version of Skins, however, was cancelled after only ten episodes. MTV was also subject to a lot of censoring of the show by its corporate sponsors, especially over concerns that MTV was actually making child pornography, and not just sexy television. The Parents Television Council actually filed a letter with the Department of Justice, asking that child pornography charges be brought against the series. While MTV has not been branded with any child pornography charges, the implication was still there, and most likely contributed to the show getting cancelled. Another factor was that people just weren’t watching it, and you can’t justify keeping a show on the air if it’s not being watched. And despite all the controversy, some critics claimed that the US version of Skins was far tamer than its UK counterpart.


So are people really afraid of sex on television? The Parents Television Council certainly thinks so. What about everybody else? Do we really care that the women of Desperate Housewives are having sex every week? Do we give a crap that women (and men) routinely run around in swimsuits fighting crime on Hawaii Five-0? Some people do. Some people would rather just see two characters go into a room with a bed and dim the lights, kissing before the show cuts to a commercial. Some people would rather watch as the characters go all the way, moaning and groaning under the artfully placed blankets. Even more would like to watch HBO, as the characters go all the way without the artfully placed blankets. Some people watch premium cable for this reason alone. I like HBO and Showtime because their storylines are usually just so much more twisted than the big five network shows. There is also the fact that there are no commercials on the premium cable.


That brings up another point. Broadcasters have to be careful of what they put on TV, because they have to make sure their sponsors and advertisers don’t pull out, otherwise they won’t be able to keep a show on the air. Premium cable doesn’t have this problem. Cable shows have to worry about this less, because their shows are already ‘edgier’ and marketed to a specific audience as such. These shows are on later, decreasing the chance that children will hop on and see these shows before they’re ready to watch ‘sexy’ television. They’re allowed to put more sex on TV. They’re even allowed to show more body parts – on Sons of Anarchy for example, bare butts are seen, as well as scenes of characters having sex instead of just implications of it.


Sex has evolved over the years of television, just as society has evolved. We’ve gone from watching parents sleep in two separate beds to teenagers as young as 14 having sex and feeling the repercussions by gaining STDs or having babies. It’s no small feat that we’ve evolved this far, but we also get repercussions. Oversexed teenagers are the norm now, and we see the effects of that on shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom.  Alongside this, we also have the objectification of both men and women becoming more and more of an issue in today’s culture. That’s not to say that there’s never been objectification of men and women before, but it’s a lot easier to do today on a larger scale, than it was even ten years ago.


The truth of it all is that sex is a part of life. Television shows are just fictionalized accounts of life, albeit, sometimes a more exciting life than we actually have. As long as TV continues to imitate life, sex is going to be on TV. Everyone will have to get used to it, or just watch shows that don’t involve sex. May I recommend the Disney Channel?