The Loudest Unspoken Word

In the history of television, sexual relationships often drive the plot. Depending on the show’s rating, it will express this sexual tension or visualization of the relationship in varying degrees of explicitness. Interestingly, the majority of television shows are hesitant to actually use the word sex out loud, instead choosing to imply the act through different language and innuendo.

Left: via Warner Bros. Television; Dawn Foster/Bustle. Right: via

For example, Friends is catered towards a mature audience, but many conversations that are clearly about sex do not explicitly say “Rachel had sex with Ross”, instead choosing an excited back and forth with lines such as “You and Ross?!” “Yes!”. This leaves the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about the extent of the rendezvous without breaking the network’s carefully constructed rules. Certain networks have much more stringent policies in terms of sexual references and displays, while other major players, like HBO, entice viewers through the almost contrived use of nudity and explicit language. On Girls, the characters are either naked, having sex, or swearing more than they are not; this is a stylistic choice, but is also approved by the network. The gap between the arguably pornographic scenes on Girls and the innocent lights-on, clothes-on action on Friends is widely present among sitcoms. There is not necessarily a large difference in frequency of sexual exploits or the nature of the relationship between the participating parties, but the narrative surrounding sex creates juxtaposing tones and perceptions. Rarely do shows fall into a middle ground that might directly reference sex without displaying the act. This is, in many ways, a result of the cultural stigmas associated with sex: it is either unspoken or it is bold with an offensive connotation. Talking about sex is acceptable as long as it is not actually talked about; the moment the act is mentioned, the conversation is deemed inappropriate and lascivious. Further, when women talk about sex on television they are often perceived as sexually promiscuous and unattractive, but when men talk about sex it increases their appeal.

Why do we have such a strong aversion to this concept? On what grounds was this norm constructed, and why has it remained so black and white?


Arianna Gershon

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11 Responses to The Loudest Unspoken Word

  1. mediaphiles says:

    I had never really mentioned the fact that shows never use the word “sex”, but now that you say it I can think of some examples. I think it is a very interesting idea though that it can either be subtly hinted at with clothes on or downright displayed without the mention of the word and either instance is fine as long as you don’t say it. You would think that the latter would be worse than just mentioning “Oh, we had sex”, but I guess not. I’m really curious if there is some kind of restriction on the use of this word but no dictation about the display of it. Thanks for bring that to light!
    -Nicolette McCann

  2. mediaphiles says:

    It is a really interesting topic you have chosen to examine here and I wonder what thoughts go into this process that determines the explicitness of the show. Obviously factors like the network the show is on affect the explicitness, like you mentioned HBO will always be more explicit with its content, but other than the network it is on I wonder what else influences these decisions.

    Max Lissette

  3. mediaphiles says:

    I really like your post and makes me think back about shows I watch, and for example a show like Two and Half Men where there is a lot of “Sex” they never mention it and there are really no scenes where sexual stuff is happening. Even though the show is so open and has so much dark humor sex is like a taboo. – Jon Baquero

  4. mediaphiles says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post because I feel that it raised many important points that we should all be aware of. There is such a double standard when it comes to the way that men and women are portrayed on television; men are often praised for being promiscuous while women are viewed as “sluts.” Being a feminist myself, things like this irritate me so much because it isn’t fair that women are judged so harshly.
    -Allie Kleinman

  5. mediaphiles says:

    It is crazy to realize when the act is actually mentioned and when it is not. Another thing to consider with this, is what networks these shows are being aired on. With networks that you have to have a subscription to, they are given more opportunities to actually discuss sex and show it where as classic cable channels air for the broad spectrum of TV providers and caution against mentioning it. It’s crazy that some shows can center around it and others can simply mention everything but “it” and still air on television.

    -Meg Murphy

  6. mediaphiles says:

    To play devil’s advocate here, I think a lot of sitcoms are actually extremely sexually explicit. I think of the episode where Monica and Chandler try to conceive a baby while Rachel is giving birth and they have sex all over the hospital….perhaps it’s more palatable because they’re doing it for procreation? But for some embarassing reason, my mom watches a lot of Two and a half men and it’s disgustingly crude (and not funny). I think FCC rules determine a lot of this, and air time matters as well.

    Elyse Conklin

  7. mediaphiles says:

    I completely agree that there is a double-standard for female and males on the appropriateness of conversation about sexual activity. When a female discusses this type of sexual content she is seen as unladylike and rude. Why is something that involves two parties and is supposed to bring both parties pleasure, not supposed to be discussed if one party is a female? – Kelsey Sierra

  8. mediaphiles says:

    I think this issue arises in sitcoms but in our personal lives too. I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard the “so if a girl does that same thing, she’s a slut!” Its so true though, no one can deny it. These standards for women impact the way they are viewed by society. I think shows should take advantage of their ability to break these views because as we have learned, shows reflect our society and help guide us in having new perspectives.

    Alexandra Peralta

  9. mediaphiles says:

    WOW!!! I had not even thought about this! It’s so true, sex is so stigmatized in our society, and things like this play into the stigma.

    Karly Morgan

  10. marymdalton says:

    Excellent post.

  11. mediaphiles says:

    I agree that this raises many important questions as to why we refrain from using the word “sex.” I feel like it is very stigmatized and the only time it’s not is on subscription shows like HBO or Netflix. Whenever it comes up for discussion its either dismissed or sugarcoated, which makes it seem like an abnormal thing to talk about.

    – Ziba Klein

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