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 giphy.com
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?