TV & Film have always been part of our sex education, and now in 2018 some writers are realising their responsibility and the power they have to change the narrative.
On the rare occasion that society discusses sex education, and the papers are full of opinion pieces, the word that always gets thrown around is ‘pornography’; specifically the dangers of its accessibility. The government, teachers and parents are so terrified of what their children are seeing online, that a debate on sex education in parliament will usually turn into a debate on pornography. While this is an important debate to be had, and we are in a unique time when people are using the internet for everything from banking to dating, in all these debates and articles I can’t help but think that society is missing a big part of the puzzle.
To access porn, you have to know where to look, you have to google and browse and be an active user, you are alone in a room. On the other hand, media within the entertainment industry will always be a communal event. You sit down with family to watch the new Sunday night drama or go with friends to see the latest film release. What always follows is conversation between family, friends, and the wider audience, which thanks to social media is more expansive and immediate.
Porn is not where people go to find great plot devices, the end goal is very simple, and sex is viewed in the abstract. Whereas TV and film in its nature use sex as a plot device and even when a sex scene is clearly put in for titillation (take Game of Thrones for example), the writers will still argue its relevance. In the last seven years or so I have seen a shift in the stories being told; from Lena Dunham’s Girls to Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, there is a need for the narrative around sex to change and for women to control the story.
Pheobe Waller-Bridge has said in many interviews that she wrote the original play Fleabag because she wanted to talk about sex. In 2012 when Lena Dunham’s new show Girls aired in the US and the UK, all people could talk about was the awkward sex scenes. Many journalists described them as explicit and awkward, however, there had been more explicit scenes depicted on TV before Girls appeared on our screens. Game of Thrones was being commissioned for its third season, a show in which it was normal to see at least four sex scenes in one episode and seemingly, an actress couldn’t get through an episode without at least once walking into a room of men, having forgotten to have got dressed. The sex scenes in Girls were new and interesting because Lena Dunham was showing her own experiences of sex and many women responded to this with glee because it allowed them to have the conversations that society deemed taboo.
Caitlin Moran says in her book How To Be a Woman, “the sexual imagery of teenage years is the most potent you’ll ever have. It dictates desires for the rest of your life. One flash of a belly being kissed now is worth a thousand hard-core fisting scenes in your thirties”. Up to a certain age, and I am aware that age is getting younger, parents can control what their children see on the internet and to a certain extent what they see on their TV screens thanks to the 9pm watershed, however, we can’t control everything.
Remember the time when you were younger, on the brink of adolescence, and woke up past your bed to go to the toilet? On your way back to bed you heard the noise of the TV and the chatter of adults, and intrigue led you down the stairs. You poked your head over the bannister and saw your parents and their friends glued to the telly, then you looked up to the screen to see an image that you knew not to be looking at. Laying in bed, your mind boggles and so many questions arise, but you don’t know who to ask. It feels like being on the last word of a crossword puzzle and knowing on seeing the answer it will make sense, but at that moment you feel lost. Instead of talking to your parents and friends out of embarrassment, you seek out the same image in books and films. It takes you years to finally have those conversations with friends and eventually partners when sex has become a reality. Only then do you start to question the scenes you watched and the depictions of sex in your favourite films.
Now, in 2018, we are having those conversations, whether that be the writers of The Affair making sure every sex scene pushes the narrative along, or Rachel Weisz discussing the importance of the sex between the two female protagonists in her new film Disobedience. I truly think that one of the many reasons famous actresses who have the money and the platform are turning to producing is so they can control the narratives they are telling about female sexuality. Sex is still a taboo subject, and we still cut off conversations with the excuse of being British, but we can’t shut down conversation and then worry about the lack of sex education children are receiving, or what they are seeing when they turn on the TV.
In the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, the industry is trying to be more inclusive and give everyone a voice. People are asking for the narrative to change and the choice of stories to grow. The conversations about sex in the last year have revolved around power and abuse and what we want the next generation of women to know and experience. If we want to carry on making change for the better, and the film and TV industry wants to take responsibility, it needs to take sex seriously.
Just as we need diversity in the stories we tell, we need diversity in sex scenes and the relationships we see. Teenage girls and boys should see LGBTQ+ stories more than just once a year, and be shown different relationships and the multiple reasons people choose to have sex with each other. Our government, parents, teachers and most importantly our storytellers can’t be scared of answering questions and giving children the power of information and choice.
Words: Lara Scott
Images: BBC/Two Brothers Ltd, Jessica Miglio/HBO, Sky Atlantic