Where are all the sizzling sapphic TV sex scenes?
In the fourth season of Sex and the City there’s an episode in which Samantha (Kim Cattrall) openly enjoys a lesbian relationship with a passionate artist called Maria (Sônia Braga).
Charlotte predictably sneers that her proudly promiscuous pal isn’t “a lesbian, she probably just ran out of men!” Once the initial passion of her queer romance starts to fizzle, Samantha gets bored and complains to her besties: “All we ever do is lie around, take baths together and talk about feelings.”
This is a sentiment familiar to any self-identifying queer woman. A running joke within LGBTQI communities portrays lesbians as so engaged nurturing their feelings they forget to f**k. Whether or not that’s true comes down to the private dynamics of every relationship, but judging from how TV has been depicting sex lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking this tired stereotype is true.
It’s not just sapphic sex scenes. This is an issue in general with TV sex scenes that depict various sex acts from the perspective of a female gaze: scenes with an opportunity to be a sizzling celebration of female pleasure instead studiously focus on the emotions surrounding the act – usually before cutting away to a well-timed ad break followed by post-coital snuggling.
There’s plenty of space for narratives that place importance on finding healthy committed relationships, the buzz of romance, and the often essential complexity of emotional foreplay. But we also long to see the sort of hot, breathless sex scenes often targeted towards predominantly male audiences. Female audiences? Not so much.
We want to see women taking charge of their sexual desires. We want scenes of consensually aggressive sex – hair-pulling and lip-biting. We want to see women knuckle deep in rapture, enjoying each other, and enjoying themselves. Sadly, we just aren’t seeing a lot of it on the small screen.
Recently there’s been a slurry of sad sapphic sex scenes that have raised our attention to this state of affairs. In one episode of The Affair, for example, Helen (Maura Tierney) cheats on her dying partner Vic (Omar Metwally) with hot hippy neighbor Sierra (Emily Browning).
Stoned out of her skull, Helen is a little sloppy in the moment, but that’s no excusing the lackluster sex scene that follows. They make out a little and Sierra pushes Helen onto the bed, but from there it’s a distinctly sleepy occasion. Sierra disappears between Helen’s legs and the camera pulls back up Helen’s body to reveal her casual joy. That’s it.
For a show that’s repeatedly shown some of the most graphic and inventive sex scenes of recent years (at least from the perspectives of Dominic West’s Noah and Joshua Jackson’s Cole), it’s more than a little disappointing. The same episode even shows an extended sequence of Noah passionately banging his new girlfriend to climax, and a finale depicting Helen reuniting with Vic in a sex scene that best resembles two caged tigers fighting over a final scrap of meat.
Helen and Sierra’s languid sex scene is notably burdened by a flurry of complicated emotions – something most other sex scenes in The Affair are not. Similarly, recent lesbian sex scenes in both The Bold Type and The 100 have failed to depict sapphic lovemaking with the slightest shred of wanton lust.
In The Bold Type, there’s a nervous energy surrounding Kat’s (Aisha Dee) first time going down on Adena (Nikohl Boosheri), fallout from a long conversation about it preceding the act – an important conversation, particularly for a young adult TV show on family-friendly network Freeform.
However, it’s a little much to suggest that the scene is “one of Freeform’s sexiest, most explicit sex scenes in history”, as Refinery 29 suggested. Just because the show includes a lesbian love scene doesn’t mean it’s any good.
The sequence shows little more than Kat under a thick white sheet over Adena’s legs (she could be doing surgery under there for all we know), while Adena makes a facial expression of delight at about the level of finishing a tricky Sudoku puzzle. It’s about as sizzling as a cold grill.
Meanwhile The 100 followed up what felt like centuries of flirtation between Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) by delivering the most hollow lesbian love scene in recent memory. Like a sandwich with no filling, the scene starts with some romantic smooching and ends by cutting away to some artsy-fartsy lighting while the couple gets down to business off camera. When we return to the couple after the ad break, they’re snuggling up in bed – talking about their feelings.
In all of these scenes, female desire and pleasure are oddly muted, when they should be bold. Sex can be polite, nurturing, and loving – but it also can be voracious and (gasp!) actually erotic.
For whatever reason, in the past few years female-centric sex scenes have gone limp and humdrum. Some of the blame for this dearth of hot lesbian sex on screen can of course be attributed to historically heavy network censoring of sex scenes. That goes for hetero pump and grind sessions too; but bring any gay connotation into a sex scene and you immediately drop it into the middle of censor city without an exit strategy.
Most recently, such censorship may have been the reason why FX’s Pose also failed to provide any prominent or passionate sex scenes for its lead characters. The LGBTQI drama from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk is celebrated for portraying queer and trans narratives as well as healthy gay relationships – but the show doesn’t do sex scenes well if it dares approach them at all.
Pose handles issues surrounding the fetishization of trans women of color extremely well, effectively delving into the issue of safe sex and the AIDS crisis without becoming too after-school-special. But the show has a bigger opportunity to depict the sexuality of transgender women in a positive manner not often seen on screen. Pose could have depicted trans women enjoying sex on their own terms without fetishizing or objectifying them. Instead, the show focuses solely on pre- and post-coital phases.
To have showcased that in Pose would be revolutionary – a pushback against tired tropes and typecasting. But from FX’s perspective, such a sex scene might have brought more controversy than they would care to attract.
With a revival of classic queer drama The L Word currently in development from playwright and screenwriter Marja-Lewis Ryan, we’re hopeful TV will receive a much-needed boost of sexual impropriety and sizzling lasciviousness.
The original series was truly groundbreaking in how it portrayed love, romance, and sexual and gender fluidity in West Hollywood, never shying away from sex scenes which offered gratifying explorations of a variety of sexual desires, kinks, and positions. It didn’t cut to a break or fade to black just as the good stuff was about to go down (pun intended).
The L Word knew how to utilize a good screw session in order to further develop a character’s arc or push forward a larger narrative. But the show always managed to keep the heat turned up to full, even when a sex scene was enveloped by deeper emotions.
The L Word was bold and bawdy, a stark declaration that the female gaze could be just as lustful and debauched as the male. The only recent show that’s managed to achieve anything even close to The L Word is Orange is the New Black, which similarly presents a diverse and brazen depiction of female sexuality at its fullest.
Like The L Word, ONB show doesn’t just pay fanservice with such scenes; they also add to the narrative. Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) bite and pull at each other not just out of passion, but because their love is complicated by vengeance and betrayal; Nicki (Natasha Lyonne) going down on the apparently hetero Lorna (Yael Stone) amplifies the loneliness of each woman and her desperate need for connection.
Unfortunately, even Orange is the New Black has seemingly lost its libido in recent seasons. The only sex scenes remaining have either become so over-the-top they’re practically parody, or burdened by (you guessed it!) unnecessary conversations about feelings.
When did cable & streaming TV become so prudish? When did we all decide we’d rather see characters babble about their feelings rather than get down in a strikingly choreographed, heated sex scene? Maybe we didn’t decide it per se, but women are regardless getting shortchanged on the sex front on television – and we’re bored to death by it.
The L Word revival (and any other sizzling sex scenes of present or future shows depicting women getting theirs and loving it) cannot come fast enough. We just hope it’s as hot as the original series and inspires others to step up their game and turn the heat up to maximum for their female characters.