Sex on television – while it isn’t an uncommon thing to see while binging through a popular and mainstream television series, it remains a somewhat controversial issue to many. Yet, to titillate is to engage, and any multimedia conglomerate’s biggest quota are viewers whether they are hate-watching or not.
Look no further than HBO’s teenage flagship Euphoria, or the embarrassing flop that was 2023’s The Idol, both created by showrunner Sam Levinson. If I were to wager a guess, I’d say that most criticisms of both these shows lie in their somewhat graphic sex scenes, often involving characters either ambiguously childlike or written to be minors. Obviously, they aren’t teenaged actors usually, but why, then, do people find such programming to be so offensive?
From a parent’s perspective, it seems mostly to be motivated by the sheer horror that comes from realizing teenagers are people as well, though I have been noticing the younger generation being critical of such depictions more and more. I often disagree, I don’t believe human sexuality should be banned from television or movies or anything as general policy, but I don’t believe critique of sex on T.V. should stay so black and white. We should look at how it is shown, why it is shown, and who is showing it.
Sam Levinson, in particular, has faced criticism and pushback for his choices to sexualize almost exclusively “teenage” girls and his young female characters. If you watch either Euphoria or The Idol, the women are always the ones with no power in these moments. The male characters, on the other hand, are the ones dominating, the ones deciding, and are only really undermined by homophobia. The women are punished for their sexuality, while seeming to be perpetually wanton. In my opinion, this is quite close to common societal opinions around sex.
So, is the issue that this is misogynistic and harmful? Or is the issue that this is such a pervasive problem that we cannot handle the uncomfortableness of such a confrontation? Or, the third option, that sex is seen as inherently immoral for women but an expression of power for men? Well, it is probably a mix of all three.
Sex is not something to be viewed as criminal. Sex is not something to be hidden or shamed, whether that be on television or in real life. While we can sit here and say there are consequences to actions, to blindly equate someone’s sexuality to their morality harms everyone. To continuously punish women for their participation in expected expressions of sexuality is so clearly backwards that it boggles the mind, but it needs to be said. It unfortunately also needs to be said that sometimes, they aren’t willfully participating.
When we see extremely mainstream and high budget representations of young people having sex on television, we squirm. It feels icky to watch what are supposed to be teenagers engaging in gratuitous and unrealistically glamorous “adult acts”, I get that. I think the greater discomfort, though, comes from how often we see teenagers being sexualized in the real world. I agree that a lot of the sexual scenes and nudity on a show like Euphoria can be negative and exploitative, and I don’t totally think it’s done as a subtle critique either. If anything, it is a true reflection of how it has been for women for a long time. But instead of a moral panic, why can’t we just be better?