TV sex has become a turn-off, in more ways than one. This is why
Small-screen rogering needs to get off all fours and show some sensuality
Throughout my 20s and 30s I was proselytising for more sex on television. Erotic desire is such a driving force in human nature, such a profound indicator of character and experience, that it seemed crazy not to represent it with a determined level of realism.
I felt frustrated that TV drama was so anodyne in this respect in comparison with films. I had to sneak off and watch movies such as 9½ Weeks or Don’t Look Now (still widely judged to have the greatest and most realistic sex scene in cinema history) if I wanted to raise my pulse.
Research has long shown extreme violence can have a corrosive effect on viewers, but there’s no evidence to suggest the same of post-watershed scenes of consensual, passionate intimacy. Yet, throughout my childhood and teens you were lucky if you ever glimpsed more than a kiss on the small screen, however much you wanted the 70s’ Ross Poldark to properly ravish Demelza.
So when the BBC screened a properly erotic version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1993, I was thrilled. My Bacchanalian chalice overflowed five years later when HBO launched Sex and the City. I felt the Western world had finally shrugged off its residual prudery.
But the sages are right: be careful what you wish for.
It was when I started watching Game of Thrones that I first became consciously queasy at the direction TV sex was taking. I loved the dragons and Machiavellian scheming and could just about tolerate the bloodbaths, but I winced at the lurid sex scenes. Was there any good reason for women to constantly be on all fours with gratuitously jiggling breasts while men had sex with them? I was disturbed by the fact so many such scenes lacked eye contact, sensuality and genuine intimacy.
Whose agenda was being served other than the kind of blokes who love pornography?
Then I tried The Fall and found myself repulsed by the way it eroticised the misogyny and sadism of Jamie Dornan’s serial killer, turning him into a seductive anti-hero whom the copper heroine (played by Gillian Anderson) lusted after. But I reached a personal nadir last week while watching MotherFatherSon, the BBC’s new drama about power politics, seen through the lens of a horribly dysfunctional family.
In Wednesday’s episode, the son Caden (a stroke victim) tore open his wound from brain surgery and then lunged open-mouthed at his mother’s breast while blood gushed all over his pillow. It was so Grand Guignol that I laughed in disbelief. I wondered what kind of dramatist thinks the only way you’ll understand this man had been infantilised is by watching him suckle his mommy? I also find it hard to forgive the fact that Caden’s mother in the drama (the luminous Helen McCrory) is made to look ridiculous when she played the most outstandingly sexy Anna Karenina I’ve ever seen.
But then MotherFatherSon is not the kind of thing you watch for its subtlety, or nuanced characterisation.
In the first episode, Caden was seen, pre-stroke, instructing a prostitute in the particularly outré ways he required her to be submissive. It seems to me you didn’t need to see the humiliation and pain on this young woman’s face to understand the key narrative point that Caden finds true intimacy impossible and pays to have perverse fantasies enacted.
The most annoying element about such scenes is the plea to viewers that this is serious psychological drama. Caden and his father Max – played with characteristic blankness by Richard Gere – are caricatures of immoral media barons. No amount of Beckett-like bedroom dialogue can flesh out a character when they’re only one shade of grey in other areas of their life.
The BBC’s most taboo-busting dramas from my childhood, A Bouquet of Barbed Wire (incest in the stockbroker belt) and I, Claudius (an orgiastic free-for-all in ancient Rome), managed to genuinely shock viewers while showing you almost nothing. The dramatisation engaged the imagination to supply the missing scenes. To this day I feel I actually saw the action in I, Claudius in which Messalina has a contest with a courtesan from the Guild of Prostitutes to see who – empress or whore – could sleep with the most men in one session. But it all happened off camera.
Nowadays, even sex for laughs can make me feel depressed. Netflix’s new drama Sex Education has a promising premise with its protagonist (the son of a sex therapist) acting as clued-up relationship counsellor to his classmates. But episode one opened with a girl (supposedly a teenager) having sex on all fours and swiftly reaching a big O despite the fact that her boyfriend showed no interest in anything other than old-style macho penetration. That’s not sex ed so much as 10 steps back to Game of Thrones.
The BBC’s recent series Wanderlust had a valiant stab at looking at a stale marriage but then asked you to believe that 52-year-old Steven Mackintosh – playing a teacher with all the charisma of a lobotomised actuary – would be the focus of 34-year-old Zawe Ashton’s desire.
The honourable exception is the BBC’s comedy Fleabag, where every detail of sex feels properly illustrative of the central character’s desires, frustrations, solipsism and urge to self-damage. In the first series, when Fleabag’s in bed with her laptop watching Barack Obama give a speech, only to be suddenly overcome with the urge to masturbate, many women I know giggled with recognition. That, it seems to me, is the holy grail of sex in TV drama: the unmistakable feeling that what’s being depicted – however difficult, explicit, messy or awkward – is truthful and necessary.
But it’s not just honesty I’m looking for in a sex scene, although that’s my minimum requirement. What’s rare now is voltage: the electric current palpably running between Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling in Tipping the Velvet (2002). Or the dangerous energy radiated by a young Daniel Craig in 1997’s The Ice House. The closest thing in recent years was the frisson between Dominic West and Ruth Wilson’s characters in The Affair, but then that long-running series – like so many love affairs – went stale.
To be blunt, I yearn for scenes that bring a flush to my cheeks, just as I yearn to know less about the peccadillos of sadists, perverts and serial killers. The narcotic sensation of erotic love is the most powerful phenomenon many of us will ever experience, so it’s only natural to long for a little vicarious gratification. Perhaps an obliging dramatist can give us a Cathy and Heathcliff for the 21st century.
– © The Daily Telegraph