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Sex on TV: More snooze than sizzle?

Hot or not? TV shows like "Tell Me You Love Me" leave little to the imagination.
Hot or not? TV shows like "Tell Me You Love Me" leave little to the imagination.Hbo
/ Source: contributor

Every year the new television season gets a label. This year there are several, like “Season of the Geeks,” thanks to the NBC series “Chuck” and “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. But here, we are interested in sex, of course, and that’s why we were so fascinated by how this new, still unfolding, TV season has been dubbed the “Season of Sex.”

“This Fall’s TV Season is Rated X,” announced the Christian Science Monitor.

If the current crop of shows like “Californication,” “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Cathouse” — a reality show set in a legal Nevada brothel — on pay cable, basic cable programs like “Mad Men,” and network offerings such as “Gossip Girl” haven’t convinced you, then soon-to-be-arriving series like the “Sex and the City” rehashes “Cashmere Mafia” and “Lipstick Jungle” ought to make the case. And if you need still more evidence, how about a mid-season replacement from CBS called “Swingtown”? As the name implies, “Swingtown” is about swingers; in this case, swingers living in the suburbs in the mid-1970s, sort of a “That '70s Show” for the parents.

You could argue that every year on TV is the season of sex. But this year the sex gets more graphic and more exploratory, which might make you think that we are becoming ever more perverse and deviant in what we’ll tolerate on TV. However, there is a case to be made that, on the contrary, we’re getting bored — that depictions of sex are now so pervasive, have so drenched the landscape, they are becoming so much white noise.

The new TV season, speculates Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, is evidence of a culture “in which the consumption of images of sex as entertainment has become a lot more widespread.” He uses words like “commercialized,” “vapid” and “empty.”

Sex on the menu
The Federal Communications Commission may have conniptions over sexual imagery on TV, those who object to such depictions may be poised with their pens over complaint letters, but many others may find that the whole thing is kind of a yawn.

“‘Tell Me You Love Me’ is a tedious show in which people have sex all the time,” says Los Angeles Times television critic Robert Lloyd. “And that, in a way, reflects how people feel about sex now. It is so on the menu that it is like going to a coffee shop or something.”

Clearly, I don’t hang out at the same coffee shops as Lloyd, and other critics have praised the show, but he makes sense. We live in what Lloyd calls “a post-porn world” where sexual content is at everyone’s fingertips. Literally. “You can’t walk 5 feet into our culture without running into a masturbation joke.”

Which may be why “Swingtown” is set in the mid-1970s and “Mad Men” in 1960. Take away the cigarette smoking and the space-age décor of the offices, the permanent waves and A-line flounces of the wives and secretaries, and “Mad Men” (and I do like the show) wouldn’t be all that interesting. Set “Swingtown” in a mythical modern-day neighborhood and you’ve got “Desperate Housewives.”

Andrejevic, who studies TV, especially reality shows, thinks it is possible that “we have become jaded about freedoms, cynical, ironic” and that we may be more “euphoric and wide-eyed” about the days just after the introduction of the birth control pill, a pre-AIDS sweet spot of newness when experimental sex seemed daring rather than fodder for a fashion magazine spread.

There is, he argues, “a certain nostalgia for that period when we were naïve enough to be excited, shocked, moved by things that now seem to us just as jaded and cynical as we are.”

So we enjoy the frisson of the “Mad Men” executives cheating on their wives because we know how naughty it was back then. It seems dangerous and risky. Likewise, “Swingtown” is supposedly (the producers declined to talk to us) meant to explore the era as much as the personal interactions of the characters. We are to be transported back to a time when we might have actually been interested in the fact that our neighbors have sex with other couples, a time before Sens. Larry Craig and David Vitter, a porn-drenched Internet and the shamelessness of reality TV.

The problem, of course, is that cats are tough to coax back into bags. The retro sheen may appeal to an older target audience who can recall when forbidden sex was, uh, forbidden, but younger viewers could not care less. People under 30 have been raised in the porn era and, one way or another, must address that sexual landscape as it is, not how it was.

Every adult (or at least every adult straight male) who can recall what it was like to discover a friend’s father’s Playboy stash in a basement, or who managed to swipe a copy off the newsstand, can recall the pounding heart, the flush, the thrill of the fantasy.

Now, though, suggests Andrejevic, you can see the habituation to porn images. “We are in a world where people are exposed to it more than they were prior to the Internet, and it seems clear that being able to access them so easily is a factor in being habituated. That’s the broadband world we live in. As kids grow up, they tend to find themselves having access. It is more a part of mainstream culture than when I was a kid.”

Keep it from the kids?
Ultimately, ratings will decide how much we care about swingers in the 1970s. Meanwhile, parents, naturally, worry about this sort of thing. Yet interestingly, they are worrying less. Last June, the Kaiser Family Foundation issued results of a study showing that even as the sex online, on TV and in movies exploded, fewer parents said they were “very concerned” their children were spending time with inappropriate sexual content. In 1998, 67 percent of parents said they were very concerned, but that dropped to 51 percent this year — a majority, but a significant decline, even as the amount of sexuality in the media boomed.

Part of the reason for this somewhat more sanguine parental view is that mothers and fathers felt they were doing a good job monitoring the kids. Dr. Victor C. Strasburger, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and an author of books about children and media, is dubious of these results, saying "parents are clueless. They have no idea what kids are seeing on TV" to say nothing of the Internet. Parents say they do because no parent wants to think they do a lousy job of keeping track, but in this age of non-stop sexuality content, you'd have to run a convent to keep the skin away from the kiddies.

But there is also a theory that the flood of sexual imagery and situations itself has worked the way being raised on a farm seems to protect kids from getting sick so often. The farm kids develop resistance because they are exposed to more germy muck.

Just so, kids may eventually develop a resistance to the sex and sexual situations they see and realize, suggests Andrejevic, that “porn is fake and kitschy and empty.”

Strasburger doesn't buy that theory, though, saying that kids will never become inured to sexual media no matter how much of it they see, and that we'd all be better off if we would stop hiding sex from kids and arm them with the information to face it by teaching them about it, instead of using programs like abstinence-only sex education.

So armed, maybe they will come to think it funny, if not quaint, that there was a time, say around the 1970s, when people got all worked up about it.