Let's talk about sex, baby

Last updated 09:45 04/04/2012

There was a time, not too long ago, when the mere mention of the word "sex" had me cringing in my seat, cautious of what was about to happen on screen. Naturally, I'm talking about an episode of The Simpsons from 1995.

20120404The episode was titled The Last Temptation of Homer, and it featured Homer Simpson contemplating whether to start an affair with co-worker Mindy (voiced by Michelle Pfeiffer)*; late in the episode, the pair go to a hotel room and Homer starts crying. Mindy asks what is wrong. "Oh, yeah, like you don't know," cries Homer. "We're gonna have sex!"

Fortunately my cringe reflex towards sexual content has diminished since I was 14 years old, though I still find myself slightly taken aback when Sookie suddenly disrobes in front of Eric on True Blood or Littlefinger's whorehouse features in an episode of Game of Thrones.

Furthermore, I think my reaction is why I find the idea of "sexposition" so interesting.

Sexposition is a term coined by critic Myles McNutt to describe those scenes in a television show when important plot information is given to the viewer while a sexual act is occurring on screen; he first used it to describe these kinds of scenes during the first season of Game of Thrones, like the infamous scene in which Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (played by Aidan Gillen) talks at length about his motivations while two prostitutes perform sexual acts on each other.

The word is a play on exposition, where a lot of background information is given to the viewer in a single scene. The difference with sexposition is that it provides an intimate setting and a diversion for the viewer, so we barely even notice it happens. Time critic James Poniewozik rightly says that this point of difference makes the sex and nudity less gratuitous.

Sexposition is hardly a new tactic, though it does seem to be limited to HBO shows. In a recent article for The Guardian, Michael Hann mentions its use in shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood - you can also see it in Boardwalk Empire, and occasionally in True Blood (though nudity often feels more gratuitous there).

And you can see it in Game of Thrones, which started its second season in the US this week. The first episode is available on iSky right now, free for all SoHo subscribers, ahead of its official launch date of April 16. If you're a Thrones fan, I really can't recommend this episode highly enough.

Getting back to the subject at hand, though, the question is whether sexposition is actually a useful tactic for writers.

I'm not suggesting that avoiding large downloads of information is a bad thing; there is nothing worse than interrupting the action with a long, boring scene in which the characters catch us up on everything that has happened up until that point. But isn't sneaking those long scenes in by essentially yelling "hey, it's not background information, it's a sex scene" just as bad?

Maybe the biggest problem with sexposition is that the sexual side of those scenes is increasingly used to shock the audience. For example, Littlefinger wasn't just monologuing while two chicks pashed on a couch; they were engaged in a rather more explicit act, occasionally being directed by Littlefinger as he took breaks from his expository speech.

We can be tricked into placing more importance on such scenes because they seem more memorable than a simple sex scene. Perhaps we place even more importance on it than the scene really deserves.

I'm not saying sexposition can be seen as a shortcut for writers who can't present the information required in any other way, or that it exploits and insults viewers by implying that we need something other than a complicated plot to keep us interested.

I'm not sure it's as bad as that - but I definitely think sexposition scenes can be quite off-putting.

So what do you make of sexposition, those unnecessary sex scenes that seem more important than they might be? Do you find they affect your enjoyment of a show? Which shows do you think do it well?

(*) The Last Temptation of Homer is also the source of one of my favourite Simpsons gags ever, involving the now-legendary Joey Jo Jo Junior Shabadoo.

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38 comments
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Jon D   #1   09:53 am Apr 04 2012

HAHAHAHA Joey Jo Jo Junior Shabadoo. You would have fitted right in at our flat Chris

Andrew   #2   09:56 am Apr 04 2012

The fact that this is even a point for discussion is just a remnant of puritanical influence. Talking during or around sex should be no more 'shocking' than monologuing during a fight scene, which is an action genre staple. Sex and sexual interaction is an important part of relationships and characterization.

If the presence of a sex scene 'affects your enjoyment of a show' then the problem is with you, not the show.

Scott   #3   09:58 am Apr 04 2012

The graphic Littlefinger scene was more significant than just exposition. It was also showing the character's total disinterest in the women in his brothel, and linked back into his desire for one, and only one, woman.

As for the latest episode of game of Thrones, I only remember it having one brief sex scene that didn't really explain anything.

sam   #4   10:01 am Apr 04 2012

I was watching that very scene with my partner and as soon as she seen the 'sex acts' happening she immediatley said change the channel, I tried to explain that I wasn't watching it for that but it was important to hear what he was saying be cause if I had missed it then him turning on Eddard would of come as a huge surprise

aryastark   #5   10:05 am Apr 04 2012

I'm not watching Game of Thrones until it airs on Soho, as I want my 40 inch and surround sound for that pleasure. Still, it was nice of Evil Sky to put it on the internets. I'm all for sex scenes, but most of them are silly. Only a few are actually a turn on involving pretty people and great chemistry, such as Season 1 of True Blood. GOT has too many gratuitous boobs. Shame that the plot doesn't call for Jaime Lannister with his kit off, without his horrible sister. Or Jon Snow for that matter, I guess its too cold at The Wall.

Allessandra   #6   10:09 am Apr 04 2012

This worked particularly well in Deadwood. It brought so much more understanding to the fantastic Al Sweragan character and his motivations. God, I loved that program.

I watched Game of Thrones the other night, cannot wait for that little Joffrey character to meet his hopefully dastardly end. They have done their job well 'cause I hates him like a hateful thing. :-)

Mad Men is another program that uses sexposition well with huge insights into the characters involved. Anybody else see this weeks episode? God, love that Betty is battling demons ...

ljlj   #7   10:21 am Apr 04 2012

Strike back has to also get an award for the most ridiculous gratuitious sex scenes. There's so many of them, and so badly fitted in it's almost like there's a quota system in play. Luckily they tend to be so over the top that they're more funny than cringy.

It's funny that in the 80's naked boobs were the standard in b-grade movies and now they've shifted to being the standard in (sometimes) artsy cable shows.

JessL   #8   10:35 am Apr 04 2012

I am fine watching scenes like that alone, but I do find it brings an awkward vibe to the room if I am watching it with my flattie. Or my parents. Or my Grandma. I do think it kills some shows because I could never watch or discuss them with my family.

BuckoNZ   #9   10:38 am Apr 04 2012

Although some of the graphic sex scenes in todays TV are "sexposition", most of it, to my mind is just gratuitous. I'm not a prude - by any stretch of the imagination - but I don't think sex scenes need to be as graphic as they have become to make their point. One show that has been on lately with completely unnecessary sex scenes is the Cinemax show 'Strike Back'. Cinemax made it's known for it's late night soft porn, so I suppose it should be no surprise.

Leon   #10   10:55 am Apr 04 2012

Whilst I do recall the scene with Littlefinger (Baelish) ... I could not tell you in any way what he was saying. I think there might have been some sort of "bla bla" in the background, but that really wasn't what I was paying attention to.

This is the risk of a sexposition. The audience gets sexstracted.


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