Let's talk about sex, baby

20:34, Apr 09 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.

The 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.

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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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