Is horny TV dead?

Everything from 'Bridgerton' to 'Pam & Tommy' is making a concerted departure from our pandemic-era soft porn obsession.

by Meg Walters
|
05 April 2022, 7:00am

They said a Vibe Shift was coming – something to do with lower waistlines or new hair partings. But it seems that in the world of television at least, a very different vibe shift may very well be brewing. 

It didn’t take long after Bridgerton season two dropped on Netflix last week for fans of the show to realise that the vibe is, well, a little different. Bridgerton's main claim to fame in season one was that it offered what was essentially racy Regency-era soft porn. There were two sex scenes in the first 20 minutes of episode one. At one point, there was a five minute sex marathon montage set to a classical strings rendition of Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams". In total, the characters got it on 15 times in the space of eight episodes. In other words, there was loads of sex.

But a lot has been written about Bridgerton's relative sexlessness in season two already: there are – gasp – only two bodice ripping scenes in the whole eight episode run. Why, oh why did Bridgerton forsake its horny roots? Was it a defiant return to the long, yearning glances of a broody leading man, a Colin Firth or Hugh Grant type from the classic period dramas of yore? Or was it, as show creator Chris Van Dusen suggested, a slow burn in an attempt to build sexual tension before the moment of – ahem – release? Or, does this move away from the display of overt horniness mark a bigger cultural shift in the world of horny television?


The first season of Bridgerton came out at the end of 2020. It was also the time of racy, provocative shows that seemed perfectly primed for our repressive pandemic era, shows like Normal People, Industry, Valeria, Elite, Sex Education, Tiny Pretty Things… the list goes on. The Evening Standard branded 2020 "the year of the game-changing sex scene". In 2021, the The Times even published an essay on "the sexual revolution for TV and film" suggesting that 2020 was the year of the proudly, overtly, explicitly sexual TV show. But it’s not just the pandemic that set us alight for soft-core TV. In fact, the past decade has seen television embracing horniness more than ever before, with titles like Game of Thrones and Outlander.

Recently another type of TV show has begun to emerge: the sexless show. Slowly but surely, the trend to plaster our screens with explicit sex is dying out with more and more contemporary shows are beginning to shun the sex scene. In its place, we are treated to polite, distant yearning or, ever a classic, the slow fade to black. In season two of Bridgerton, notably, the sex scene is replaced with a sort of feverish angsty yearning. Physical intimacy is out, and in its place is all tortured repression, long, lustful glares and heavy breathing in each other’s faces. 

In The Gilded Age, another period drama, sexual desire is distant from the main plot. And when it does appear, it is a limp, tepid kind of desire. It’s a kiss between a couple with no real chemistry or a coyly suggestive candle being blown out as a husband gets into bed with his wife. The one overtly sexual scene features a presumptuous maid being unceremoniously (and very unsexily) rejected as she lies naked in bed. So too in the latest season of Succession, where sex remains apparently uninteresting to the writers. Even the twisted sexual encounters of Roman and Geri are a thing of the past (save for an incredibly awkward dick pic accidentally sent to the wrong person, of course). We as the viewer are left to settle with the warped sexual tension simmering between the pair, and perhaps between Tom and Greg, or deeply unhorny loveless foreplay between Shiv and Tom. In Hulu’s recent Elizabeth Holmes series, The Dropout, sex occurs in the background rather than the foreground. And like Succession, on the rare occasion that it does occur, it’s twisted, uncomfortable, power-oriented sex rather than horniness for horny’s sake.

Of course the sex scene has not disappeared in its entirety from our screens. In Pam and Tommy, also from Hulu, we do get a few sex scenes, which you might expect from a show about an actual sex tape. But it’s fair to say that this is not a horny show of the ilk of early Bridgerton. The graphic sex scenes in Pam and Tommy feel deeply uninviting. In a show that was marketed as “the greatest love story ever sold,” onscreen sex was portrayed as a dirty commodity, leaving the viewer feeling more gross and voyeuristic than vicariously turned on.

So, why are we seemingly not so interested in sex anymore - at least on TV? Are we entering a post-horny era? While some fans are allegedly disappointed in the lack of sex in Bridgerton 2.0, if we look elsewhere, it’s clear that our cultural relationship with sex is shifting away from this type of horniness. Our lack of sex on screen is, rather depressingly, indicative of a lack of IRL sex too. Numerous recent studies have found that our interest in having sex is diminishing. Gen Zers, it would seem, are having less sex than the generations that preceded them.

But it’s not just that young people are having less sex – they’ve also been busy redefining what ‘sexy’ actually looks like. A 2021 Vogue article, “Gen Z is Redefining What ‘Sexy’ Means”, dove into the generation’s resounding rejection of traditional “sexiness” in favour of authenticity, comfort and empowerment. In a way, the graphic on-screen sex scenes of old don’t really mesh well with these shifting tides. Yes, recent ‘horny’ shows have done a remarkable job of transforming the sex scene, hiring intimacy co-ordinators and giving us a long-overdue depiction of female desire and female pleasure. But even with this modernisation, curated TV and film sex, replete with its pretty camera angles, artistic close-ups, and soft lighting, has begun to feel a little dull, a little lacking. In the most recent crop of TV shows, it seems that even the revolutionary female-gaze-sex-scene is no longer of much interest. 

Of course, we're all still human and we still get horny. The nature of sexual desire hasn't changed. But maybe the way we are both dealing with it in life and watching it play out on screen has. Maybe, depicting horniness solely through gratuitous sex scenes isn't quite the revolutionary act it once was. TV today is giving us sex that is tangled up with all the other stuff – the power dynamics, the self-denial, the angst. And so, the era of the sex-filled show is fading away. In its place, a new era is being ushered in. An era in which sex is rarely pure, never simple – and ultimately, just not all that horny.

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TV
bridgerton