The Long Road to Lesbian Sex & Sensuality on Network TV

Editor’s note: This article was first featured in February of 2016, but a lot can happen in a year. With shows like “The Good Fight” and soon to be released “The Handmaid’s Tale” among others, are LGBT characters getting more representation? Are lesbians going to be seeing more or less screen time in 2017? 

Ever since gay and lesbian characters first began appearing on American TV, their romantic relationships have been treated with a double-standard compared to their heterosexual peers by networks worried about censors, advertisers, and viewer response. Throughout the 1990s, major networks were excruciatingly cautious about showing physical contact between same-sex couples for fear of alienating viewers and advertisers.

In the early 2000s, broadcast networks became more comfortable with showing queer relationships, but physical contact, references to sexual activity, and even the amount of screen time given to most same-sex couples still remained less than that of their heterosexual counterparts. Since 2013, however, there seems to have been a general shift towards parity between heterosexual and queer couples. Has network television’s double standard finally disappeared for good? 

In 1991, when NBC’s L.A. Law debuted the first same-sex kiss on network TV, between C.J. Lamb and Abby Perkins, advertisers threatened to pull their ads over the scene. When NBC aired a lesbian wedding on Friends five years later in 1996, the network expected tens of thousands of angry phone calls and letters even though there was no kiss at the end of the ceremony or anywhere else in the episode. (It got four phone calls, for the record.) 

The first open-mouth kiss between two women on prime time television didn’t come until 1997, on ABC’s Relativity, and for all of the 1990s, there were only about four female same-sex kisses on network TV at all.

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Physical contact between same-sex partners remained strictly controlled by some networks into the early 2000s. Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon told NPR in 2000 that when he first pitched a relationship between Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, the WB stipulated that there be no kissing. Whedon, acutely conscious of the disparity between the graphic sexual scenes between Buffy and Riley and the tame hand holding between Willow and Tara, tried to get around network restrictions by using spell casting as a metaphor for sex.

Even though Willow and Tara begin dating early in Season 4, it wasn’t until the middle of Season 5, approximately 22 episodes later, in the episode “The Body” that Willow and Tara were first allowed to kiss. And even then, according to actress Amber Benson (Tara), “it was like pulling teeth” to get the WB to allow it even though Buffy and Spike were allowed to be depicted having public sex on a gravestone.

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When Buffy moved to UPN in 2001, the new network gave it more latitude: in the episode “Seeing Red” in season 6, viewers saw Willow and Tara naked in bed for the first and only time, and in Season 7 Willow and Kennedy got a sex scene in the episode “Touched.” In total, Willow got just one actual queer sex scene on the show, but this scene, which aired in 2003, was the first lesbian sex scene in broadcast TV history —meaning it took network television 12 years to go from showing a same-sex female kiss to showing a sex scene.

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And Buffy was one of the most socially progressive shows on air at the time. The glacial pace at which broadcast shows typically moved is typified by the treatment of Bianca Montgomery on ABC’s soap opera All My Children: Bianca came out in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2003 that she had her first same-sex kiss. And it wasn’t until 2009, a full nine years later that she was shown for all of five seconds in bed with her wife Reese kissing—a “sex” scene (sort of) at last.

For most shows airing on network TV or basic cable between 2000-2010, the discrepancy between the treatment of physical contact between queer and straight couples was so large that you almost always could count on one hand the number of times a lesbian couple kissed, even if they had been dating for multiple seasons. Straight couples on the same show, in comparison, might kiss that many times or more in a single episode.

The disparity in sex scenes for queer and straight characters could be particularly stark. For example, in Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars Season 1 episode “A Person of Interest,” which aired in 2001, Hannah and Caleb have sex in a tent in the woods even though they technically haven’t started dating yet. Emily’s first implied sexual contact with Maya isn’t until most of the way through Season 2, in the episode “A Kiss Before Lying.” Emily doesn’t have an actual on-screen sex scene until the end of Season 4, in the episode “Shadow Play,” a scene that lasts under 10 seconds and ends when Emily’s hand touches Paige’s bra strap (yes, I counted the seconds). 

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Many shows airing after 2010 on cable and streaming subscription services like Netflix incorporated sexually explicit couples that were much more forward leaning than network television. However, it’s finally beginning to improve. There have been multiple scenes of passionate female same-sex kissing or actual sex scenes involving main characters on shows like ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomyand FOX’s Glee, among others.

To demonstrate the extent of this change over time, consider the depiction of queer female sex on the CW’s Jane the Virgin. In season one, which aired in 2014, lesbian Dr. Luisa Alver had three sex scenes. In one of these scenes, from the episode “Chapter Ten,” Luisa pins Rose down on a bed by her throat and then straps her wrists to the bedframe before they have sex. The scene would have been unthinkable ten years before. The CW was a 2006 merger between UPN and the WB. Whereas the WB allowed just one same-sex kiss on Buffy in 2001, 13 years later it was airing explicit same-sex scenes. 

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In 2013, GLAAD introduced the Vito Russo Test, intended to analyze the representation of LGBT characters in films to ensure that the characters are not predominately defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity and that the characters are actually important to the plot and not simply window dressing. We want multi-dimensional, key LGBT characters. Although TV has progressed monumentally in allowing same-sex couples to be physically affectionate and even sexually active, there are still examples of subtle inequalities that show a small degree of backsliding may be possible. 

Going forward, an add-on to the Vito Russo Test could, therefore, be: Do same-sex and opposite-sex couples have equal screen time and include an equal number of kisses or sex scenes? If writers and directors asked themselves this question any time they wrote scenes for romantic pairings on their shows, this would put the final nail in the coffin for what was, in retrospect, more than 25 years of double-standards.

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