Twenty years ago, you would have hardly ever seen sex referenced on TV. On rare occasion, you may have caught a heavily veiled reference to bedroom activities, or seen a little bit of foreplay in the form of a chaste, close-mouthed kiss. A post-coital under the covers scene was pushing the envelope, and any allusion to same-sex love was totally off the table. But things have progressed over the last few years, and, for better or worse, TV has been slightly more open about how babies are made.
It’s not been without controversy though, especially as some viewers wish this part of adult life would stay far away from their living rooms. On that note, here are 16 of the most controversial TV sex scenes — some of these literally started protests.
16. The Sense8 Orgy
If you haven’t sat down and watched any of Netflix’s Sense8 yet, then you totally should. All sex scenes aside, it’s really progressive in how inclusive it is about gender and sexual identity issues as well as racial ones — well worth a watch. Most viewers are totally here for how the story works around these different issues and presents relationships in forms other than your standard monogamous heterosexual one. But when the series finale depicted a huge orgy, there was quite a bit of an outcry from viewers. Orgies are just something most people are still not all that comfortable with, and this one followed a wedding, which was especially throwing for some. The show’s creator meant for it to be a joyous moment, one that says big things about tolerance and being inclusive, but many just didn’t see it that way at all.
15. The True Blood Rape Scene
True Blood definitely had its fair share of sex scenes. There’s all the vampire sex, and the days-long orgy that Maryann instigates, and Bill even has incestual sex with his great-great-great granddaughter Portia. Plenty of these things inspired outcry from audiences who thought the writers were crossing a line (admittedly, much of it is fairly unnecessary and adds little-to-nothing to the show), but the most controversial sex of all came from season four. Jason Stackhouse gets kidnapped by a group of werepanthers who take him back to a house, tie him to the bed, feed him a Viagra-esque drug and repeatedly rape him. It’s unique in that very few shows ever show women as rapists, but audiences didn’t care for how graphic and extended the scene was, and really no one feels good about seeing rape portrayed ever.
14. The Game of Thrones Incest Scene
Game of Thrones is another one of those shows that has no problem having a sex scene or twenty in every episode. And while we can applaud their open attitude about it all, the show has still faced a good amount of controversy for it. It started early on, like in the first episode. Cersei and Jamie Lannister (who are brother and sister, for those of you not so familiar with GoT) are shown getting pretty hot and heavy in a tower room, and many fans, especially those who were brand new to the franchise, were thrown off and vowed to never watch another episode of the series. It was far from the last time viewers see incestual sex, but it was definitely the time with the biggest backlash.
13. The Girls Cake-Eating Scene
Talk about pushing boundaries! Girls is probably the most frank and open about its characters’ sex lives. The friends have no problem discussing their bedroom behaviors in very blunt terms, but even still, many were shocked by that anilingus scene. Marnie and Desi get down and dirty in their kitchen, and their “cake eating” is front and center. No fading-to-black before things really get started, no editing out of the pleasure they both get from the intimate act — it’s all right there for viewers to take in. It was a first for broadcast TV, and many viewers felt that it went a step too far. “Regular” sex is one thing, this was something totally different.
12. The Handmaid’s Tale Ceremony Scene
In Gilead, the world is literally structured around sex, so the show wouldn’t work without plenty of intimate scenes. But there was one that really had many viewers feeling up in arms — the “ceremony” scene with the commander. Offred’s duty as a handmaid is to be a vessel for pregnancy, but it’s also a forced duty, not one she willingly chooses. Which means every time an attempt is made to conceive a child, she’s being raped. There’s one scene, on season one, where Fred engages in the conception “ceremony” with Offred, and things get so brutal that his wife can’t even watch. This is state-ordained rape and the clinical but ugly methods behind it caused quite a stir when it first aired on Hulu.
11. The Gossip Girl Threesome
Okay, okay. This one isn’t technically a sex “scene” as you never actually see any of the action take place on screen, but when Gossip Girl aired an episode that contained a heavily-implied threesome, parents and watchdogs were livid. The show was aimed at teens, and while we all know that teens have sex too, many thought that a threeway crossed a line. It’s one thing to portray sex as something that’s deeply thought through and done in a loving, long-term relationship. It’s another thing to show something like this. Even on an “edgier” show (drug use, sex and underage drinking all get bopped about frequently), this was a hugely controversial move that garnered a lot of flack. Especially because Lizzie McGuire was involved!
10. The Queer as Folk Gay Sex Scene
Brian and Justin’s first hook-up scene on the pilot episode of Queer as Folk is much less graphic than many of the others on this list, but that didn’t make it any less controversial. The scene was one of the first gay sex scenes between two men to exist on television, which, as you can probably imagine, made it a huge deal. When it aired in 2000, people were outraged that something like this could appear on a cable network — that it was no longer reserved for the “adult” channels they felt it belonged on. But the scene was a huge step forward for inclusion and the cultural normalization of LGBT rights, so we’re all for it.
9. The Americans 69 Scene
For a show about cold-war espionage featuring to KGB officers, The Americans sure had a lot of sex in it. Like a lot. But one of the most controversial scenes came on the second season. After Elizabeth’s nearly-fatal gunshot wound, she returns home a lighter, more present person. It was an attitude that clearly transferred into her sex life. One night, the couple’s daughter, Paige, walks into her parents’ room to ask a question and finds them mutually engaged in oral sex. Whoops! The scene was a first for any cable network, and the graphic nature, as well as the daughter observing it, turned a lot of people off on the period drama.
8. The Masters of Sex Clinical Scene
On the other hand, if a show is called Masters of Sex, you’re set up to expect a pretty hefty dose of intimate scenes. And for the most part, the scenes are pretty tame and always feel necessary to the storyline. But there is one scene that stirred up quite a bit of drama when it first aired — the scene where Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson have sex for science while hooked up to various machines. This is among the more graphic of the show’s sexy bits, and lots of people were weirded out by the scientific, emotionless portrayal of such a deeply personal act. So basically, they were upset for the exact opposite reason that every other scene on this list bothers them. There’s just no pleasing some people!
7. The Westworld Orgy
Until I set out to write this list, I never really realized how many orgies there are on TV these days. Sense8, True Blood, True Detective (more on that later) and Westworld all have them. The Westworld scene caused a literal firestorm when it aired, and even before it aired. Extras were required to sign consent forms allowing “genital to genital touching” (which, if you know nothing about making TV is absolutely not the normal). There was full-frontal male nudity (very rare, as we all know), and almost everyone involved was painted gold, which just threw viewers for a loop. To make matters worse, the three main characters involved stayed fully clothed the entire time, which made it all just feel gratuitous.
6. The Tell Me You Love Me HJ
Tell Me You Love Me only lasted for one season, but it managed to stir up quite a bit of dust during its ten-episode run. The show revolved around three couples who are all seeing a sex therapist to help them deal with intimacy issues in their relationships. As you may imagine, the HBO show was very candid when it came to the actual depictions of sex, and a scene is featured on the pilot episode where one of the main characters, Palek, receives a very graphic handjob from his wife, Carolyn. The show wanted to feature the actor’s actual anatomy but was unable to for rating reasons. So they used a fake penis that released hair conditioner at exactly the right time. It looked real, and people were really distraught about how similar the entire thing was to porn.
5. The Insecure Cheating Scene
On episode five of Insecure, Issa Dee finally does what fans had been predicting for weeks — she stays late at the studio and cheats on her boyfriend with Daniel. The whole thing is pretty steamy to watch, there’s a good amount of nudity and passion involved, but the viewers were less up in arms about the actual portrayal than by what it all meant. Many people felt that Issa was wrong to cheat on Lawrence, and were offended that such a great show would have such a major character sink to such low depths so early on. There was a lot of talk about whether or not the show was worth watching after that particular scene aired. Plenty of viewers thought that it showed the moral compass was off enough that it wasn’t worth their time. But hey, everyone makes mistakes. It’s nothing that wouldn’t, and doesn’t, happen in real life.
4. The Girls Miscommunication
Surprise, surprise. Girls had two scenes rank on this list. During the episode, “On All Fours,” there’s a storyline that follows Hannah’s ex-boyfriend Adam. His alcoholism resurfaces, and after he falls off the wagon, he has a horrible encounter with his new girlfriend, Natalia. Many, many, many people thought that what Adam did (forcing Natalia to crawl to his bedroom on all fours, having some weird, emotionless rough sex with her, and then finishing on her chest) constituted rape. Natalia was definitely not into it. And the scene is violent, jarring and really, really hard to watch. There’s no clear-cut answer to the questions this scene brings up, but even for a show with so many graphic bits in it, this one really crossed a line.
3. The True Detective Orgy
Told you we’d get to this one later. Here’s the thing about orgy scenes, especially those on HBO: More often than not, they serve no real purpose in driving a show’s plot forward. It’s really just for shock-factor. Even if there is a little bit of story advancement tied up in them, like this one on True Detective where Ani slices up a creepy dude leaving him for dead, the story could have moved on just as well without the sex and naked bodies. Not that we’re prudes! These scenes continue to be controversial because they just feel unwarranted — there’s no good explanation for them except for the fact that some creep involved in script writing wants to see his most secret fantasies acted out on screen. Which is hardly a good reason.
2. The Sopranos Birthday BJ
The scene isn’t even 30 seconds long, but fans of The Sopranos were not having it when Tony received this birthday blow job from Carmella. Nothing is shown at all (you only know exactly what has happened when Carmella crawls out from under the sheets up by Tony’s head), but Tony’s reaction and enjoyment are animated and surprising. Of all the scenes on the list, this one is probably the tamest and most family-friendly, but it just goes to show that there’s really no way to depict intimacy on TV without causing someone to be upset.
1. The Shadowhunters Malec First Time Scene
Nothing about this scene went beyond a PG-13 rating and yet it caused a huge outcry from fans of the show – and shippers of Magnus and Alec’s relationship in particular. Essentially, Malec fans felt that Magnus didn’t actually give consent for sex at this moment, but that Alec pressured him into the whole thing. It all begins when Alec comes to Magnus’s door and kisses him, saying he wants to take the next step and have sex for the first time. Magnus resists, saying that he’s not sure the timing’s right and that he’s afraid of losing his partner if they progress physically. But Alec won’t take no for an answer, saying that Magnus has nothing to worry about and that “he wants this” before pushing him into the bedroom and (presumably) sleeping with him. It definitely feels questionable, and there’s no verbal or physical consent given, so fans took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the scene. This is one case where the writers absolutely could have done better.