12 TV Shows That Nakedly Explore Sex Work, Porn, and Sexuality

12 TV Shows That Nakedly Explore Sex Work, Porn, and Sexuality
Image: Sex Educatiom/Netflix
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There’s plenty of sex on TV, though much of it is incidental window dressing — thoughtlessly tossed in as if by decree from ratings-hungry executives (looking at you, Game of Thrones).

Honestly, I’m the last one to turn up my nose at a bit of gratuitous nudity, especially given that we’re beginning to see a bit more gender parity on that front. But it’s much rarer to see anything resembling a true exploration of sexuality: the messy, complicated, sweaty, and occasionally gratifying realities of sex, porn, masturbation, sex work, fetish, relationships, and trauma.

Still, over the past decade, there has been a noticeable uptick in smart, interesting, often sex positive shows exploring different types of relationships and sexualities while normalizing good ol’ healthy fucking. Here are a dozen of them to add to your watchlist.

Sex Education (2019 –, 3 seasons)

Many of us come from families with philosophies that could be described as…less than sex positive. Which is not great. This popular British series imagines the life of a teenager with a parent on the opposite end of that spectrum: Mum (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist who’s not particularly good at romantic relationships. As a result, Asa Butterfield’s Otis Milburn grew up with an ambivalence toward the topic — a lack of interest that held until he realised that his inside knowledge of doing the deed could earn him friends (and paying customers) at school.

With some classmates, he establishes his own clinic to help fellow students with their sexual concerns and problems. In the process, Otis, and the show, address a wide range of issues — birth control and abortion, masturbation, sexually transmitted diseases, and developing sexual identities — all while the characters are growing and learning about themselves. The series was renewed for a fourth season back in September; no word yet on that release date.

Where to stream: Netflix

Adult Material (2020, miniseries)

Hayley Squires plays Hayley Burrows, a thirty-something mother of three children. She’s also a porn star with the screen name Jolene Dollar. A veteran of the industry, she helps out the younger women when she can, and winds up complicating her own circumstances when an incident involving coerced anal sex causes harm to a 19-year-old newcomer. Despite all that, the show (which is produced with the help of advisors from the real-world adult film industry) takes an unusually measured approach: It presents sex work as having the same pros and cons as any other job. It’s no paradise, by any means, but it’s not a seedy nightmare, either.

Where to stream: SBS on Demand

Wanderlust (2018, miniseries)

Wanderlust explores the sort of sexual awakening that occurs a bit later in life. Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh play a middle-aged couple with three kids who decide that, for the sake of their marriage, they’re goin to mix things up — staying together, but engaging in a bit of polyamory. The show explores the topic honestly and with tremendous compassion, though it doesn’t suggest that open marriages are for everyone, nor that it’s the kind of thing that’s going to heal every underlying issue.

Where to stream: Netflix

She’s Gotta Have It (2017 – 2019, two seasons)

Like the Spike Lee classic that it’s based on, She’s Gotta Have It follows Nola Darling (now played by DeWanda Wise), navigating the modern world of sex and dating without ever compromising on her own sexuality. Throughout the first season, she dates three men and one woman simultaneously, without shame or apology — not quite as shocking as it was back in 1986, but the show still presents a rare portrait of a Black woman entirely comfortable with herself.

Where to stream: Netflix

Looking (2014 – 2016, two seasons and a movie)

Looking isn’t exclusively about sex, but it undergirds everything that happens in the series. Jonathan Groff plays Patrick Murray, a 29-year-old game designer from a conservative family who’s only just beginning to explore love and sexuality as an out gay man in San Francisco. Other couples in the show navigate polyamory and age gaps, doing so in a way that makes it all seem ordinary. For some viewers, that lack of high drama was a turn off, but the show’s refusal to approach modern, urban gay life as something shocking is exhilarating in its own way.

Where to stream: Binge

Masters of Sex (2013 – 2016, four seasons)

Covering a historical time period of nearly 15 years, this is the (sometimes highly) fictionalized story of sex research pioneers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). With a style reminiscent of Mad Men, the show impresses for in how it is far less lurid than its title suggests, instead approaching sexuality with a deep earnestness that occasionally borders on the schmaltzy. No matter: There are plenty of shows with lots of sex, and fewer that approach the topic with this degree of compassion.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Big Mouth (2017 – , five seasons)

Puberty, for most of us, was…quite a bit. A conflicted mess of hormones and bodily fluids and misinformation with everyone pretending that nothing at all is going on. Big Mouth, from Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett (accompanied by other recognisable voice actors), recognises all of that and jokes around about it the crudest ways possible, with literal hormone monsters personifying their most intrusive thoughts. Shit gets wild: Kristen Wiig plays the anthropomorphic vulva of one of the main characters; Kristen Bell guests as Pam, a very special pillow forced to deal with an unwanted pregnancy; a recent Christmas special delivers on the promise of showing you Santa’s dick (and throws in his balls as a bonus). For all of the (very) off-colour jokes, the show airs topics that ought to be discussed, and treats its characters with compassion. It’s been renewed at least through a sixth season, probably coming late in 2022.

Where to stream: Netflix

Easy (2014 – 2016, three seasons)

Joe Swanberg’s relationship anthology follows a variety of Chicago couples navigating love and sex in their various relationships. The format involves largely standalone episodes, with some recurring threads and occasional revisits in subsequent seasons — Kyle (Michael Chernus) and Andi (Elizabeth Reaser), for instance, enter into an open marriage in season one, with individual episodes in seasons two and three checking in on how it’s going. Other episodes deal with characters moving past infidelity and the dangers of inviting others into their relationships. On some level, all of these stories deal with familiar struggles, even if in unfamiliar contexts, and do so with open-minded compassion.

Where to stream: Netflix

Bonding (2019 – 2021, two seasons)

Tiff Chester, psychology grad student, moonlights as a dominatrix and enlists an old high school friend as an assistant; he winds up discovering new aspects of his own sexuality due to his exposure to Tiff’s work. There was a fair bit of criticism of the show’s first season from some in the BDSM community, largely relating to inaccurate portrayals of the kink, as well as its use of clichés, like Tiff’s history of sexual trauma serving been a basis for her interest in domination. The second season made some considerable improvements in those regards, presenting a (generally) positive view of sex work and fetish.

Where to stream: Netflix

Never Have I Ever (2020 –, two seasons)

Following a family tragedy, the already awkward 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) has a pretty terrible freshman year of high school, and decides that she’s going to turn things around the following year, hoping that a nearly academic study of sex will get her the boyfriend(s) her raging hormones have begun to demand. It works, to a point — but getting a surprise yes to sex from her crush leads her to question what she’s really ready for. More about burgeoning sexuality than sex specifically, this Mindy Kaling-produced series is both honest and charming.

Where to stream: Netflix

Special (2019 – 2021, two seasons)

Special isn’t about sex, per se. Not nearly to the extent that many of the other shows here are. But it does offer a perspective on sexuality that’s almost entirely unique on TV: the main character, Ryan Hayes (writer/comedian Ryan O’Connell, playing a character inspired by his own experiences) is a gay man with cerebral palsy, navigating the worlds of disability and queerness alongside all of the other complications of modern dating and sex. There’s also a sideline about Ryan’s mother (Jessica Hecht) simultaneously rediscovering sex.

(Atypical is a very different show, centered around a teenager with autism, but similarly addresses dating and sex for a character on the disability spectrum. It’s also on Netflix.)

Where to stream: Netflix

Secret Diary of a Call Girl

There was tremendous virtue in enlisting beloved pop star and Doctor Who companion Billie Piper for the role of Belle Baxter, a fictionalized version of real-life blogger and former London call-girl Brooke Magnanti, who wrote under the name Belle de Jour. It’s a frequently funny and juicy drama, but its most important innovation is in presenting a sex worker who’s mature, smart, middle-class, and educated, dodging so many stereotypes of the industry.

Where to stream: Prime Video

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