So you’re taking the creative plunge and producing a web series. And you know your show about to obliterate the internet because it has everything audiences are thirsty for - Action! Adventure! Comedy! Romance! A diverse cast and crew! And the biggest crowd-pleaser of them all - SEX!
But - as sexy as your web series idea is, it actually sex-positive?
You might be thinking to yourself “Of course it’s sex-positive. I like sex, so that means I am sex-positive. More sex, please!” However, sex-positivity is about way more than just enjoying sex - it is an entire social movement that focuses on challenging beliefs, stereotypes, and educational practices that make people ashamed, misinformed, or oppressed regarding their sexual practices. Sex-positivity is the idea that sex is a healthy part of human life and that everyone, regardless of identity or background, should feel affirmed, informed, and empowered to make their own choices about their bodies, so long as those choices are safe and consensual.
Art and media, particularly television and film, are where we get a lot of information about sex and sexuality. And sometimes (honestly, frequently), that information is inaccurate or sometimes even dangerous. But as an independent filmmaker, you have the power to portray sex, intimacy, and relationships in a way that’s inclusive, intersectional, and true to the experiences of your audiences. Here’s how:
1. CONSENT IS SEXY AND MANDATORY.
We’ve all seen it: the romantic comedy where our heroes are staring into each other’s eyes before we cut to them ripping each other’s clothes off. What we don’t see is the moment where both characters consent to having their clothes ripped off. You might think this is a waste of a few valuable seconds of film, but showing consent onscreen normalizes asking for consent in real life. Part of the reason people think consent isn’;t sexy or will ruin the mood is because it’s so rarely modeled for us.
Consent it doesn’t have to be boring. It can be seductive, funny, weird, empowering, sweet - whatever makes sense for your story. It can also help develop your characters. The way your nerdy character asks for consent (“Would you perhaps enjoy some cunnilingus?”) is different from how your grandma might (“not that position please… I just got a hip replacement”).
Consent can take many forms: One, asking for permission:
CHARACTER A: Wanna fuck?
CHARACTER B: Fuck yeah!
Two, a proposal…
CHARACTER C: Would you… ever be down for a threesome?
CHARACTER D: You know I can’t multitask.
CHARACTER C: You right. Let’s not.
Three, a discussion of preferences and boundaries…
CHARACTER E: Wanna do it on the kitchen counter?
CHARACTER F: I just cleaned it. Bend me over the kitchen table?
CHARACTER E: Absolutely.
There are even more forms consent can take: dirty talk, checking in during the act to see if it’s okay to take things to the next level, and even nonverbal cues, as long as both characters are actively participating and the power dynamic is balanced. Consent to one sexual act doesn’t imply consent to all sexual acts, so you can&'t cut from a steamy makeout to a finger up the butt without displaying consent first.
2. EVERYONE IS SEXY.
Straight, skinny, cisgender white people aren’t the only people who get laid. Sex and sexuality for people of all identities and body types deserves representation. Part of the reason we don’t think certain types of people are attractive is because of the way they’re portrayed – or excluded altogether.
- Give your Asian male character a sex scene!
- Give your trans character a sex scene!
- Give your overweight character a sex scene!
- Give your two black characters a sex scene!
- Give your queer characters a sex scene!
- Write an asexual character! Give them intimate scenes that don’t involve sex!
And when you give all of these beautiful characters sex scenes, don’t make those scenes solely about their identity or body type. An otherwise empowering sex scene with an overweight character becomes disempowering the minute you make it a joke, a fetish, or The Most Important Moment of that character’s life.
Normalize desirability across identities and body types. Even better, employ or consult people who occupy these identities so you’re not writing from stereotypes or assumptions but from real experiences.
3. SEX =/= SHAME
Another common scene is the wave of regret waking up after a hookup, followed by the hurried walk of shame home. If you’ve seen this, more than likely it was a female character experiencing that shame. While that’s sometimes the character’s emotional truth, making shame the default without additional motivation (ex. sexual violence or infidelity) perpetuates the stereotype that women aren’t supposed to enjoy casual sex. That stereotype in turn perpetuates slut-shaming, self-blame, the belief that rape is just “bad sex” and other toxic aspects of rape culture that deny women agency over their bodies and experiences.
Also? We like sex, and we’re bored with this trope.
On the other side of the spectrum, avoid hypersexualizing men – especially men of color and queer men. This perpetuates rape culture by making it harder for male survivors of sexual violence to come forward because society thinks they constantly want sex. Men are complicated (we see you, men!) and no human being wants to bang all the time.
Speaking of which, there are some people who don’t want to have sex at all, for a number of reasons. Maybe they’re abstaining, maybe they’re not ready yet, or maybe they’re asexual, and that’s totally fine! Contrary to popular belief, you can be sex-positive while choosing not to have sex, and those folks deserve on screen representation too!
4. LET’S TALK ABOUT SEXUAL VIOLENCE.
1 in 4 cis women, 1 in 6 cis men, and an even higher percentage of trans and nonbinary folks have experienced sexual assault, so you can guarantee there will be survivors watching your web series. In fact, there’s probably at least one on your set.
With that in mind, here’s how to handle sexual violence in your story:
- Why is sexual violence or coercion present in your narrative? Is it just a plot device, or are you using the story to uplift survivors and educate your audience about rape culture? There is a lot of room to make a positive impact by addressing these issues in your art, but if handled irresponsibly you could continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and trigger or silence survivors.
- If you decide it’s important to your story, how are you depicting it? Does it happen onscreen? If so, why? It can be triggering for many viewers and likely removes agency from the character who is the victim of sexual violence. Instead of illuminating a character’s experience of violence, it gives the audience an opportunity to judge the character’s actions during the assault and possibly blame them. You can show us all of the circumstances that led to the violence as well as its aftermath without writing a rape scene. Whatever the audience imagines during that jump cut will be just as impactful – if not moreso.
- If there’s a survivor of sexual violence in your story, are they just a victim? Or do they have hopes, dreams, characteristics outside of this experience? Their personhood should exist beyond their victimhood. One of the reasons sexual violence is so traumatic is because agency was taken from the survivor – restoring agency to your survivor characters makes for an empowering and interesting story.
5. IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO SHOOT A SEX SCENE.
Residents of the village include:
- Actors who are comfortable with and consent to the content of the scene.
- Intimacy choreographers who help establish boundaries between actors and crew and help the scene look hot without making anyone feel unsafe.
- Sex educators and/or rape crisis centers can educate your cast and crew and provide resources if your show contains sexual violence.
- People behind the camera who reflect the people in front of the camera. If your show is about women, people of color, and queer folks, your crew shouldn’t be full of cishet white men.
6. WRAP IT UP.
People use birth control, and your characters should, too! Unless you’re writing a utopia without STDs, that risk is present in every sexual encounter. Show your characters using condoms, and, if applicable, barrier methods and other forms of birth control. Show your characters getting tested! And again, use your platform: normalizing something onscreen can empower people in the real world. It takes two seconds to open a condom on camera, Issa Rae! (We love you though. Hire us!)
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kyra Jones and Juli Del Prete are the creators and stars of The Right Swipe, a new sex-positive intersectional feminist romantic comedy. Kyra is also a sexual violence prevention educator and survivor advocate.
The Right Swipe follows two best friends who start a business fixing men’s dating app profiles, entangling their own lives in the process. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram and donate to our Seed & Spark campaign to help us bring sex-positive content to the screen!