The most raunchy summer show could change the way we talk about sex.
There have been a number of TV shows (Sex Education, Shrill) and books (Three Women, Kokomo) about sex in the past 12 months. But what has caught viewers by surprise is that the most raunchy series this summer is not the new Love Island/Too Heavy To Handle genre iteration, but a period drama set in the early 1800s.
As the cream of London society starts a new season of debutante balls and betrothals, all under the watchful eye of omnipresent gossip writer Lady Whistledown, Bridgerton, now streaming on Netflix, begins innocently enough (voiced by none other than Mary Poppins herself, Julie Andrews). The centre of the action is never too far from sin, slander and scandal.
And yet, quite shockingly, the sex goes from a very PG-rated roll in the hay between Viscount Antony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and his opera singer lover, to seriously in-your-face lessons on female masturbation, oral sex, and perhaps the most screen time the withdrawal technique has ever had in popular culture.
Since the Christmas Day premiere of the series, critics have jumped on various themes and scenes, from the serious (the issue of consent, specifically female-on-male rape) to the trivial (for example, The Cut's desire to become the dessert spoon of the Duke of Hastings). There were columns on the sheer cringeworthiness of watching the series with young family members or, worse, parents, and detailed reviews of the precision of the story lines, adapted from Julia Quinn's bodice-ripper romance novels.
The steamiest scene is arguably in episode seven, when Hastings, played by Regé-Jean Page, performs oral sex on a marble staircase with his soon-to-be-estranged partner, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor). If you think, "Why are people making such a big deal about this?" it's because male-on-female oral sex is an act in such tasteful detail that is rarely portrayed on film.
Jacqueline Hellyer, sex therapist and relationship coach, says there has been a notable shift on screen to "meaningful sex" particularly thanks to shows such as Outlander and Sense 8.
She says, "We’re starting to see sex portrayed differently on TV," Sex as art, sex as passion, sex as meaningful... it's not porn, it's just entertainment that can tap into the unresolved problems we have regarding sex.
"It's all about sex in a 'evil' example and not about the relation. A very deep link between the lovers is what we see in Bridgerton. We see the progression of lovemaking, right from the frisson... they're always up against the wall in movies, not even looking at each other. Between two sets of eyes, two sets of lips, two whole bodies, good sex occurs.
Susie Tuckwell, a sex therapist, says that despite women's success, society still has some "ambivalence about female sexuality." We believe that being expressive in all of your facets is wonderful and nice... but there is an underlying concern that they will be in danger if women are too sexual, particularly if it involves young women.
Still, she says, any show or film that portrays female pleasure in a positive light and "encourages people to have good, thoughtful conversations about sexuality puts us ahead"
"Tuckwell says that if handled sensitively, using a show like Bridgerton to spark a conversation between partners or even parents and teenagers about sexual well-being or sexuality can be a useful tool. And try not to preach. "Go by the lead of [the other person]. Are they ready for the talk, or will it give them enormous quantities of anxiety? One of the things that's helpful is being really honest, even saying something like, 'This is really humiliating, are you all right with it? '.'
Hellyer believes that pop media can help people build their "sexual vocabulary" while she says many of her customers do need help to translate their desires into real life from what they see on television.
Hellyer, who watched Game of Thrones with her teenage son, is a fan of watching steamy series with teenage children. "I could tell him what was bad sex, [where the woman] wasn't enjoying herself," she says. Similarly, parents should highlight their children's examples of "good sex"
And never mind the setting of the 1800s, says Jessica Ford, University of Newcastle lecturer in film, media and cultural studies; the treatment of sex by Bridgerton is more modern than the setting suggests.
The emotions and experiences encountered by the characters are profoundly familiar," Ford says, even if the setting is not, "The portrayal of sex is an extension of the feelings between these characters. It's probably not precise, so who cares? "
Ford says that before he achieves orgasm, the scene in which Daphne pushes herself on Simon, and the oral sex on the stairs scene has the power to cause conversations about consent and female pleasure, and that's a good thing.
"What that [staircase] scene so beautifully does is contrasts the desire, pleasure and joyousness and celebration with which the show approaches female pleasure and the restraints and dictates of the time," says Ford.
Still, the fact that the Duke often uses sex as a power play over his wife also reveals how sexuality has been used to "police" the bodies of women throughout history, she adds.
Ford says executive director Shonda Rhimes, who also made Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, is known for "complex, difficult female characters who experience pleasure and joy and happiness and agony in ways that are celebrated"
The characters "are shamelessly invested in their own pleasure and happiness" in Bridgerton, Ford says. "Even contemporary set dramas do not often allow women to be "complicated" of this kind."