Voices: Gen Z are right about sex on TV – friendships are more compelling

Seeing sexual relationships on screen is one of the ways people learn about them, so if they’re done well, as in ‘Sex Education’, that can be a positive thing (Netflix)
Seeing sexual relationships on screen is one of the ways people learn about them, so if they’re done well, as in ‘Sex Education’, that can be a positive thing (Netflix)

The first time I saw a full episode of Sex and the City, I was 15. It was on an old twelve-inch box television I’d appropriated when my parents upgraded theirs, and it sat on the drawers at the end of my bed, the volume turned way, way down so that no one would hear me watching. Wrapped in my duvet I sat riveted but alert, poised to switch it off if I heard footsteps on the landing.

From discovering the rabbit vibrator to learning that there were actually men out there who liked going down on women (18-year-old me had yet to meet any), I cannot imagine my sex life without it the show. But it seems I am showing my age. A new study reveals Generation Z viewers would prefer films and TV shows to focus on platonic relationships, rather than sexual ones. Moreover, 48 per cent of those surveyed said that “sex and sexual content is not needed for the plot of most TV shows and movies.”

As a millennial, this is baffling to me. I simply cannot imagine being a teenager and feeling like there’s too much sex on the telly. For me, seeing sex on screen was a vitally important part of how I learnt to cast off shame, figure out what I wanted, and consider what I might enjoy. And as a bisexual woman, growing up under Section 28, seeing queer sex represented on screen was even more crucial. I was 10 years old before anyone saw a lesbian kiss on primetime telly. It was another decade before the universe delivered The L Word, a show I couldn’t even watch because I “didn’t have Sky,” (another extremely millennial problem). I eventually got hold of a DVD.

But it wasn’t just voyeurism. Or, not only. I desperately wanted – needed! – to see what those kinds of interactions might look like and how they might make me feel. Porn (and let’s not forget that was also less accessible at the time) could only offer so much. I needed to see what came before the sex, what happened after it, how people looked at each other across bars and park benches and pool parties and boats, how they spoke to one another, how they flirted, how they left things the next day.

That Gen Z apparently don’t feel this way is curious. It’s tempting to dismiss them as a bunch of sex-negative “puriteens” who want to bring back censorship. Spend enough time on social media and you will absolutely find that kind of thinking. But this characterisation doesn’t chime with my experience of… well, actual zoomers.

This is a generation with access to the entire internet, after all. I don’t think they are less interested in sex than we were, I think they’re just better informed. To test this theory, I called up my 17-year-old niece and asked her if she thinks there’s too much sex on screen.

“To an extent,” she tells me. Seeing sexual relationships on screen is one of the ways people learn about them, so if they’re done well, as in Netflix’s Sex Education, that can be a positive thing. But she agrees that she’d love to see more explorations of platonic relationships. It really annoys her when fictional friendships “end up being made into romantic or sexual relationships.” Indeed, her main gripe with the notoriously sexy teen drama, Euphoria, is that so many of the characters end up dating. “It just ruins everything,” she complains.

I know what she means. The friends-to-lovers trope is tired. Watching The Bear, this summer, it felt genuinely refreshing to see the intimacy between the show’s main characters grow, develop, wobble, and right itself, all while remaining platonic and (mostly) professional. I have no time for “SydCarmy” shippers.

This attitude also chimes with what I’ve learnt from ethical non-monogamy (ENM). “Relationship anarchy” (RA), which is a style of ENM, rejects the notion that romantic and sexual relationships are inherently more valuable than platonic ones. Those who practice RA seek to treat all their relationships with equal weight, and priority is not automatically given to lovers and romantic partners.

Perhaps, then, these Gen Z viewers are merely questioning the idea that romance is the pinnacle of a relationship – critiquing a culture that tells them the people they have sex with are more important than the ones they don’t. If that’s the case, I think they have it right.

Intimacy comes in so many flavours and forms, and it would be wonderful to see diverse kinds of close personal relationships portrayed, including those on the asexual spectrum. But when it comes to platonic versus sexual relationships, I say let’s have both. After all, what was Sex and the City if not a show about friendship?