But what exactly is sex positivity, and what isn’t it? According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, it involves an openness to sexuality, understanding the importance of safe sex, regarding sex as healthy, pleasurable, and not taboo, and accepting the sexual practices of others without passing judgment.
Sex positivity involves making informed decisions while holding one’s autonomy paramount. You can be sex-positive and celibate! While sex-negativity utilizes shame and casts a dim filter on sex, sex-positivity views sex as neutral.
Sex positivity encourages open communication about sex. In a small-scale study, research at the University of Delaware found that exposure to sex-positive TV had a positive correlation with safer sex. This research suggests that there is a science behind why viewing sex-positive TV shows is powerful—these portrayals can help shift cultural attitudes, conversations, and feelings toward sex. Viewing sex positivity on-screen also helps keep sex out of taboo territory and reinforces that it’s okay and healthy to enjoy sex.
But don’t most people get adequate information about sex from sex-ed? Unfortunately, not really. Only 29 states in America mandate sex education. Plus, states can choose whether to stress abstinence or cover varying sexual identities with a positive or negative lens. Sex is also full of nuances—which traditional sex ed doesn’t cover. Sex can entail laughing, pausing, awkward moments, talking, joy, and tears. Sex-positive TV characters are serving us all of these nuances.
In the 90s, we had Samantha from Sex and the City as our sole reference for unabashed sex-positive women who love sex. Thankfully, with shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls, we are no longer starving for accurate portrayals of realistic sex on TV or sex-positive celebrities and shows.
Sex-positive TV characters can give us permission to live more authentic lives—whatever that looks like. Sex positivity doesn’t attempt to limit the fact that pleasure is acceptable and healthy, and neither do these women we admire.
“Thankfully, with shows like The Sex Lives of College Girls, we are no longer starving for accurate portrayals of realistic sex on TV or sex-positive celebrities and shows.”
#1. Dr. Jean Milburn
Played by Gillian Anderson From Sex Education
We would be remiss if we didn’t begin with the incredible series Sex Ed and Dr. Jean Milburn, who plays a sex therapist, sex educator, and mom of high school student, Otis. The show details Otis and his friend Maeve offering sex advice in the defunct bathroom of their school. Though she doesn’t know it, Milburn is the informant of much of this advice. Unlike many, Otis grows up with a parent who normalizes that sex is something you shouldn’t be afraid of asking questions about. Plus, she frequently strikes up new lovers to continue learning for herself.
“Intercourse can be wonderful, but it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you're not careful, sex can destroy lives.” - Dr. Jean Milburn, Sex Education
#2. Brianna Hanson
Played by June Diane Raphael From Grace and Frankie
Brianna Hanson is a sex-positive TV character who is unapologetic about her sexual appetite and chock-full of sarcastic wit. She vehemently rejects conventional relationship narratives such as cohabitation, getting married, or having children. With on-again, off-again boyfriend Barry, we watch Brianna dismiss common relationship norms until she is sure for herself that she wants something more serious. She ends up proposing to Barry, asking him to stay permanently engaged to her. Brianna morphs the conventional mold of marriage and makes it work for life. Brianna’s agency calls the shots with every decision she makes. As a whole, Grace and Frankie makes some pretty remarkable advances for sex-positive TV shows—like normalizing sexuality and pleasure as you age by creating a vibrator for seniors.
#3 Kat Hernandez
Played by Barbie Ferreira From Euphoria
Teen drama Euphoria centers around Rue, her battle with addiction, and the dynamic groups of friends and peers that surround her. One of these peers, Kat, is a powerful and unapologetic high schooler who teaches viewers about body neutrality. It’s refreshing to see a curvy girl whose plotline doesn’t revolve around hating her body. Season 2 depicts Kat reckoning with toxic positivity culture when a gaggle of Instagram influencers surround her in a hallucination, shouting “love yourself!” Kat makes viewers question whether or not sentiments of toxic positivity bear any substance. Body neutrality’s concept is body acceptance, without putting too much thought into whether you love or hate what you’re working with.
Kat initially becomes a cam girl and embraces sartorial choices that stop hiding her body and instead, flaunt it. She also plays with being a “dominant.” She’s a character that shows us sexuality is ever-evolving, especially when you’re a teen just trying to figure things out. As Kat declares in season 1, “There’s nothing more powerful than a fat girl who doesn’t give a f***.”
#4 Virginia Johnson
Played by Lizzy Caplan From Masters of Sex
There’s nothing Virginia Johnson can’t do. Masters of Sex is set in the 1950s when women typically had roles as secretaries and housewives. Virginia Johnson challenges the status quo through everything she does—her job, how she mothers, and the sex she enjoys outside of traditional marriage. Her character also depicts astounding contributions to science; the research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whom the show is based on, pioneered sex research and helped create a foundation about what we know about sex today—-like how arousal works! Virginia partakes in many of the clinical experiments for the sake of “science” (read: orgasms, too) in the show, but she also shows a meticulous brilliance, eroticism, and openness to learning all there is to know about her pleasure.
#5 Jane Adler
Played by Meryl Streep From It’s Complicated
The plotline of It’s Complicated is in some ways complicated, and in other ways, a reminder that sex and relationships are non-linear. Jane Adler has sex with her ex-husband after spending a decade as divorcees. The movie depicts post-divorce relationships and what it’s like to navigate relationships as a menopausal empty-nester. Jane’s character is a pivotal reminder: age doesn't define sexual prime. Further, age does not signify that people automatically have all the answers. Sex, and why we are drawn to having it with certain people, is sometimes complicated. When so many plotlines depict divorce as wiping a slate clean, Jane’s character can help viewers normalize this is not always the case.
Sex-positive women on screen can help us learn to navigate relationships with permission granted for a spectrum of preferences. These trailblazers remind us: the most important part of sex-positivity is being fully behind your choice, whatever that may be.