For Gen Z’s on-screen counterparts, moments of raw passion have been exchanged for obsession with the purity of youth—why can’t both exist at once?
Boston, a metropolis overflowing with unruly college students, has been not-so-affectionately termed the sexless queer capital. With only two large gay bars surviving the city’s rampant property turnover, many young queer Bostonians haven’t had the opportunity to experience public sexuality in all its frantic glory. The data doesn’t lie: Gen Z is the least sexually active generation in recent history. Former Gawker columnist Steven Phillips-Horst said it best in his viral tweet about Boston’s gay scene: “No one even grinding. Gen Z sexual devolution is real.”
For years, television has been the primary modicum for sex-laden queer media. Even before queer people could be shown on TV, LGBTQ+ audiences tied themselves to frequently bawdy shows like Sex and the City and The Golden Girls.
Then, around the turn of the millennium, there was a major change: We got our own shows. There was Queer as Folk, with the intrepid, lusty affairs of Brian and Justin; The L Word, pushing queer femme sex into the limelight. Of course, these series left out broad swaths of queer people, suggesting a long road ahead for true representation. We wouldn’t get fulfilling stories featuring trans people and queer people of color for years—though you could argue that they haven’t even arrived yet.
Nonetheless, this first wave created a media ethos in which television could portray queer lives in all their filthy glory. They were swings in the dark—and thus, creators were allowed some freedom for play. That play was obscene, lewd, and undeniably satisfying.
Dr. Hollis Griffin, queer television scholar and associate professor of critical media studies at the University of Michigan, helps put these first shows into perspective: “They were kind of watershed moments—[the first time] a mainstream network, Showtime, reached out to LGBT audiences. They’re iconic for that reason.”
“Much as these early hallmarks represented a culture of queer sexual liberation, our generation’s television mirrors our sexless culture. Moments of raw passion have been excised in exchange for obsession with the purity of youth.”
Notably, in 2000—the year Queer as Folk was first released—the LGBTQ+ television market was fairly bleak. Shows like Friends and Ellen featured queer people, but only within the machine of daytime television, allowing for one- to two-episode, one-dimensional arcs. Will and Grace had premiered two years before, updating the traditionally-heteronormative sitcom structure by introducing queer narratives; but it left out the entire question of queer sex. MTV’s reality offerings, like The Challenge and The Real World, emphasized it, but not as a dramatic inquiry—it was a dash of scandal. Audiences were hungry for fully-realized queer stories. That initial wave of the 2000s provided an imperfect first taste.
Much as these early hallmarks represented a culture of queer sexual liberation, our generation’s television mirrors our sexless culture. Moments of raw passion have been excised in exchange for obsession with the purity of youth. Young adult queer content is dumped onto streaming platforms in truckloads, from Netflix’s Heartstopper and Young Royals to Hulu’s Love, Victor.
“TV’s particular political economy has transformed in a way that makes queer young adult content really attractive,” Dr. Griffin said. “And lucrative, potentially.” Of course, the genre is nothing new for the broader media industry. The publishing world has been pumping out queer YA novels for years, with ballooning revenue for each subsequent release. Shows like The Real O’Neals and One Day at a Time—released in 2016 and 2017, respectively—are recent additions to a long history of media-infused self-discovery, where kids look to television to form their sexual and gender identities. The difference, now, says Dr. Griffin, is that the industry has discovered its potential in new ways.
These shows are undeniably important. A generation of queer kids will be empowered by them, feeling less isolated in seeing a version of themselves on their TV screens. The problem isn’t their existence; it arises when YA series are the only queer shows entering the mainstream market. As the Ryan Murphy-verse becomes increasingly tasteless, and the plot of Killing Eve further devolves, queer mainstays are drying up. Meanwhile, streamers continue to pull back their investments in adult queer content, and provide little promotion for the shows they do release.
This is the essential fallacy of the queer YA television surge: It’s not just kids who are asked to watch, but queer people everywhere. It’s all we have—unless you’re willing to dig through the weeds for that perfect diamond in the rough. Queer television has experienced the fabled “sexual devolution,” zapping up mainstream raunchy, or merely romantic, shows and replacing them with glorified teeny-boppers.
Dr. Hollis characterizes this shift best: “Television in the US is a consumer medium. Sexuality is always recalibrated on TV to make it audience-friendly and business-model-friendly and advertiser-friendly.”
“Television in the US is a consumer medium. Sexuality is always recalibrated on TV to make it audience-friendly and business-model-friendly and advertiser-friendly.”
Consider three of the most influential shows in queer television, each spaced around 10 years apart. First, of course, there was Queer as Folk. Though the production value certainly reminds the viewer of its original release date, something about the show’s deviancy remains undeniably modern. Then there’s Looking, which debuted on HBO in January 2014. The show tried to recapture Queer as Folk’s initial spark, filling lusty gay hearts with steamy tableaux starring fan-favorite Jonathan Groff. Still, it remained a bit watered-down—unwilling to quite go there. Sex scenes were brief and smash-cut with other events, almost as if the producers were afraid to engage. And then, we arrived at the queer behemoth of the 2020s: The White Lotus. Mike White, one of the few filmmakers who dared to display queer sex in the modern era, still kept these scenes brief and plot-focused. We get glimpses of intimacy between Armand and Dillon in season one, and Quentin and Jack in season two, but they’re clouded by their onlookers’ perspectives. These people are caught in the act, and thus the sex lasts only two seconds of surprise. From 2000 to 2023, queer sex on TV has been reduced from close looks to simple glances.
When adults look for more outwardly sexual queer content, they often have to consult unconventional sources, like non-English language shows or reboots. International hits Netflix’s Élite have captured mass audiences, rekindling the flame of those early lust-filled hits. Meanwhile, networks iterate on those original watershed shows, crafting a brand-new Queer as Folk and The L Word: Generation Q. These series, while offering up promising new concepts and plotlines, fall short simply because of their lack of originality. We need fresh queer stories, not attempted cash-grabs for what worked in the past.
We also shouldn’t ignore the trove of incredible queer content that merely goes unseen, struggling under a lack of promotion or big-name stars. Those shows still exist, but they’ve been pushed toward the background with dwindling audiences. Think HBO’s The Other Two, or Netflix’s Special: A select few tweet about them endlessly, while the vast majority of viewing audiences haven’t even heard of them.
Maybe the sexual devolution of mainstream queer television is more favorable than we think. Dr. Hollis certainly finds the upside, noting that it attracts a set of more culturally and politically diverse eyes: “Television brings [queer] content to people who might not encounter it otherwise,” he says. “So it has political utility, even though it is watered-down sometimes.”
Still, shouldn’t we have both? Is it possible to have both purified, widely-appealing YA television, and those more illicit, revealing queer shows? The growth of one should not mean the drought of the other—and queer audiences everywhere shouldn’t be banished to sexless television.