Story by Eliana Dockterman Video by Diane Tsai
In the first episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath submits herself to awkward, humiliating and—for some—realistic sex. Her friend with benefits, Adam (Adam Driver), takes charge of the encounter and won’t even answer the question of whether he’s putting on a condom. It was a scene that made many cringe, but it signaled a transformation in the television landscape. Sex on TV, it turned out, didn’t have to be romantic—or even appealing.
Five years after Dunham’s first unsatisfying hookup on Girls, sex on even the most mainstream shows is beginning to look more like what happens in our own bedrooms, from Marnie receiving anilingus on the season premiere of Girls to The Americans’ infamous 69 scene last season. We’ve entered a new era of realistic, wide-ranging on-screen intimacy that reveals as much about our society’s evolving social and sexual politics as it does about any one character.
Some of this is a result of technological changes. New streaming services, not bound by industry rules and norms, are taking bigger risks, such as the Amazon show Transparent about a middle-aged father coming out as transgender. And the growing number of platforms is making room for a more diverse array of writers on shows like Girls, Transparent and How to Get Away With Murder. This new generation of dramatists is disposing of the straight, often white male point of view and approaching sex from the female, gay or trans perspective. House of Cards’ Beau Willimon even credits the advent of the Internet and its abundance of online porn for freeing him from relying on sex scenes as an enticing ratings booster.
Critics debate whether we’ve passed the golden age of television defined by shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and whether new TV dramas will live up to those classics. One thing is certain though: We are in a new age of sex on TV. TIME spoke to six of the showrunners who are taking sex seriously.