"I couldn't help but wonder...": Representations of sexually explicit behaviours in "Sex and the City" and "The L Word"


  • The sexual content of television shows may influence the attitudes and behaviours of viewers (Ward, 2002).

  • The male gaze, which is a phenomenon whereby the camera is used to objectify women by treating the female body as erotic, is used in media to appeal to a male heterosexual audience (Mulvey, 1989). This may impact how women and LGBTQ+ characters are portrayed even when a heterosexual male audience is not the intended audience (Albertson, 2018; Andsager & Roe, 2003).

  • Previous publications on The L Word focused on how sexual behaviours on the show are used to attract a heterosexual audience, lack of character diversity, gender expression of characters, and the exclusion of butch characters (e.g., Burns & Davie, 2009; Ciasullo, 2001; Farr & Degroult, 2008; Moore, 2007).

  • Previous research on Sex and the City included discussion about a variety of topics including an examination of the sexual behaviours/talk in the show, female nudity, and female empowerment (e.g., Jensen & Jensen, 2007; Lorié, 2011).


Current study

  • The purpose of the current study was to examine the explicitness of sexual behaviours in Sex and the City and The L Word.

  • The revivals of the series were incorporated into the study as well. According to Bradway & Beard (2015), television is often guilty of reinforcing the negative stereotype that older adults are asexual. Returning cast members in the revivals are now considerably older, which provides an opportunity to examine possible differences in the frequency and explicitness of sexual behaviours their characters engage in on screen in the original series and the revivals.


Hypothesis: It was hypothesized that The L Word would feature more representations of explicit sexual behaviours per hour compared to Sex and the City (e.g., orgasms, oral sex, nudity).


Research questions: How do the revivals compare to the original series in terms of the amount of explicit sexual content? How do the revivals compare to each other in terms of the amount of explicit sexual content?




  • 94 episodes of Sex and the City, 70 episodes of The L Word

  • 10 episodes of And Just Like That…, 8 episodes of The L Word: Generation Q.



  • A coding form and coding book were developed for use in the study, containing a set of behaviour categories and definitions based on previous studies. Literature that was referenced included Sex on TV4 (Kunkel et al., 2005), the James Bond 007 Analysis Codebook (Neuendorf et al., 2006), and articles by Kunkel et al. (2005) and Ribisl et al. (2003).


Coding Procedure

  • 18 episodes of Sex and the City (19.15%) and 14 episodes of The L Word (20.00%) were cross coded to ensure reliability in coding; the revival series were coded entirely by one coder.

  • The unit of analysis was sexual behaviours, which were coded as mild or explicit and only if they were intended to be sexually arousing. The number of orgasms per episode was also recorded.

  • Within each sexual encounter, only the most explicit behaviour – determined using the hierarchy of explicitness developed for the study – was coded.

  • Sexual encounters were treated as separate if: a change in location, change in partners, a scene break, or an orgasm occurred. If multiple behaviours at the same level of explicitness occurred within a single encounter, only the first behaviour was coded for.



  • Hypotheses and research questions were examined using descriptive statistics and Mann-Whitney U tests. An independent samples t-test was used in one instance – when comparing total instances of explicit sexual behaviours per hour on And Just Like That... (AJLT) and The L Word: Generation Q (LWGQ) – as this data was normally distributed.


Research Question One: How do the revivals compare to the original series in terms of the amount of explicit sexual content? 


Figure 3a and b. Sexually explicit behaviours in Sex and the City vs. AJLT



Figure 4a and b. Sexually explicit behaviours in The L Word vs. The L Word: Generation Q

Research Question 2: How do the revivals compare to each other in terms of the amount of explicit sexual content?











Figure 5a and b. Sexually explicit behaviours in The L Word: Generation Q vs. AJLT


  • The results of the present study are consistent with previous research and reinforced the sexualization of the female body that exists in media.

  • There were more instances of explicit intimate touching per hour in The L Word than Sex and the City. This supported previous literature that examined the use of female homosexuality in media to appeal to a male audience (Kim et al., 2007). Femme characters in The L Word were sexualized as they fit the fantasies of male viewers who were able to see these characters primarily as sexually-appealing women (Ciasullo, 2001).



  • Fewer explicit sexual behaviours were present in AJLT compared to Sex and the City and LWGQ. This is perhaps due to the sexualities of older women being poorly represented in media, as the AJLT actresses are now in their 50s, compared to the younger LWGQ cast. Poor or absent representation can contribute to older women feeling ashamed of their sex lives or hiding their sexual desires (Bradway & Beard, 2015).



  • Both shows were considered highly influential during their original runs and shaped public discourse about female sexuality. The behaviours and norms that individuals learned from their exposure to this series could have impacted how they conceptualized sexual behaviours as well as sexual and relationship health. Research has shown that sexual content in media can impact individuals' thoughts and attitudes about sex (e.g., Ward, 2002)

  • The L Word likely served as a sex education source for queer individuals and viewer’s opinions about the LGBTQ+ community were likely impacted by their opinions of the characters. The abundance of sexual content on The L Word may have led viewers to view queer women as primarily sexual individuals and ignore the complexity of the characters’ relationships and lives.

  • The L Word and Sex and the City still impact viewers today as streaming allows individuals to easily watch these shows. The L Word may be disproportionately influential, due to a lack of LGBTQ+ characters in the media (GLAAD, 2017).



  • Coding of montage scenes of sexual encounters

    • When multiple camera shots were combined into a montage, sexual behaviours were counted separately when different characters were involved in the sexual behaviour and/or when it was implied that there was a shift in time. If this did not occur, then only the most explicit sexual behaviour in the montage sequence was coded for. By coding in this manner, the number of instances of certain sexual behaviours that were observed may have impacted the results of the study.  

  • Only coding sexual behaviours that occurred in the “real life” of the characters (i..e., not fantasies or dreams)

  • Difference in episode run time


Future Directions

  • Research should explore both media that is intended for LGBTQ+ audiences and media that depicts LGBTQ+ sexual content intended for a heterosexual audience. Furthermore, research should examine the difference in the portrayals and explicitness of these behaviours across these two media forms.


  • Femme characters were primarily observed in The L Word as they are appealing to a heterosexual male audience whereas butch characters, who may be appealing to a queer female audience rather than a heterosexual male audience, were represented less (Farr & Degroult, 2008). Future research may compare the frequency of butch characters and femme characters in media, in addition to the types of sexual behaviours they are shown engaging in.


Poster References

[1] Ward, L. M. (2002). Does television exposure affect emerging adults’ attitudes and assumptions about sexual relationships? Correlational and experimental confirmation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(1), 1-15. http://doi.org/10.1023/A:1014068031532


[2] Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In: Visual and Other Pleasures (pp. 14-26). Palgrave Macmillian. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-19798-9_3


[3] Jensen, R. E., & Jensen, J. D. (2007). Entertainment media and sexual health: A content analysis of sexual talk, behavior, and risks in a popular television series. Sex Roles, 56(5-6), 275-284. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9167-z


[4] Lorié, A. F. (2011). Forbidden fruit or conventional apple pie? A look Sex and the City’s reversal of the female gender. Media, Culture & Society, 33(1), 35-51. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443710385499


[5] Burns, K., & Davies, C. (2009). Producing cosmopolitan sexual citizens on The L Word. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 13(2), 174-188. https://doi.org/10.1080/10894160802695353


[6] Ciasullo, A. M. (2001). Making her (in)visible: Cultural representations of lesbianism and the lesbian body in the 1990s. Feminist Studies, 27(3), 577-608. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178806


[7] Farr, D., & Degroult, N. (2008). Understanding the queer world of the l-esbian body: Using Queer as Folk and The L Word to address the construction of the lesbian body. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 12(4), 423-434. https://doi.org/10.1080/10894160802278580

[8] Moore, C. (2007). Having it all ways: The tourist, the traveler, and the local in The L Word. Cinema Journal, 46(4), 3-22. https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2007.0045

[9] Gómez, B. O. (2011). Television to the rescue of romantic comedy: “Sex and the City’s” revitalization of the genre at the turn of the millennium. The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences: Annual Review, 5(11), 127-138. https://doi.org/10.18848/1833-1882/CGP/v05i11/51940

[10] Kim, J. L., Sorsoli, C. L., Collins, K., Zylbergold, B. A., Schooler, D., & Tolman, D. L. (2007). From sex to sexuality: Exposing the heterosexual script on primetime network television. Journal of Sex Research, 44(2), 145-157. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224490701263660

[11] Bradway, K. E., & Beard, R. L. (2015). “Don’t be trying to box folks in”: Older women’s sexuality. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 30(4), 504-519.              https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109914560741


Additional References

Alberston, W. C. (2018). Sleeping with the enemy: The male gaze and same-sex relationships on broadcast network television. In D. Harp., J. Loke., & I. Bachmann (Eds.), Feminist approaches to media theory and research (pp. 53-64). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-90838-0_4

Andsager, J., & Roe, K. (2003). “What’s your definition of dirty, baby?”: Sex in music video. Sexuality & Culture, 7, 79-97. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-003-1004-8

GLAAD. (2017). Where we are on TV report: 2017- 2018 season. GLAAD Media Institute. https://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2017-2018.pdf

Kunkel, D., Eyal, K., Finnerty, K., Biely, E., & Donnerstein, E. (2005). Sex on TV4. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/sex-on-tv-4-full-report.pdf

Neuendorf, K. A., Janstova, P., Synder-Suhy, S., Flitt, V., & Gore, T. D. (2006). James Bond 007 analysis codebook. https://academic.csuohio.edu/neuendorf_ka/content/codebooks/neuendorf_bond.pdf

Ribisl, K. M., Lee, R. E., Henriksen, L., & Haladjian, H. H. (2003). A content analysis of web sites prompting smoking culture and lifestyle. Health Education & Behaviour, 30(1), 64-78. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198102239259

RQ1 chart A.png
RQ1 chart B.png
RQ1 chart C.png