Showtime Stars, Producers Talk Sexuality on TV: It's Never Been "We Got to Show Some Titties"

Ashford on the Toughest Part of the Show

"We have a story that goes on for 30 years, maybe even longer, so it’s difficult to do that on TV."

Gather seven of Showtime’s top actresses and female showrunners for a frank conversation about sex on television, and the discussion will turn into a frank chat about pushing boundaries and exploitation.

Representatives from Shameless, Masters of Sex and recent Golden Globes winner The Affair were on-hand Monday at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour to lend a female perspective on sexuality in television.

"Nothing has been, 'Oh, we’re on Showtime. We got to show some titties,'" said Shameless executive producer Nancy Pimental, who suggests that her writers' room is genderless. "We have to check our penises and vaginas at the door. It’s about the craft, the art."

Here are the takeaways:

Sex is a part of life

“Showing sexuality is no different than showing any other part of life. Sexuality is a part of life,” said Rossum, who has done her fair share of nude scenes as the often-raunchy Fiona. “It’s interesting that the women on this stage get to write and explore the intimate parts of that character be it that anger, loss, happiness or sexuality — we get to see so much of these characters. Sometimes you have sex for a reason that has nothing to do with sex. Maybe it’s about power, maybe it’s about security, maybe it’s about just wanting to connect, maybe it’s just about wanting to feel good.”

It’s not gratuitous

“What’s so great about the show on Showtime is they don’t show it in a gratuitous way,” Rossum said. “Sometimes it is illuminating something else, and sometimes that is dysfunction and sometimes it’s just that we get to do something great and show an audience something deeper about a character that’s really just in a sexual context and has nothing to do about sex and everything to do with emotion.”

Masters of Sex

“We had an interesting dilemma or challenge, which was that our show was about sex,” Ashford explained. “So we came out of the gate knowing that we were going to have to tackle sex all the time.” But it came through science, which Ashford felt allowed her to make a series that was fresh and different. “That allowed us to look at sex almost from the polar opposite way from how it’s been approach over the years, which is making sex look sexy. Our goal to make it as unsexy as possible.”

The Affair

“We like to think about sex as communication in our show,” newly minted Golden Globes winner Treem noted. “We hoped that our sex scenes would move our story forward emotionally in some way as specifically and as productively as if we had used dialogue. Sometimes people can talk to each other more clearly in sex than they can in conversation.”


“Where our show takes place is in a lower-income location, so if you don’t have money a lot of time you’re having sex,” Pimental said. “It’s an activity to fill the gaps of the day.”

What’s exploitative?

“I think you have to be in the room during the scene to decide if it’s exploitative or not,” Tierney said. “The actress or the actor decides what is exploitive.” Rossum added: “Sometimes we see drafts or ideas and we think, this doesn’t feel necessary. How does this add to the story? But things can feel exploitative in a lot of different ways. We’re just trying to find the honest truth of what a character would do in that moment. If the honest truth involves sexuality and intimacy between two character or violence between two characters, whatever it is, as long as it feels real.” A key example, Rossem says, is episode six or seven of the current fifth run of Shameless, in which Fiona has a different sexual experience. “It’s quite emotional, surprising and aggressive in a way that initially she thinks she wants it and then she thinks she doesn’t," she said, acknowledging that she felt particularly vulnerable during the filming of the scene but felt supported by her cast and crew.

Sex meetings

Ashford insists that she relies on feedback from her actors when it comes to Masters' steamy scenes. “They’ve taught us a lot about how to move through this kind of work and about what is OK and what isn’t.” She also acknowledges that a shooting a successful sex scene involves an entire crew. “We actually do them in a way that movies do when they’re blowing things up and they have a big,” said Ashford, likening them to safety or stunt meetings that films have. “We have a big sex meeting about our sex scenes because we realize that it has the same kind of danger to everybody involved.”


We’ve consistently said throughout this whole thing that it’s important for us to be authentic,” said Pimental, who admits she didn’t lose her virginity until she was 21. The writer also noted that the new season of the John Wells drama takes a deeper look at its teenage characters' sexuality this season with two very different storylines. “It’s crazy what kids are doing now. It’s insane, so we wanted to be real.” She says it’s a scary topic to broach, which is why she sits down with her younger actors' parents to preview their characters' sexual content. “We keep the lines of communication open with their parents.”