Comparative Showcases
Sexual revolution
Portraying Sexuality on Television


There has been a longstanding debate in societies across Europe on to what extent the subjects of sex and sexuality should be represented on television. Questions have been raised regarding the possible negative effects and influences of sexual images on television, in particular where young people and children are concerned. The Video Active collection on the topic of 'Sexual Revolution' gives insight into the shifts that have taken place in how modern European societies view sexuality and how sexuality has been portrayed on TV. The Video Active materials on this topic demonstrate that television has been and still is a powerful agent in representing sexuality as an aspect of our own identities.


As the Video Active collection demonstrates, a fundamental shift in how societies in Europe view sexuality has taken place since the 1950s. While items from this period initially represent traditionally valued customs and norms, such as the idea of family in the 1950s in a news item on Wives' School (IL, 1951) or a contest for the selection of the 'Ideal Greek Woman' for the year 1965 (criteria require competitors to be an elegant young spouse or mother), who would represent Greece in the European Contest for the 'Ideal European Woman' (HENAA, 1965), the collection principally demonstrates the gradual development of new sexual behaviours and customs in Europe since this period and onwards, and how these have been represented and discussed on television. A special issue of an Italian newsreel reports on the changing roles of women in different sectors of Italian society since female emancipation (IL, 1968), discussing topics such as divorce, contraceptives and equal opportunities at work. In contrast, a journalist of the magazine 'Ciac' does not like the changing roles of Italian couples (IL, 1962). In a news report on a housewives demonstration in Rome, he sarcastically comments on a women's demonstration and on a man who struggles with his son's education. Complementary to the shifts that are taking place in society, transformations in women's roles and new sexual customs are also transferred onto the television screen. The satirical comedy programme 'Oops-a-daisy' (S&V, 1967) causes a lot of commotion when Phil Bloom appears on the screen as the first naked lady on Dutch television, changing how women are portrayed on Dutch TV. The documentary programme 'Man Alive: Take off your clothes and live' (BBC, 1968) investigates the then-expanding cult of nudism, trying to discover what sorts of people follow this cult and who really means it when they say 'take off your clothes and live'. The dramatic changes in public attitudes to the naked body that have taken place over the last 50 years are traced by Joan Bakewell in 'Taboo: Censorship' (BBC, 2001). The current affairs programme 'Newsline: Sex in the Sixties' (S&V, 1993) also investigates how sexual morals changed in the 1960s, and compares the sexual taboos in the sixties with those in the nineties.


As this collection shows, sexual education is a prominent topic on television in Europe. Sexual education is still quite rare in the 1960s, but various programmes featured on the Video Active portal demonstrate television's active role in sex education across Europe since this period and onwards. In programmes like 'Tienerklanken: How young people think concerning marriage and sex' (VRT, 1968) aimed at teenagers and young adults (up to the age of 25), young people are given the opportunity to ask questions about sex and marriage. In this programme, youngsters ask questions like 'How old must a girl be before getting married? and 'How do you know if your characters match each other?', which are answered by journalist Reddy de Mey and sexologist J.C. van Soest. 'The Rules of Life' (DR, 1962) is an educational programme about growing up, and features interviews with young people about sex, kissing, love and expectations. The Belgium children programme 'School TV: Sexual Education' (RTBF, 1974) provides sexual education by interviewing young girls and boys about sexuality. This programme is specially created for schools, and meant for being watched in the classroom with the teacher and his/her pupils. 'And a kiss from the teacher' (S&V, 1972) is also an educational programme for children. In this episode, attention is given to sexual education for primary school pupils. It was the first time the primary school students where the target audience for such a programme. The lifestyle programme 'Prism: How do I tell it to my child?... Sexual Education' (ORF, 1974) provides information for parents on how to discuss sexual education with their children. In contrast, Watch Your Health: Sexuality - Sexual Behaviour (TVC, 1987) is an educational series about sexuality, specifically aimed at an adult audience. This episode analyzes sexual behaviour (both homosexual and heterosexual), as well as sexual dysfunctions and their causes and treatment. The documentary programme '30 Minutes' (TVC, 1993) depicts the causes of unwanted pregnancies amongst teenagers and analyzes sex education (or the lack of it) in families and at school. Finally, the children's programme 'Momentary: Forbidden Love' (NAVA, 2006) focuses on how parents should deal with the relationships of their teenage children. In this item, young Hungarians use theatrical improvisation to present the behaviour of the youngsters and their parents. Afterwards they sit down to discuss the problems, whilst a Hungarian pop singer also shares her views on the topic.

Sex and sexuality are also frequent topics of debate on television. In general, interviews or in-studio debates are favoured to highlight the various sides of the discussions. This demonstrates the role of the medium television as a public mediator or negotiator of sexual behaviours and norms across Europe. In the 1960s, the news report 'Marriage Today' (IL, 1963) discusses the condition of marriage and the first efforts to introduce a divorce law by means of interviews with famous people, lawyers and politicians. In the Austrian documentary 'Point of View: The birth control pill' (ORF, 1965), doctors, politicians, attorneys and sociologists discuss the birth control pill, contraception and premarital sex. 'Sex and Education' (IL, 1968) is a report about emotional and sexual relationships amongst young people, and the importance of consulting rooms. The politics and issues programme 'Panorama: The Pill – Contraception' (BBC, 1968), reporter David Dimbleby holds vox pops with people as they leave a Roman Catholic church in Ballyfermot, a suburb of Dublin. In this item, various people give their view on the Pope's encyclical on birth control and the contraceptive pill. In the early 1970s, the documentary programme 'ORF Report: Current Affairs - Birth control pill' (ORF, 1971) broadcasts then-current scientific debates on the pros and cons of the birth control pill. 'The Big Debate: Is there need for a pornographic TV channel?' (NAVA, 2006) is a talk show about whether Hungarians need an adult channel. The National Radio and Television Commission, the institution supervising Hungarian media, started proceedings against television channels that exclusively broadcast for adults, i.e. porn channels. Guests include the famous Hungarian porn movie director and producer István Kovács, a.k.a Kovi, Hungarian porn actress Victoria Swinger and László Esztergomi, renowned Hungarian sexual psychologist.


As the various items on the Video Active portal show, the specific portrayal of sex on television itself is often at the centre of debates about sexual customs and norms in society in Europe. In the talk show 'Person To Person: Mary Whitehouse' (BBC, 1979), David Dimbleby interviews Mary Whitehouse, a campaigner against sex and violence on television from the 1960s to the early 1990s. She is the founder and first president of the National Viewers' & Listeners' Association. The BBC news report 'News: Underage Sex' (BBC, 1976) features an interview with Judge Neil McKinnon about sending young men to prison for having underage sex. In this interview, Judge McKinnon talks about the portrayal of sex on television and how it influences the young. Indeed, television has often been perceived to have a direct effect on young people, detrimental to their moral values. Television dramas, reality TV and talk shows have frequently caused controversial reactions from audiences due to their sexually suggestive or explicit contents. For example, 'Casanova' (BBC, 1971), a six part drama series written by Dennis Potter, causes much controversy when the series was transmitted, due to its sexual content. Mary Whitehouse described this series about the great 18th century lover as 'lewd'. The three part drama 'Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit' (BBC, 1990), based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson, also causes a controversial reaction from viewers. This television drama tells the story of Jess, a girl growing up in a Pentecostal evangelical household who comes to understand that she is a lesbian. Although the drama is a brave and innovative depiction of teenage lesbian love, the series shocked many viewers when it was first shown. Nowadays many mainstream dramas and soap operas contain a gay character. The National Radio and Television Commission, the institution supervising Hungarian media, suspends the broadcast of a Hungarian channel for 30 minutes for showing the reality TV programme 'Troublemakers' (NAVA, 2005). According to the Commission, 'the positivistic (non-condemning) evaluation of the deviant characters may influence moral values of minors and damage their personal development'. The programme follows the summer adventures of eight young people who transform an old car into a peep show and go on a national tour. The programme was criticized for presenting exhibitionism and recklessness as a desirable behaviour, as a result of which minors would more easily accept undesirable forms of behaviour (such as alcohol consumption, smoking, reckless partying, lying, provoking law enforcements and obscene language). The afternoon talk show 'Balázs Show: Dating' (NAVA, 2006), given a PG-12 rating, also causes a general outcry because guests talked about their piquant sexual habits and perversions to appeal to guests sitting behind a wall. According to dominant views, minors thus received a misleading idea about dating and relationships. Therefore, the National Radio and Television Commission issued an investigation of the programme.


Finally, the Video Active collection on the topic of 'Sexual Revolution' sheds light on other sexual practices and behaviours that have generally been considered 'taboo', and reveals how these conducts and manners have been represented by television and other media across Europe. For instance, a new Danish study has shown that there is no age limit when it comes to sex. The report 'TV News: Sex Life' (DR, 1981) features an interview with Sten Hegeler, who states that more than half of the population of 80 year olds and over have a sex life. The reality that there is no age limit when it comes to sex is also a general topic in the contemporary Swedish scripted comedy show 'High Rise Life' (KB, 2004). A character in this series called 'Horny Gun', a middle-aged woman from the south of Sweden (with permed hair and leopard tights), has an insatiable interest in sex. In this item, Gun talks to a man in the supermarket about the shape of vegetables. This programme offers a point of identification to an older and sexually different woman, broadening the kind of roles that women are traditionally seen in on television. The German politics and issues programme 'RIAS TV: Evening - Abortion case Memmingen' (DW, 1989) broadcasts a report on a lawsuit on illegal abortion in Memmingen. The Dutch current affairs programme 'Newsline' (S&V, 1987) features an interview with L.P. Dorenbos about the Rainbow Institute and his campaign against pornographic literature. The Catalonian documentary programme '30 Minutes' (TVC, 1993) features a reportage on how AIDS is gradually changing people's sexual behaviour, particularly among teenagers who started their sex lives during the time when the epidemic began to spread rapidly. Ten years after the emergence of AIDS, there are people who still believe that the disease only affects drug addicts and homosexuals. This is despite the fact that AIDS is now spreading fastest among heterosexuals. 'The Sex Industry: Sex, Inc.' (TVC, 2002) is a report on the sex industry in Catalonia. The reportage includes coverage of live-sex establishments, the porn film industry, Barcelona's sex fair, sex shops, the favourite haunts of drag queens and transvestites, sado-masochists, and strippers. It also takes a look at sexual offerings on the Internet and features interviews with various people who have links with the sex industry. In 'Culture House: Paedophilia in Film Art' (NAVA, 2005), studio guests analyze the artistic interpretation of paedophilia in connection with the American film Birth and other motion pictures, such as Lolita and American Beauty. In Birth, the protagonist (Nicole Kidman) is convinced that a 10-year old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband, and this young boy attempts to have a relationship with the widow as her husband. The film had a controversial reception around the world. The most controversial scenes in the film (an adult woman and a 10-year boy taking a bath together, a 10-year old boy kissing a woman) are shown in the programme. Furthermore, László Mireisz, a Hungarian Buddhist teacher, talks about the Buddhist approach to reincarnation and sexuality. Finally, 'Culture House: Sexual Taboos in Art' (NAVA, 2006) analyzes sexual 'taboos' as themes in literature and film, by interviewing well-known Hungarian critic András Réz, distinguished lawyer Ferenc Kondorosi, and noted Hungarian psychologist György Virág. Topics of discussion are: today's female ideal; the legal regulation of artistic freedom in connection with sexuality; the representation of sin in the media and its impact on the public opinion; paedophilia as a mental disorder; and the representation of paedophilia in films (again Birth and Lolita, but also Ken Park, Bad Education and Hard Candy). The central question is whether the distribution of these films should be restricted by law.


As a result, the Video Active collection on the topic of 'Sexual Revolution' offers opportunities to reflect on television's portrayal of sexuality across various countries and networks in Europe. The collection demonstrates that the medium television is a powerful agent in representing sexuality as an aspect of our own identities, mediating the social-cultural, political and moral aspects of (new) forms of sexual behaviour.




Berber Hagedoorn