It’s not a dirty word: Here’s the explanation of ‘sexposition’

Apr 17, 2012
Sex Talk
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Google it and you’re going to get a lot of pages that will not be “work-safe.”

The term, a play on “exposition,” is actually a narrative tool, referring to a filmed sex scene that also manages to convey information relevant to a story’s plot and characters.

TV critic Myles McNutt, who blogs at, coined the term in his “Game of Thrones” reviews last year. It’s not about too much sex in TV shows, he says, but instead about sex scenes being employed as distraction while story points are crammed into the mix.

“On a personal level, I wish they’d use it less often,” says McNutt, 26, a doctoral student of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin, fresh off teaching undergraduates about “Jersey Shore” and “Extreme Couponing.

On “Game of Thrones,” he says, “It feels like that’s their default.”

The popular Sunday night HBO show, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of books about a medieval fantasy world, has utilized sexposition in straight and gay sex scenes (some with a smattering of both).

In one episode last season, a male character named Petyr Baelish instructs two prostitutes to engage in sex acts while they talk about love and duels.

In another, says McNutt, “They have a sequence in which they are shirtless and one is shaving the other’s chest,” he says, referring to two gay characters on the show. There is “implied fellatio,” all while they speak of wealth and who would make the best king.

McNutt, who first read Martin’s books when he was a teenager, compares sexposition to computer animation that illustrates the path of a bullet through a body on “CSI.” In both cases, the aim is to “provide visual stimulus,” though with the sex scenes, the information being learned is not necessarily related to the racy action. On shows where explicit sex is not permitted, like on basic cable, he says, the sexposition might occur while two characters are laying in bed.

Other writers have retroactively applied the narrative device to past HBO shows, including “The Sopranos” (Strip club The Bada Bing! is a frequent setting) and “Deadwood” (Saloon owner Al Swearengen is given to initiating monologues while having sex).

Unlike those shows, “Game of Thrones” is an adaptation of existing stories that already contain many characters and backstories.

“?’Game of Thrones’ is a sexual world, but it’s also one that has to condense a lot of information,” says Maureen Ryan, TV critic for the Huffington Post. Especially, she says, since the show’s writers want to be true to the novels. Sexposition can be useful for any scene that might otherwise be considered pretty boring, mostly for a lack of action and an overabundance of dialogue, she says. It proves unsuccessful, Ryan says, when the combination of sex and a big “information download” is so jarring ­­— so much of a circus — that it takes a viewer out of the show and becomes cliche.

Ryan deploys another term for the blatant introduction of nudity in a TV series: “H.B.,” or “Hey, boobs!” In most of those cases, she says, “There’s no reason for that scene except for there to be boobs.” Which highlights another issue: “Sexuality onscreen typically means topless women,” she says, meaning many of these scenes, whether purely gratuitous or expositional in nature, will often be “voyeuristic toward women.”

A recent example is “Magic City,” the new Starz series set in 1950s Miami, in which it’s not unusual to see a whole lot of H.B. when someone walks through a showgirls’ dressing room.

Matt Zoller Seitz, TV columnist for New York Magazine and a former Star-Ledger TV critic, calls that a problem because the particular fantasy does not cater to everyone. An advocate of “naughty bits parity,” he’s also inclined to debunk sexposition as a whole.

“I’m not 100 percent convinced that this needs to be a distinct term,” he says.

While acknowledging exposition can happen during a sex scene, he says there’s many other kinds of scenes heavy on violence — excessive in their depiction of torture, even — that serve the same purpose (and, in movies, might nonetheless be rated PG-13, to the dismay of parents). The comparison holds true particularly on HBO, he says, since the network is all about examining the extremes of human behavior.

In Aaron Sorkin series (“Sports Night,” “The West Wing”), we’re hurled key details while characters are briskly walking a hallway, he says. Watching a different show, we might learn similarly important plot information while someone is gutting an animal carcass. The latter scene is still explicit in its use of gore, if not explicit.

Zoller Seitz says the fact that TV criticism zooms in on sex as “the topic du jour” is reflective of lingering American attitudes marking it as taboo.

In AMC’s “Mad Men,” why are characters clothed during a sex scene, he asks, while when a riding mower runs over someone’s foot during the same show, we’re allowed to see gushing blood?

“I don’t think French people are having this discussion,” he says.

“Why are we so obsessed with insisting that nudity and sex be justified, and we make no such demands on graphic violence and profanity?”

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