Blundering takes on It’s a Sin’s sex scenes prove why shows like it are so vital

The ire ignited over a gay sex scene in It’s a Sin proves why the show is so vital, a British sexuality professor has said.

Twitter was ablaze this week after a viral tweet contrasted a pair of headlines from tabloid The Sun: one describing a gay sex scene in the Russell T Davies show as “raunchy” and shocking, the other calling similar-but-straight scenes in Bridgerton as “hot” and “steamy”.

The Sun insisted its It’s a Sin headline was in keeping with different ones written for other, straight shows – though it conceded it “didn’t do it justice” and amended the wording. But not before it was accused of “double standards”, with fans accusing the paper of stoking the very sense of queer shame that the show challenges.

Reflecting on the row, John Mercer, professor of gender and sexuality at Birmingham City University’s School of Media, said the controversy proves why the programme is so vital.

“Sex and sexual activity is a feature of many people’s adult lives, so I’m always a little bit surprised that it’s still the case that a sex scene in a TV show can provoke so much comment and even outrage,” he said.

Mainstream press and social media often treat sex scenes in high-profile television shows as a “hot topic”, Mercer continued – and considering the roaring success of It’s a Sin, that kind of coverage was inevitable.

The Sun responds to backlash over clumsy take on It's a Sin sex scenes

Olly Alexander in Channel 4’s It’s a Sin. (Channel 4)

“It certainly won’t surprise anyone who is old enough to remember the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s and the kind of reportage that The Sun and other tabloids routinely ran to stoke anxiety and a legacy of homophobia that generations of gay men have had to contend with since then,” Mercer explained.

“The fact that a sex scene in It’s a Sin can still provoke so much comment […] provides the strongest case for the importance of this programme being commissioned and broadcast.”

“This is not a trivial matter about a sex scene in a Channel 4 show that was expressly designed to provoke comment – and I support Davies for his decision which is a political as well as an artistic one,” Mercer continued.

Reflecting on the ongoing lockdown where legislators have made “sexual activity between adults that are not cohabiting effectively illegal“, Mercer said the scene gains an even higher level of political urgency.

“These are political decisions that affect everyone but disproportionately affect people, gay males or otherwise, who do not choose to organise their intimate lives around monogamous cohabitation.”

He added: “Sex is political and sexual representation is also, therefore, political and seeing adults desiring each other and perhaps having desires that we do not share is one of the ways in which we can understand other people’s lives and experiences.

“This is an influence that seeing sex on screen could perhaps have and one that I am very much in favour of.”

It's a Sin

The central cast of It’s A Sin. (Channel 4)

In response to fan criticism of its coverage, a representative of The Sun told PinkNews: “The Sun is a big fan of both Russell T Davies and It’s a Sin.

“We’ve been positively writing up the show since first look last year, and we continue to write hugely positive stories about this brilliant show and the important spotlight it shines on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

“We regularly write stories about viewers’ shock at explicit sex scenes in drama. That shock comes from the explicit nature of the scene and not from the sexuality being depicted.

“We’ve written stories in recent months on viewer shock at sex scenes in Bridgerton (‘Bridgerton fans mortified by explicit sex scenes as they watch Netflix drama with their parents’), Black Narcissus (‘Gemma Arterton shocks viewers with racy romps as nun in BBC drama Black Narcissus’) and The Great(‘Channel 4’s The Great set to shock viewers with full nudity sex scenes’).

“That said, we do acknowledge that the original headline to this particular story didn’t do it justice and we updated it yesterday afternoon.”

The updated headline reads:“‘LIBERATING! It’s a Sin viewers praise drama’s ‘wonderful’ sex montage and say raunchy scenes came ‘thick and fast’.”