All images: Starz

On cable TV, we have become used to seeing a lot of sex and nudity on certain networks and in certain TV shows. Game of Thrones is the most famous of the lot, causing the term “sexposition” to be coined for how it paired important information with sex and nudity to keep the audience engaged. Sex is titillation, something forbidden or scandalous enough to get attention from an audience. But that’s not how American Gods approaches it at all.

“A sex scene is correct for this show when the story doesn’t work without it,” said executive producer Michael Green at an interview before the show premiered. “When it’s uncuttable. When it’s woven into the fabric of either character or plot. So it’s arguable that our most daring episodes are the ones with no sex scenes at all because they just weren’t necessary for the story we were telling. We didn’t want anything to be titillating for its own sake, otherwise it’s just not this show.”

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It would be so easy to think these American Gods scenes were for titillation if you simply looked at headlines about them. They’ve been called “insane,” “the most explicit gay sex scene ever,” “shocking,” and “wild,” all of which miss the point of how intentional and perfectly planned and placed they are. The context of the sex matters. These news articles may get into more detail, but the headlines scream of an obsession with the act, not the show.

“We wanted the show to be sex-positive, and the titillating, exploitive aspects of sex are usually the more base ones where it’s a biological function of sorts,” executive producer Bryan Fuller told us. “There is something masturbatory about most sex sequences, even though it’s not masturbation because there’s a partner, but it feels masturbatory in expression. And one of the things I am very fascinated with in American culture is the sex negativity.”

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“Sex negativity,” or at least the idea that sex is still taboo and that talking about it should make us giggle, is evident in those headlines. It’s why while Green and Fuller intended to make a show where the sex fit in seamlessly to the story, these scenes keep getting yanked out into the spotlight, and then re-presented for mere titillation. And that’s just wrong.

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The American reaction to sex in its entertainment, as opposed to depictions of violence, is strange and contradictory. “Case in point on Hannibal, we couldn’t show making love explicitly but we could show them killing each other explicitly and that was something that network standards and practices are comfortable with and recognize the gross disconnect of that fact,” Fuller said.

“But one of the things is we were are so adamant about making people fear the consequences of sex and sexual expression that we forget to teach people how to have a spiritual connection sexually,” said Fuller, articulating what is probably the philosophy underpinning ever sex scene in the show. “And the wonderful, healthy bonding aspects of a happy, healthy, sexual experience. And really, we wanted to depict that in different ways. Because sex is worship and sex is a grand joining with another person that you can’t really recreate in any other circumstances. So it’s very important to us to focus on the positives of sex and extrapolate from there.”

You can see that idea in all three big characters associated with sex so far: Bilquis, Salim, and Laura.

Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) is a goddess of love who needs sex as worship. From the beginning of the show, we see her swallow people with her vagina during sex. It’s impressive as a showpiece, yes, but it critical to remember that she needs this to survive. Compare Badaki’s vulnerability in the scenes surrounding the sex, to the goddess’ power and vitality during them.

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Badaki’s audition included the scene where she meets up with a man she found online, takes him back to her room, and swallows him whole. But the scene is still intrinsic to understanding the character. “I mean, we’re talking about the Goddess of Love,” said Badaki. “And then people always see love as passive. I think love is very active.”

Badaki loves the way American Gods has been presenting sex overall. “I just loved how we weren’t punishing characters for wanting it or exploring it or needing it,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s only repression that leads back to that transgression.”

Another scene that set headlines on fire was between Salim (Omid Abtahi), a Muslim immigrant to America, and a Djinn (Mousa Kraish). The two have sex and the Jinn has flaming eyes and it appears they are in space, all visual cues to the transcendence of the experience. But just focusing on the explicitness of the sex misses the vital parts of what makes Salim’s story beautiful. The scenes before it, where Salim spends the whole day waiting in an office for a meeting that never happens, and when he confesses to the Jinn how hated he is by the family who got him the job, are equally important, too. It makes the connection Salim makes during his sex with the Jinn mean so much more. And the sex itself feel so much more meaningful, but for the character and the audience, because Salim is finally getting something he deserves from someone who cares about him.

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“There’s something watching that—the first few times, I got numb to it after a while—but the first few times I teared up too because I was just thinking about all of the gay men who have this strange, stunted expression of their sexuality because of the overwhelming shame that they are forced to feel culturally,” said Fuller, who is gay. Interestingly, the actors playing the parts were not, which meant talking them through the scene a great deal to get it right.

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Fuller had nothing but praise for the actors. “Omid talked very openly about being a straight guy who knows gay people in the Middle East who are very much like Salim and he has great empathy for them,” he said. “We were putting two straight guys in that sexual situation and we were very upfront that we wanted this to be explicit. We wanted this to be a sex-positive experience, not only for the audience but for the characters. And both of them were such enlightened beings talking about how they wanted to represent even though they were representing themselves.”

The sex was still about the characters, and it means something to the characters beyond just a mere hotel hook-up. “Salim is arguably, actually, the only traditionally religious person we have on the show. He is a practicing and believing Muslim,” said Green. “And what I got after watching it many times, and it was only after we started seeing his later scenes, that I realized that this is a character who would attribute his encounter with the Djinn as a gift from his god. So that it would be, in a way, a reward for worship and a life-affirming, life-changing reaction.”

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Fuller agreed. “To put Salim, as a guy whose only sexual expression was probably back-alley blowjobs, into a position where he is making love to a being of fire that is worthy of his worship and mythological interest, was taking something that could potentially just be pornographic and translating it through a spiritual prism that gave it and Salim a beautiful and happy sexual expression that was redefining for his being,” he said.

Fuller also sees Salim as a symbol of the lack of sexual repression he wants this show to help stand for. “That was our wish fulfillment for people in countries where there are death camps for homosexuals. Or there are death sentences for homosexuals,” Fuller explained. “And the absurdity of something as beautiful as a sexual connection being perverted into something that is ugly and sinful, so we wanted to make sure that in that sex scene, that it was in your face, that we were challenging the audience and making it so aesthetically beautiful that it was hard to deny what was happening between this man and a demigod.”

This past weekend’s episode focused on the history of Laura (Emily Browning), the eventual wife of Shadow (Ricky Whittle). We see their first meeting, where Laura goes home with Shadow. While they are attracted to each other, there is still something... off about the first time they have sex.

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“That originally was just written as, you know, we have to progress the story quickly, we have to see her bring him home, and we want to see the fact that Laura—there’s nothing prudish about her,” explained Browning. “She’s very open. And we actually discussed that scene on the day for longer than we shot it, with Craig Zobel the director of episode four.” She and Whittle re-choreographed the whole sex scene on the day in order to show that, from the beginning, the two characters have very different—and incompatible—ideas about each other.

“We said, ‘How about if Shadow is really sort of sensual and gentle with her, and you can really see it’s just not what she wants, and so she kind of slaps him a few times to try and get something else out of him?’” said Browning. “That first sex scene, she’s essentially saying ‘be rough. That’s what I want you to do. I know that you’re a gentle guy and you’re respectful, but I’m saying that’s what I want.’”

Sex is a large part of how we examine Laura’s relationships. After the first sex scene where she goads Shadow into giving her what she wants, we also see the two together after they’re married. Browning continued: “You cut to a later sex scene with them and again, he’s just being gentle and you see her bored. And I like that idea that maybe he wasn’t so perfect. Maybe he was being his idea of a perfect man, but he wasn’t being Laura’s idea of that. That’s not what she wanted.” These sex scenes, complicated by Laura’s need for excitement and the resulting boredom, help explain why Laura would ask Shadow to rob the casino for her and why Shadow would agree. Which is how he ends up in jail, to protect her.

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Contrast that sex with the affair Laura has with Robbie (Dane Cook). “That moment when she’s with Robbie and she, like, pushes his hip down, that was a proud moment for me,” said Browning, very excitedly. “Even though she’s doing something horrible, it’s like ‘Look, my husband’s in prison. You are not threatening in any way to me. You are already here. So, this is a transaction between us.’ And I think you so rarely get to see that.” Laura isn’t a good person, but she knows what she wants, sexually, and here she gets what she wants. It doesn’t make her affair okay, but it does deepen Browning’s character, letting us know more about her.

Browning also ended up echoing the same sentiment Green had said earlier, in an entirely separate interview. “I felt like all of the sex scenes were necessary points in the story.”

It’s important that the actors on American Gods feel the same way as the writers. That they all think the sex scenes they’re participating in, along with the accompanying nudity, means something more than exploitation or titillation. It means something that sex isn’t the defining feature of American Gods, but isn’t also removed or shied away from.

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American Gods should be the blueprint for any show including sex. For example, while I love Outlander, season one’s constant threat of sexual violence became exhausting to the point where the parts of the story that did merit explicit scenes became a bit lost. And, again, the makers of Game of Thrones have become infamous for throwing a bit of sex n’ nudity on the screen if they’re worried the audience is getting bored.

It’s also important to note that all of American Gods’ sex has, thus far, not included rape, a horrible trope that far too many series casually use to create drama. On American Gods, sex has been transcendent, boring, a form of worship, and even a “transaction,” the show has happily never stooped to this sort of storytelling.

Everyone should be paying attention to American Gods and taking notes. Everyone should be having conversations with their actors like the ones had with Omid Abtahi and Mousa Kraish. Everyone should listen when an actress thinks there’s something missing from a scene, like what happened when Browning spoke up. Everyone should feel like Badaki does, about how people should not be punished for their different needs.

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When there have been complaints about sex in TV, and there certainly will be more in the future, this series is the perfect guide to how it should be addressed. Because American Gods is smarter about sex than anything we’ve ever seen on-screen.