Masters of Sex: What does the show say about female sexuality?

How is a TV show set in the 1950s breaking modern day taboos?

Judging from the amount of nudity and sex on TV, you'd assume that we're a pretty liberated society these days. The repressed, buttoned-up days of the 1950s seem like an alien world. So why is so much of new Showtime series 'Masters of Sex' ringing a bell with female viewers?

With that title, and pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson at the centre of the story, viewers knew what to expect. Some light titillation, some 'Mad Men'-style fashions and frustrated wives, and an excellent performance from Michael Sheen. And yes, all those boxes have been ticked. The show even went a little too far to shock and hook viewers in the first few episodes, with graphic, lingering shots of Lizzy Caplan writing around in the altogether and quivering flesh having electrodes applied to it (see, it's for science). I barely batted an eyelid - I'm so used to seeing attractive young women bouncing around for the viewer's pleasure that it's not even worth commenting on.

But then 'Masters of Sex' started to morph into something else. It began to live up to the research that the real life Masters and Johnson conducted, and present a genuinely interesting, realistic study of sex. Not just attractive TV-sex, but real sex. Awkward, repressed husband-and-wife sex. Fumblingly unsuccessful sex. Mind-blowing sex. Masters and Johnson's focus was female sexuality, so 'Masters of Sex' is also about women. And it's only when you see this that you realise that while most of the sex on TV features women very prominently, it's not about women.

'Masters of Sex' might be set in the '50s, but it's breaking unspoken taboos that still exist now. It talks about, and depicts, female masturbation - not to make a joke out of it, or to indicate that this particular character is oversexed, but as a matter of course. It discusses sexual positions from the point of view of what is more pleasurable for the female. It throws movie-created myths such as simultaneous orgasm out the window with gusto.

The show is also wise enough to know that female sexuality doesn't begin and end with sex. We see relationships through the eyes of women, the struggles to have children, the joys and stresses of having a family. The show touches on female health issues as Dr DePaul campaigns for routine cervical screening. There was even one brilliant episode in which the only nudity came from the stunning 54-year-old Allison Janney and an internal shot of a vagina. As a woman more used to seeing 'Game of Thrones' prostitutes humping in the background of shots, this made me want to cheer out loud.

It's 2013. Women are running countries. You can buy vibrators on the high street. And yet it's taken a programme set in the 1950s to remind us that women are not just a visual aid during sex. Hell, even I was close to forgetting that. 'Masters of Sex' celebrates the fact that women have passions and impulses of their own. They are complex and rounded individuals, and are the equal of all the male characters in the show, who spend most of their time wondering when women got so damn complicated.

A second series has already been commissioned, but viewing figures have been disappointingly low in the UK. Perhaps the content is still too risqué to have broad appeal. The coyly-shot sight of a woman masturbating is still capable of making grown adults - both male and female - squirm, and change the channel. But we should applaud 'Masters of Sex' for challenging, and trying to change, that response. Because in an era where you carry a device in your pocket capable of accessing all the hardcore porn that the internet holds, it's more important than ever to explore and understand the emotional and physical aspects of sex.

Abigail Chandler is a freelance journalist and script writer who is very happy to be able to pass off her compulsive TV-watching and all-round geekdom as 'research'. Follow Abigail on Twitter and Tumblr.

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