Let’s talk about sex
A view from Graham Nolan

Let’s talk about sex

An LGBTQ+ education for brands

The advertising industry has infused overt sex into every brand category, from condoms (obvious) to hamburgers (not obvious to me, but OK). And for years, in June, we’ve added a rainbow to everything from search engines (obviously) to mouthwash (sure?).

Yet there’s so little authentic LGBTQIA+ sex in advertising. If “sex sells”... why not to us?

We’re not discussing sex because I want to. (I can speak on the topic of sex for years while not making it a substantial priority in my life; in this way, I am Carrie Bradshaw.) Brands don’t want to talk about LGBTQIA+ sex. I raise this topic because of undeniable cultural conversations. 

First, the populace is discussing a resurgence of sex. Arguably the world’s most universally accepted leisure activity wasn’t safe for more than a year. Now it is. According to anti-research research studio GoodQues, 25% of cisgender, heterosexual respondents and 37% of LGBTQIA+ folks report an increase in libido as vaccinations bloom and COVID-19 subsides. 

Second, the perennial question of whether kink, fetish and overt sexual expression should be part of a Pride that aims to be inclusive. I have strong opinions on this; you do too. What’s odd and contradictory to me is the idea that overt sexual representation is less inclusive of brands, when brands taught many of us more about sex than our parents ever did.

Like these ads, for hamburgers (which someone actually edited together). Or this ad, for a website to secure a URL. Like this ad. FOR SALAD DRESSING.

All sex — but all heterosexual.

I say from a place of strategy versus controversy or satire: brands, if you’re going to continue to sell sex, you better get briefed by the community reinventing sex for the world. 

If you’re trying to connect with a community, include them in the conversation and represent them authentically. Stop letting the straight gaze act as the default for queer ads. And if you’re going to sell anything – including sex – follow the truest insights. 

Ultimately, you believe in innovation, culture, and progress, or you don’t. So unless your brand becomes celibate, consider these notions as you respectfully experiment as a marketer. 

Sex is an important part of LGBTQIA+ culture. 

If sexual orientation, behavior, art and culture are why we’re marginalized, they’re sure as hell going to be intrinsic parts of Pride – as a beautiful thread within the tapestry weaving our community. 

Consider the vast artistic influence of Tom of Finland; consider how Rent, with lines like "there will always be women in rubber flirting with me," is a common car sing-along; consider how ballroom changed how almost everyone dances; consider that there’s an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where they all do poppers. Elements of queer sexual culture are mainstream. And when it’s not tokenized, it’s connective.

Sex is not the end-all, be-all of LGBTQIA+ Identity. 

Sex is important to our culture, but it’s not all we are. I’m a gay man, but my connections to queer community are defined by comic books and music more than anything else. 

Remember that tapestry metaphor? It’s woven with fashion, language, politics, semiotics and relationship dynamics that are inherently queer – very often revolutionized by LGBTQIA+ BIPOC. Montero is a powerful example; if you think this video is just about sex, you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s about freedom, community, acceptance, religion. Look beyond the lapdance.

Sex positivity is growing in influence, Impacting “gen pop.”  

Anecdotal, but reflective of a consistent truth: Straight sex on Bridgerton is praised. (And non-straight sex wasn’t really part of the story.) Meanwhile, one queer kiss in over a dozen Star Wars films is supposed to appease an entire community. Agree with this I do not. Neither will emerging generations. 

Pervasive cis, white, washboard abs on a Pride float do not qualify as inclusive for the entire comunity. The cultural conversation is shifting towards healthy, supportive sexual expression that wouldn’t exist five years ago. Thanks to digital culture, those worms don’t go back in the can. 

Sexual representation need not be gratuitous, like a hamburger ad. 

Sexual representation does not need to include overt nudity or scenarios. I love the way sex is discussed in a season one episode of Big Mouth: you don’t need to talk about sex if you talk about everything around sex. A held hand or a coded item of clothing can be a loud and clear message. If that offends you when depicted in a queer context, that’s YOUR problem, but not a problem for changing generations. 

I didn’t ask for this discussion. I don’t ask to learn about three-ways from drain cleaner. Culture started this. Brands followed suit. Sex sold. But if we’re addressing emerging cultural needs and conversations, and realistically addressing the often hypersexual nature of our industry’s creative product, we must talk about sex responsibly and inclusively. 

And if your brand stages a supporting presence at Pride, your float might get smacked by a whip. You’ll be fine.

Graham Nolan is co-chair, storytelling and partnerships at Do the WeRQ.

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