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You're not seeing things —'nudity creep' in streaming TV reveals more of its stars

Jonathan Sadowski, left, and Mike Vogel in Netflix's softcore hit <em>Sex/Life</em>.
Jonathan Sadowski, left, and Mike Vogel in Netflix's softcore hit Sex/Life.

Call it "nudity creep."

One of the most popular shows on one of the most popular streaming services is called Naked Attraction. It's a fully, completely naked dating show. Even for Max — the streaming platform that used to be HBO — the nudity is a lot. The British show (which Max acquired from Channel 4) does not blur or censor anything. In fact, there are close-ups.

Here's the gimmick: One contestant faces six boxes that contain six naked people. Bit by bit, their bodies are revealed, starting from the bottom. The contestant eliminates possible future dating partners based on the body parts they see.

"They are showing full male frontal nudity, and that's maybe what's catching a few breaths," says Jeffrey P. Jones, a professor at the University of Georgia.

Jones authored a book about the history of HBO. He's also executive director of the Peabody Awards, which awards excellence in media. Jones is too polite to say so, but it seems unlikely Naked Attraction will win. This is, after all, a dating show based on people assessing each other's junk.

But if you are outraged that HBO — the home of such prestigious dramas as The Sopranos and The Wire — has stooped so low, Jones would like to remind you that starting in the 1990s, HBO also aired programs such as Real Sex and Taxicab Confessions.

"It's sister network, let's not forget, was called Cinemax, e.g. 'Skin-emax,'" he says of the cable channel known for airing uncensored movies starting in the 1980s. "So viewers very much subscribed to this channel precisely because of non-regulation in these areas."

Cable television has always enjoyed less regulation than broadcast, and streaming TV is not regulated for decency by the Federal Communications Commission. From the beginning, Jones says people have subscribed to platforms such as Netflix because of provocative dramas that centered female flesh. Think of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Now, what feminists call "the male gaze" seems to have expanded — to include men.

A Netflix show called Sex/Life allegedly pulled in more than 20 million views in 2021, because of just one graphic scene of male nudity. People gleefully skipped to that scene and recorded themselves watching as a viral challenge on TikTok.

"This is marketing that happens without the HBO or Netflix marketing departments," Jones observes. And that's critical, he points out, given intense competition for eyeballs and subscribers. But if nudity is a gimmick that gets them — what happens when nudity gets old?

"People will never get tired of nudity," Jones says. "It's on frescoes all through Europe. Nudity is with us forever. Frankly, it's a central part of who and what we are as humans, and we're going to tell stories about it."

Edited for the web by Rose Friedman. Produced for the web by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.