Where's the Gay Sex in Modern Family?

When you turn on the television, mainstream shows are featuring more and more gay characters. Nonetheless, upon rewatching Modern Family, a show famous for its depiction of a family with two gay fathers, Patrick Campbell noted that something that remains absent is often the most common thought among straight people's minds about gay life: sex. He explains below why the paucity of gay sexual depictions on popular television matters.


Growing up around other teenage boys, I never found myself under any illusions (or so I thought) when it came to the logistics and anatomy of that favourite adolescent topic: sex. Pelvic thrusts and faux-masturbation was as common as kicking a ball for many of the boys in my class. From early puberty, teenage boys learned the ways of sex from the acceptance of sexual activity on-screen and saturated throughout popular culture. Their teachers were on-screen lovers; their textbooks came in the form of the private rite-of-passage found in night-time pornography and bro comedies. That was the case unless you were growing up gay, like myself.

Other than being accused of ‘bum-fun’ and other such delightful terms, the realities of sex for young gay men were all but forgotten, void of biology, eroticism, or emotion. Sex for gay men, that group so stereotypically promiscuous, was nothing more than comedy, a position only rivalled by the sexless face of teenage lesbians.

Learning erotic realities not through biology class or popular culture, but often through trial-and-error, sex still remains the realm of straight couples. Looking at some of the key queer characters from TV blockbusters, is it any wonder that young gay men do not understand the one act which people use to side-line them?

Probably two of the most prominent gay men on our screens are Modern Family’s musical theatre geek Mitchell Pritchett and his larger-than-life boyfriend, Cameron Tucker. This pairing offers us a loveable but familiarly clichéd stereotype. Despite this potentially superficial basis, the couple seems compelling, adding a subtlety to the gay experience. Cameron loves sport and Mitch emerges from the shadow of his father’s machismo. More than this, the dynamic of the Pritchett-Tucker household has offered a hilariously cringe-worthy mirror to my own relationship, resulting in long discussions of who of us is more like each character. However, for all the celebratory gayness thrown about by Diana Ross references and frequent brunches, one fact draws the divide of sexualities in Modern Family: Cam and Mitch’s charming chastity.

 Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitch, on left) and Eric Stonestreet (Cam, on right)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitch, on left) and Eric Stonestreet (Cam, on right)

Many mishaps which pepper Modern Family’s straight characters are often sexual. Innuendo is rife, and a Valentine’s Day roleplay leaves one character stranded and naked on an escalator. There are erotic massages, fumbles in the hot tub, and extended discussions of Playboy and teenage masturbation. Cam and Mitch, on the other hand, deal with calendar clashes over brunch and musical theatre hiccups, and on-screen action is limited to Cam accidentally frisking his father-in-law’s behind, memories of a drug-induced erection, or the sexless eyeing up of some straight man-candy.

On-screen affection is acknowledged, and after paralleling the rest of their family’s sexual adventures, Cam and Mitch are afforded a storyline centred on kissing in public part-way through season two, a storyline which results in the first *shocking* kiss on the forehead. Sexual affection, promiscuous or otherwise, is removed from the apparently “modern” presentation of homosexuality. This does not mean the show never acknowledges explicit sexuality, but more often than not, the details of same-sex relations are used to bolster ideas of masculinity. Mitch’s brother-in-law, in the shadow of idealised masculinity, flirts with homoerotic innuendo and humorously references his inability to quite become the perfect husband and father. A clumsy, straddling massage turns up the heat, and a misunderstanding leading to a gay hook-up is the closest that we come to gay sex itself. Unfortunately, this is the limit to Modern Family’s acknowledgement of the physical act of sex between two men, unlike the compromising bodily positions and sexual activities of their straight co-stars.

With this as just a sample of TVs aversion to visible homosexuality, is it any wonder that the physicality of sex is lost on young gay men? If an allegedly progressive show like Modern Family cannot glance across the grisly details, or allow gay couples to live the fully realised relationships of their straight counterparts, then how can young queer people relate to straight friends growing up? I remember watching the opening episode of ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, where a realistically flawed gay man tells his hook-up (one which blossoms into a more-developed relationship) to “turn over.” I also remember various reactions to it including some which claimed this scene had gone too far for TV. In this moment was at last a popular, realistic love scene, verging on graphic. If young straight boys can jokingly mount each other or exclaim female sex-noises freely, I was happy to see broadcast on prime TV the truth that gay sex, just like its more acceptable counterpart, involves two human bodies beneath the paisley and the brunch.