BBC America explains the editing of Emily and Naomi’s sex scene on “Skins”

Last week, many readers expressed concern about the edited sex scene between Naomi (Lily Loveless) and Emily (Kathryn Prescott) in the latest episode of the third season of Skins, which recently began airing on BBC America.

In the original version that aired on British TV, the girls are shown kissing for several seconds by the lake, stopping to take off their sweatshirts (leaving them in t-shirts and underwear), and then making out again as they begin to have sex on the blanket. Next we see Naomi trying to sneak away the next morning, before Emily wakes up.

In the version shown in the U.S. last week, the girls are shown kissing and removing their sweatshirts, kissing again as they lie down, and then the scene cuts to Naomi’s departure the next morning.

I contacted BBC America on Friday about their decision to edit that scene, and a spokesperson for the show gave me this explanation:

British TV is generally more liberal in its content than American TV which means we occasionally have to edit our shows. We adhere to BBC America’s standards and practices regarding language, nudity, violence and drug use. 

Sex scenes — gay or straight — are sometimes reduced in length on screen, but never to the detriment of the storyline. Be assured, the same guidelines applied to the scene with Naomi and Emily have also been applied to heterosexual sex scenes in Skins.

When I asked for an example, she pointed to the scene between Cook and Effy having sex in a closet in an earlier episode in the season, telling me, “we shortened that scene for the same reasons.”

Here’s a quick rundown of the U.S. television standards she’s referring to: Federal law prohibits the broadcast of “indecent” or “profane” programming between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time. Although cable channels like BBC America aren’t officially required to adhere to these, they usually do anyway, for a variety of reasons (they don’t want to become the target of conservative watchdog groups, they don’t want the FCC to start enforcing these rules on cable, etc.) Here’s how the Federal Communications Commission — the arm of the United States government charged with enforcing that law — defines these terms:

In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is “patently offensive.”

In our assessment of whether material is “patently offensive,” context is critical. The FCC looks at three primary factors when analyzing broadcast material: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor is determinative. The FCC weighs and balances these factors because each case presents its own mix of these, and possibly other, factors.

To avoid even coming close to violating these rules (which incurs penalties and large fines), most networks tend to edit their shows somewhat conservatively.

So those are the facts. Now here’s my take on the situation:

It’s disappointing the scene was edited down, if for no other reason than that there are so few positive depictions of lesbian relationships on American television. But the edited version was still longer, more raw/honest, and more explicit than almost any other depiction of a lesbian teen relationship on broadcast or basic cable television (including the scenes between Ashley and Spencer on South of Nowhere, which pushed the envelope in this area, but not this much).

There have been, and continue to be, U.S. TV networks that employ double-standards when it comes to displays of physical affection between same-sex couples (e.g. Guiding Light). There’s also the larger question of why scenes of torture, violence, and even simulated sexual assault are OK on TV (violent programming is not regulated), but scenes of consensual physical affection between same-sex couples are considered taboo.

I’m not convinced that editing the girls’ sex scene by the lake in this way didn’t negatively affect the storyline, as BBC America asserts, since the portion that was cut made it clear how much Noami was enjoying having sex with Emily (which is important because Naomi has been really struggling to accept her attraction to another girl).

But I’m also not convinced that BBC America is applying a double-standard in how they edit same-sex relationships on the show. It appears as though they are simply adhering to the FCC’s guidelines.

The portion of the scene between Naomi and Emily on the blanket that was cut is more explicit (and longer in duration) than is currently allowed on broadcast or basic cable television in the U.S. I can’t recall any other examples of U.S. shows portraying two teenage girls — and very few involving two teenagers of opposite sex — taking off their clothes and rolling around in their underwear while making out (if I’m forgetting one, feel free to let me know in the comments). There hasn’t been a similar scene shown between two of the opposite-sex teen couples on the show this season, either, as far as I remember (again, correct me in the comments if I missed one).

So unless BBC America proves me wrong by showing more heterosexual skin on Skins this season, I think the FCC is ultimately to blame for the editing, not BBC America.

On the other hand, I’m not sure what America needs is more sex on television. But that’s a blog post for another day.

Agree? Disagree? Discuss in the comments.

Read all about “Naomily” on Skins here (warning: spoilers for season 3)