By the mid-50s, America was in the throes of a full-on panic about the effect that comic books could have on the vulnerable, impressionable minds of its youth.
Fearing that the adventures of heroes like Superman and Batman might influence readers to become a generation of violent, depraved hoodlums, the Comics Magazine Association of America was created to craft a set of rules for comic books that would, in theory, minimize the damage that they might cause. (It's worth pointing out that the studies that were used to fuel and justify the hysterical panic around comics were notoriously flawed.)
Under the Comics Code Authority, comic book publishers were prohibited from depicting adult themes like excessive violence, gore, and sexuality. While the CCA didn’t have any official authority over the big publishers of the day, the body’s influence was undeniable.
Comics that met the CCA’s rules were marked with a stamp of approval that ensured that they’d be featured on newsstands. Comics without the seal, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. Many were quickly put out of print or simply cancelled.
Though the CCA’s rules limited the types of stories that comics could tell, they also gave birth to the Golden Age of comics that laid the groundwork for what would become the classic American comic book. Our Clark Kent wouldn’t be our Clark Kent were it not for the CCA. But is that really a good thing?
In the sixty some-odd years since the Code was first established, every single comic book publisher pushed up against and eventually broke free of its limitations. Gradually, gruesome violence and criticism of the police made their way back into mainstream comics. Of all the CCA’s taboos, though, there’s still one that’s yet to really be broken: sex.
Superman’s had a number of on-again, off-again romances in the 78 years that he’s been saving the world, and each of them has been more or less the same. Clark loves Lois (or Lana, or Lori) with all of his heart and they have very charmed, sexless relationships that end up thwarted by Clark’s duties as the Man of Steel.
Save for a few non-canonical, alternate timelines where he and Wonder Woman finally admit their feelings, shack up, and start a family, Superman's sexuality is rarely ever alluded to and generally speaking, that's the rule of thumb for most mainstream heroes.
As time has gone on, certain publishers have more directly addressed the idea that fictional superheroes, like real people, probably have sex on a regular basis. In an iconic scene from Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Silk Spectre, a human, costumed hero, attempts to have sex with her omniscient, God-like boyfriend Dr. Manhattan.
Manhattan, who has all but lost touch with most of his former humanity, understand's the Spectre's physical desire on a biological level but recognizes it as being inconsequential in the grand scheme of his world-saving. So, he splits himself into multiple bodies to satisfy her needs while also remaining focused on his work. Understandably, the Silk Spectre does not take this well.
More recently, DC's Midnighter solo-series opened with its titular character using a Grindr-like application in search of a little action (which he finds). For all of their flair and realism, these two particular examples of superheroic sex lives are outliers for the frankness with which they broached the topic.
For years, the big publishers more or less denied their characters sex lives either by pretending that sex didn't exist or making it physically impossible for them to get down.
In his 1969 essay Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, Larry Niven unpacks the hard realities of what it would mean to be a Kryptonian attempting to have sex with a human.
"Electroencephalograms taken of men and women during sexual intercourse show that orgasm resembles 'a kind of pleasurable epileptic attack,'" Nevins explains. "Superman has been known to leave his fingerprints in steel and in hardened concrete, accidentally. What would he do to the woman in his arms during what amounts to an epileptic fit?"
This idea was played up for gags in a deleted scene from 2008's Hancock, but it highlights a problem pretty universal to every superhero. If the super strength didn't kill their partners, then the unbreakable claws, laser vision, sonic screams or spontaneous combustion would.
Barring pairings where both people were equally matched in strengths and levels of invulnerability, it would be all but impossible to realistically depict superheroes having sex…were it not for the fact that these people are all fictional.
Over time, comic book writers have moved away from the type of narrative restrictions that once kept Cyclops and Jean Grey from ever doing anything more than kissing, but for all of the progress that's been made in comic books themselves, comic book culture (movies and television shows) still lags behind.
Until very recently, superhero movies and television played sexuality up for laughs or mild titillation, but seldom made an effort to treat sex like a normal, natural part of being an adult. Selina Kyle's transformation into Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns is more about watching the character use her skin-tight, patent leather ensemble to mesmerize and ensnare the men around her instead of actually being a reflection of her own sexual agency.
More modern movies like Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel's Avengers films flirt with the idea of being sexy while never actually hitting the mark. Black Widow and the Hulk are in a romantic relationship that, for obvious reasons, might prove difficult to maintain on the sex front. Rather than mining that dynamic for emotional weight, the movie lets Tony Stark crack jokes about the couple "hiding the gherkin."
Despite the fact that we now treat it as potentially mature media, one of the only instances of a superhero show really tackling sex head-on is Netflix's Jessica Jones.
In the first episode of the series, the super-strong Jessica Jones and the near-invulnerable Luke Cage nearly ruin his apartment as they discover that they're basically perfect for one another in terms of sex. Because neither of them can really harm the other, they have have the sort of passionate sex that they need to get away from what's really hurting them—death, addiction, and loss.
In making sex a normal thing for its characters, Jessica Jones allows the act of sex itself to fade into the background in exchange for humanizing its characters in a way that makes its stories more compelling. The contrast between Jessica's consensual encounters with Luke and her past abuse at the hands of the villain Kilgrave makes her journey of revenge and healing that much stronger because we, as viewers, understand that the show is treating the two instances of sex as a plot device differently.
If Game of Thrones indiscriminately treats consensual sex and rape as opportunities to put breasts and butts on screen, Jessica Jones depicts both as separate and distinct experiences that inform the way Jessica sees the world. Depicting how sex factors into the lives of superheroes isn't just a way to make their stories more exciting, it invites viewers to reflect on how those very same experiences have affected them.
There are at least five superhero movies slated to come out later on this year and nearly each of them has the opportunity to address its characters' sexuality in a way that doesn't try to treat it as if it doesn't exist. Deadpool has already confirmed that he'll definitely be pansexual and the early looks at the Suicide Squad have revealed a reimagined Harley Quinn whose new aesthetic screams pinup-sexy as loudly as it does "insane."
These movies could easily go down in history as being yet another vehicle for adolescent male navel-gazing, but actually engaging with the themes they toy with would be a solid step towards making the genre both smarter and sexier.