Sex is one of the most powerful compulsive basic needs that most people have. People go to great lengths to meet sexual partners and often have sex for the worst reasons, or just to have it. But when we see sex in the media, all we generally see are passionate kisses and powerful thrusts, arched backs and throes of pleasure. Fortunately, Lena Dunham, writer, producer, and star of HBO’s Girls, hasn’t felt any compulsion to give in to that fantasy idea of sex. She has no problem coming out and telling the world that sex is kind of weird, even though we all want it.
Like Hannah Horvath of Girls, I (like many of us) am no stranger to awkward sex. I remember one time, late at night, in the dim light of a recently deceased house party, a person who I had fooled around with before had offered offered to fool around again. As someone who doesn’t get around that much (but has had enough notches to make more than a few uptight folks squeamish), I was glad for an opportunity. Unfortunately, he was someone who I was rather infatuated with at the time, and he found this to be an advantageous position. Despite knowing that I have a natural dominant streak, he found cause to play dominant with me. I didn’t find this alarming as much as I found it strange and kind of funny. I mainly went for it just so I could have a story to tell, kind of like Hannah would do.
So, when he called up a girl and muttered drunkenly into her voicemail while I performed in service, I paid close attention to his stuttering “hope you’re doing well, let’s hang out” rambles, bemused by the letdown of his bad humiliation fantasy. See, somewhere in his mind, the idea of humiliating me while being pleasured was sexually satisfying, not unlike Adam’s callous “twue dom” whispers in Hannah’s ear in the pilot episode of Girls. And I responded like she did. I remained firmly in my head instead of in the moment, disaffected, and more concerned with the movements of my body and my personal insecurities about sex, largely because it was a weak fantasy from the mind of someone who just wanted to feel like king shit for a few minutes. His dominant moment had no value to me, but only because he put me in the wrong role. Though as an older woman, I’d laugh in his face at the suggestion of such an abusive scene, back then, I was more concerned with whether or not I was doing okay, or if there was anything I could do to improve, like a typical Hannah-type overthinker. My questioning cracked his fantasy into pieces and left us with the basis of what sex is: simple physical grinding without bullshit. The whole event, like most of my past sexual experiences, was neither hot nor especially satisfying. It was like watching an episode of Scrubs in syndication. You know the show is good because you’ve seen it before, but now it is kind of bland because you’ve seen it a dozen times.
That’s how Lena Dunham writes sex. Somewhere in our minds, we have this idea of sex as this magical and pleasurable process, and I hypothesize that this is the main reason why we seek it compulsively and repeatedly, and not any impetus to reproduce. And though sex is often pleasurable, sex as a woman insecure about her body and her sexual capacity usually isn’t.
We don’t love sex as much as we love the idea of sex, which is why the portrayals of sex on Girls are so irritatingly uncomfortable and naturally hilarious in a way that only HBO could get away with. We’re all used to the laced bras and arched backs of women on television climaxing in seconds during amazing and heated sex acts. It is to be expected in the realm of fantasy. But that sexual world can be inherently damaging to the sexual psyche of young people. It creates unrealistic expectations and feelings of inadequacy among the vast majority of non size-four young women, and non-studly young men. In a hipster world obsessed with authenticity, we need shows like Girls to cut us down to size a bit, and remind us that not everything is as it seems. We need Marnie to outright say “sex is really overrated,” so that we realize that making it good takes work and practice and patience, and that people aren’t really born with natural sex super powers.
We have all (mostly) had sex with people who are sexually repugnant (like “twue dom” Adam, or my telephonic exhibitionist) and that it either made us uncomfortable or mildly amused us. We need to remember that, like Charlie’s first foray into “sex from behind” with Marnie, that sometimes we revert to the shock of being virginal despite years of experience. Who here has had sex with someone outside their preferred gender, and had it flare up to maximum and sizzle out in seconds, like Marnie and Elijah? And what about Shoshonna’s terrifying almost-first-time with an unabashed cunning linguist, and the sheer horror on her face as it happened? It is so refreshing yet cringe-inducing to see virginity broken in a way that doesn’t involve a sweetly loving boyfriend climbing through his girlfriend’s upstairs window. These are the realities of sex that we don’t get to see, because if sex on television isn’t titillating and done by classically hot women, it is considered vulgar by some journalists and compared to rape by boner-led shock jocks like Howard Stern.
The only episode of Girls that dipped a toe into the realm of sexual fantasy was “One Man’s Trash.” The fantasy claim was widely made about this episode, but largely by sexist neanderthals that assume Hannah could never get a guy as hot as Joshua. Well, not every man is solely attracted to traditional porn fodder. The real reason for this episode being a understood as a dramatization of Hannah’s fantasies is because all of the sex is hot. Dunham herself “doesn’t see sex as glamorous,” but this episode is all romantic thrusts and kisses and passion and orgasm, which is like an oasis in a desert of dry coital distaste. And it served a purpose, too. Even if it wasn’t a fantasy, it was a story of a girl so insecure that she took a magical off-the-cuff fling and trashed it under a pile of her own crumpled emotional baggage. There is nothing more damaging to one’s sex life than self-obsessive insecurity, and that’s a reality of sex that we simply don’t see in media.
And then there’s Sunday night’s Girls, showing a scene that Howard Stern probably wouldn’t call rape even though it is (because Natalie is hot). And it is rape in one of the most common ways that it happens; when the victim is afraid to fight back or too trusting of her lover to really believe it is happening and stop it. And there’s thousands of women who experience that, who have someone dig their faces into their privates and say “no, don’t do that” in any number of ways, but he’ll do it anyway because her consent doesn’t matter. And even they might not call it rape, out of expectations of being objectified or fears of stigma, but they’re there with feelings of shame and violation and are terrified to do anything about it. That’s the real dark side of sex, sex that is a violation but is treated like a simple mistake. That’s when men like Adam translate “No, because I am protesting” to “Yes, but I am saying no because I am insecure” and they’re too focused on their own goals to consider their victim. That’s a reality of rape that we often don’t see, because much of the public consciousness about rape involves knife-wielding ninjas in back alleys targeting women in short dresses. Eighty percent of rape doesn’t happen that way. Lena Dunham’s small percentage of television is representing the larger percentage of rape. And yet, so many writers in the internet universe are focused on how Adam’s spooge is where Dunham somehow crossed the line, yet so many aren’t in agreement that what happened is rape. Truth hurts.
The most frightening correlation to make between Girls’ sexual dysphoria is that people utterly hate the show because of it. Having your sexual fantasies shattered by a show so unabashedly realistic is like driving a railroad spike through your skull. People become utterly infuriated by the scenes because they break own the fragile walls we build to protect our sexual identities. People will watch, and complain, mainly because they like to forget the awkward moments and remember the little pleasures, and tensions are raised when illusions are broken. It’s like eating amazing macaroni and cheese and being told it came out of a box. The truth sucks, but rather than adapt to the truth, people prefer to bask in lies, pour boxed Kraft into a casserole and top it with shredded cheddar, and that mentality pervades in so many facets of our culture that it is no wonder that we’re considered narcisstic. I, too, admit that sometimes Girls is hard to watch because of it, but that same knowledge is what compels me to continue watching week after week, Television, and all media, are supposed to have a profound effect on you if it is being done well.
Maybe we all need to take the edge off a little and admit to ourselves that sex isn’t really all its cut out to be. Perhaps the panacea that will allow stories about sex on television to evolve is for our culture to just get over it. Here’s to hoping that Girls has opened the door for more television to show us what we don’t always want to see, to desensitize us to the most intimate of failures, to admit that consent violations can happen in ways we don’t like to think they happen, and to accept sexual awkwardness as something that really common to all of us.