Note: This story was originally published on May 26, 2016.
Confession: Any time I’m going through a breakup or feel like swearing off dating in New York, I dip back into Sex and the City. Yes, I know it’s total fantasy (I was raised on Aaron Spelling, give me some credit). But sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to move on — some hope, however rose-tinted, that the next guy might be a Steve or Harry, or at least a good story to tell your friends over brunch.
As many times as these women fall down — meet the wrong sociopath, have weird sex, get their hearts broken — they always manage to get back up and try again. It’s inspiring. After all these years, I still believe in the show’s campy powers to lift me out of a funk.
But this time around, one episode stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen it countless times before and chalked up Carrie’s story line to another case of bad sex — but watching it now, I was shocked.
After my most recent breakup, I decided to pull up some post-Berger episodes — my ex hadn’t dumped me via Post-it, but he was obviously not my Big. After Carrie has an episode to wallow in her own breakup — word-vomiting on Berger’s friends, nearly getting arrested for smoking pot — the first guy she meets is Harry’s best man. Harry clearly has a set up in mind, but Carrie is reluctant — it’s expiration dating, she says. He’s only in town for a week, so what’s the point? Her friends tell her to go for it; he’s cute and funny and she should have a fling.
So, she does — and it’s bad. As the headboard pounds against the wall and Carrie grabs her head in pain, her voice-over tells us they had sex like teenagers, “meaning, he had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t say anything.” In the morning, she’s on her bedroom floor with a heat pad. Then, she's hunched over in her dress at Charlotte’s wedding, with a “sex sprain,” as she calls it. “It was not good for me. It was jackrabbit sex,” she tells Stanford as they walk in.
“Are straight men still allowed to do that?” he asks.
“No, they aren’t. It’s bad — it’s basically masturbating with a woman instead of your hand. I don’t enjoy.”
When they run into the guy and he proposes round two, Carrie tries to spare his feelings by saying she figured it was just a one-night thing. In a classic sitcom-style role-reversal, he says, “If I’d known you were just using me, I wouldn’t have made love to you like that.”
Carrie isn’t forced, but if consent means affirming that you’re onboard with every step of a sexual experience, then she doesn’t give hers. Her reticence to speak up means she has to endure terrible sex that actually leaves her physically injured. Like many of the show’s story lines, the scene takes what is unfortunately an all-too-common experience for women to extremes. While I cringed at Carrie’s deference to the dude’s feelings, the writers didn’t shy away from pointing out that it’s not okay for men to act this way.
A decade ago, that was enough. The pioneering series about single, sexually active women broke ground in depicting exactly this kind of experience with a wink and a smile. The show doesn’t let this guy off the hook — his delusion is the butt of the joke. But watching it now, I was troubled to see a woman discounting her own pleasure, even her well-being, in favor of playing nice and not making waves.
You don’t have to scroll far to see how much has changed since. A single episode from this season of Girls wades further into the dynamics of consent and pleasure than all of Sex and the City combined — all within the same framework of a half-hour comedy. (We’re not talking about SVU here.)
On a spiritual retreat with her mom, Hannah meets a yoga instructor (played by Lena Hall), who’s obviously coming on to her when she invites Hannah to a one-on-one stretch session in the sauna. Hannah makes the first move and goes in for a kiss. She admits she’s never had sex with a woman, but as we know, Hannah’s adventurous with her body and thrives on impulse. When we cut back, she’s going down on the instructor, but it’s hot, Hannah’s sweaty, uncomfortable, and wants to stop. After some protest from her partner, Hannah stands up and ends the hookup. The instructor finishes herself off and bursts into sobs. Though she’s ultimately just one more sex partner on the series, one who tries to force Hannah to do more than she wants to, Hall’s character clearly has personal issues and is not simply written off as a nut.
Another scene in the same episode finds Jessa and Adam having sex, and things seem to have improved from their very awkward first time. As they’re about to climax, Jessa tells Adam to pretend that she doesn’t want him to come inside her, while explaining that really, she has a sponge in and he should go right ahead. They act out her fantasy, with Jessa protesting for him to pull out and Adam finishing inside, supposedly against her will. It’s a quick and playful exchange, but it allows for a woman to fantasize about being violated while she is not only giving her full consent, but orchestrating the whole act of make-believe.
If TV is a prism for our culture, scenes like these are evidence of a long-overdue conversation about consent that's been pushed to the forefront in recent years. In light of how far we've come in bringing these issues to the surface — no longer playing nice and actually being honest, both on-screen and off — watching Carrie bury her true feelings and defer to some douchey one-night stand was totally jarring this time around. I can't imagine a current female-fronted series depicting the same scenario without digging deeper.
Though it may feel dated now, Sex and the City did more for representations of female experiences on the small screen than anything that came before it. Signs of its enormous cultural impact can be seen everywhere from women marrying older to dating apps that cater to the agency of single ladies, like Bumble. At the turn of the century, we needed to see gutsy, ambitious, eloquent women navigating the twists and turns of urban dating. Now that the way has been paved, we’re finally finding out where it leads. These days, we get series like Girls probing tougher questions about consent and consistently pushing boundaries in exploring female pleasure.
It’s about time.