The second episode of Freeform’s The Bold Type sees Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), a Black, bisexual social media director, pulling a yoni egg out of her best friend’s vagina. Her best friend is Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens), Scarlet magazine’s newest staff writer, who’s been tasked with writing the sex column for the fictional women’s publication. But how can Jane write a ‘best orgasm’ article when she’s never had an orgasm?
"I feel like a fraud. We work for this magazine that’s all about having the most amazing sex ever!" she laments.
Jane is too scared to tell her editor, Jacqueline, that she’s never had an orgasm so she embarks on a quest to have one so she can do her job. A series of comedic humiliations follows: she uses a yoni egg and ends up with it stuck inside her. She watches porn with Kat and their third best friend, Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy). A writer from men’s magazine Pinstripe catches her yelling "a problem with my vagina" into her phone while checking in with her gynaecologist. Jane tries to 'fix' her inability to orgasm because she sees it as a problem in need of a solution.
Off-screen, out here in the world of nonfiction, Jane’s quandary is more common than you’ve been led to believe. As Jane learns when she tries to find something that she isn’t embarrassed to write about, she shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. There is an orgasm gap: 80% of people with vaginas don’t orgasm from penetrative sex.
Twenty-eight-year-old Emma, who’s in a long-distance relationship, knows that what’s "right and comfortable and preferable for me is not going to be the same as someone else and that is also exactly as right" yet she still feels pressured to portray her sex life in a certain way. Similarly, 24-year-old Chloe, who’s bisexual and engaged to a cis man, feels like they ‘should’ be having more sex. They know that their depression and the antidepressants they’re on contributes to this but still worry that they're broken because they want sex so little.
I do the same thing, beating myself up when my mental illness messes with my desire. I can’t make myself come with just my fingers and need a powerful vibrator to grind against to get off. I have vaginismus, which is the involuntary contraction of muscles around the opening of the vagina that makes penetration impossible. I can’t even use tampons. I still often think of my body as 'broken' because I can’t have the heteronormative version of penis-in-vagina sex that I feel I 'should' be having.
Dr Liz Powell, a licensed psychologist who specialises in non-monogamous sex and relationships, says that when we focus on what we 'should' be doing and assessing the sex we have, we lose the ability to be present for it and enjoy it. They encourage people to create spaces of curiosity about what our bodies are doing, rather than judgement and expectation. "Being present in your body is important even when your body isn’t doing the specific things that you want."
This is what Jane does at the end of the episode when she kisses the Pinstripe writer who has been flirting with her. She gets out of her head enough to listen to her body and is able to write an honest article about the fact she’s never had an orgasm. It’s hard to sit in those spaces of discomfort where we have to experiment to find out what we do and don’t like in bed. Dr Powell says that it’s important to be present with your body as it is, not how you want it to be. "If you’re telling your body how broken and wrong it is, why would it give you great orgasms?"
Being present in your body is important even when your body isn't doing the specific things that you want.
Dr Liz Powell
Just two episodes later, Jane hooks up with the Pinstripe writer and has her first orgasm. Jane’s orgasm happens off-screen but there’s nothing to suggest that she came through oral sex or using a vibrator. Instead, we’re supposed to think that her inability to orgasm is ‘fixed’ by cute banter and a magic penis. Would a straight cis woman who’s never come before have her first orgasm the first time she has sex with a straight cis man? It’s highly unlikely, to say the least.
But after all, it’s a TV show. The problem is that the media needs to show an end point for it to be a 'good story', while our real lives are far messier. It’s okay to enjoy the fantasy of The Bold Type, which in later episodes features Kat and her girlfriend talking about oral sex, then Kat exploring her dominant side and pegging the guy she’s sleeping with. Sutton stands up for herself when she’s slut shamed and enjoys a long-distance sex date with her fiancé and a Bluetooth-operated vibrator. We see them masturbate on screen – an explicit message that women can be alone and be sexually satisfied.
Apart from a brief moment in season three, when Jane worries that she’s "too vanilla" after finding out that her boyfriend gets off to porn featuring bondage, The Bold Type portrays its protagonists as having the best sex of their lives. It’s fun and empowering but we need to make sure that we’re not holding our own sex lives to the same standard. Dr Powell says that there are so many confusing messages about how we ‘should’ act and what we ‘should’ like sexually that we’re taught to tune out what we actually enjoy. Figuring out what we’re really into takes far longer than a 43-minute episode: "For most of us it’s a continuing evolution, a continuing relationship with our bodies and our lovers."
Jane’s insecurity about the sex she ‘should’ be having is incredibly relatable and I wish the writers had explored that moment further. Imagine her having sex with this guy she’s attracted to but still being unable to orgasm. Maybe the sex is bad. Maybe it’s good but she still can’t come. Instead of a quick fix, we would have been reassured that we’re not alone in our insecurities. There’s nothing wrong with not being able to orgasm and it would have been satisfying to see Jane forced to get comfortable with not knowing what she wants. It would be messier and not such a clear narrative arc but it would be far more realistic.
We end up pretending to be having the best sex of our lives because we’re too busy worrying that we’re not having the ‘right’ kind of sex to enjoy the sex we’re actually having. We’re too busy worrying that we’re broken to ask who told us that we’re broken. If we’re all asking ourselves if the sex we’re having is ‘good’ enough or ‘feminist’ enough, we’re not fighting for the structural problems that impact our ability to have the kind of sex we want to have. Imagine the kind of sex we could have if we had access to education, contraception, abortion and reliable childcare. Imagine the kind of sex we could have if the script were flipped and we stopped shaming people who don’t orgasm from penetrative sex and, instead, acknowledged them as being the vast majority?
A lot of us are pretending to have the best sex of our lives because we’re still following the same script of what that sex ‘should’ look like. The key to actually having the best sex of our lives is to redefine what ‘sex’ looks like for us – and that’s far harder.