Tell Me Lies might seem like a young woman’s sexual fantasy of a college relationship. After all, the first time Lucy (Grace Van Patten) and Stephen (Jackson White) hook up, he goes down on her and easily brings her to orgasm, her first from oral, and their relationship only gets hotter from there. But not all sex in the show is actually hot. In fact, the most impactful sex scene in Tell Me Lies has nothing to do with the leading will-they-won’t-they couple, and it might just be the most uncomfortable to watch.
Lucy and Stephen’s torrid relationship is at the center of Hulu’s new show, an adaptation of Carola Lovering’s novel of the same name. But in episode 4, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” Tell Me Lies shifts focus a bit to give the spotlight to Bree (Catherine Missal), Lucy’s virgin best friend. After a false start with another freshman, Drew (Benjamin Wadsworth), she enters episode 4 determined to have sex with Tim (Tyriq Withers), a hot upperclassman.
Their first encounter is completely consensual, but underwhelming. Bree isn’t too shaken when it’s not exactly a mind-blowing experience though. She’s determined to lose her virginity in college. As Lucy reassures her later, it’s totally normal not to orgasm your first time. “She views [sex] as this ticket into adulthood and coolness,” Missal tells Refinery29. So, when Tim sends her a “You up?” text late one night, she goes to his dorm. This time, she’s convinced it’s going to be better, maybe even good. But he’s not hard, so he asks her to go down on him, and then asks her to touch herself for him. When he’s finally good to go, he positions them so that she’s on her stomach, bending down on the bed. Bree is clearly uncomfortable, and she does voice her discomfort, telling Tim that she wants to be on her back, but he keeps her down, saying that he likes it this way, and so she goes silent.
The scene is not explicitly sexual assault, but it’s not exactly consensual either. It lives in the gray area formed by the lack of knowledge about sex and enthusiastic consent (a “yes means yes” approach that, in part, encourages partners to check in with each other before, during, and after for affirmation). It’s something that, unfortunately, many people, including Missal, can relate to. “I definitely have been in similar situations, and I was really glad that it was included because I haven’t really seen that kind of sex portrayed [on television],” Missal says. There’s no sugarcoating Bree’s experience. The camera never strays too far from her face, ensuring that the audience is right there with her. “I really wanted to push the tone of it. I wanted you to be able to see the discomfort on my face,” she says.
In preparation for the scene, Missal and Withers worked with intimacy coordinator Dr. Tiffanie Davis Henry, a sex therapist whose previous credits include First Kill. After reading the script — which included the detail about Bree wanting to be on her back — and speaking with the director Sam Boyd, Henry met with both Missal and Withers separately, and then together, to discuss the scene and what they would be comfortable with. She was also on set during the shoot. “I think everyone had just a tinge of anxiety because we knew how powerful this scene was going to be,” Henry recalls. “Each of the actors were really taking great care to make sure that it felt authentic, but also that they were taken care of and taking care of each other and making sure each other was okay.”
Like Missal, Henry found the scene to be extremely grounded and relatable. “Almost every person that I’ve ever talked to about early sexual relationships has experienced this exact same thing, where they felt like their partner wasn’t really connected to the fact that they didn’t want it,” she says.
Even though the conversation about consent has opened so much, it’s still a problem, and people shouldn’t feel ashamed for the experiences that they lived.
I could also relate. One of my early sexual experiences occurred on a first date in my mid-20s. One minute, I was making out with a guy in his apartment and the next thing I knew, clothes were coming off and he was going to get a condom. In my head, I knew I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t say it. I thought, “Okay, I guess this is happening,” but my body knew I didn’t want it to, and in the end, I was able to keep it from going any further. I was shaken by the experience and a bit overwhelmed. Like Bree, the first thing I did afterwards was go over to a friend’s apartment and talk about it as if it was this big adventure — a sexual milestone I had hit, and, oh, wasn’t that so cool? I didn’t tell them that he barely even touched me, or that I felt deeply ashamed. I was disappointed in myself that I didn’t tell him to stop when I wanted him to. I had previously thought about what I would do in that situation, that I obviously would have the presence of mind to say what I wanted and didn’t want. But when I was living it, it was like my voice just disappeared. I didn’t talk about it with my friends for years, and it’s hard for me to even discuss it with my therapist.
Watching Bree and Tim’s second sex scene was validating. By honoring Bree’s discomfort, it gave me permission to carry trauma from my own experience, as benign as it may have been, which is exactly what Missal is hoping for. “Even though the conversation about consent has opened so much, it’s still a problem, and people shouldn’t feel ashamed for the experiences that they lived,” she says. Dr. Henry agrees. “What I hope is that this scene brings about a lot of conversation amongst young people about consent, about enthusiastic consent, and really helps people to understand that body language is important,” Henry says.
Tim isn’t necessarily the kind of guy that would commit violent assault — though his reaction to discovering Bree was a virgin when they had sex shows he’s still pretty shitty — but he clearly doesn’t care to read Bree’s body language. His lack of awareness is put into sharp contrast with Stephen, who, in the very same episode, listens to Lucy’s request to “go harder” when they are having sex in the exact same position. It’s the perfect example of how enthusiastic consent can increase pleasure in addition to providing safety for all partners involved. Lucy is clear about what she wants, Stephen responds accordingly, and they both enjoy it. Sure, he might be lying and gaslighting her, but at least he listens to what she wants in bed. As Dr. Henry says, “Enthusiastic consent [only] works when someone is paying attention.”
Tell Me Lies episodes drop Wednesday on Hulu.