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Finally, shows like Sex/Life are getting ballsy with full-frontal nudity

The series is full of melodrama, but its sex scenes herald a new era of sex positivity for women onscreen, says Roisin O’Connor

Tuesday 06 July 2021 12:23
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<p>A promotional still from Netflix’s series ‘Sex/Life'</p>

A promotional still from Netflix’s series ‘Sex/Life'

Sex scenes are hard to get right. Much like the real thing, a few wrong moves can make the whole experience seem awkward and, well, bumpy. And when it comes to female pleasure, in particular, countless TV shows and films have been found wanting.

Netflix’s latest hit series Sex/Life marks a radical shift in the way sex is being depicted on screen. It follows bored housewife Billie Connelly (UK viewers may find it difficult to get past the unintentional hilarity of that name) as she takes a trip down memory lane and accidentally blows up her quiet suburban life, when her bad boy ex saunters back into the scene.

Sex/Life was created by Stacy Rukeyser, a writer and producer whose previous credits include the university drama Greek, Lifetime series Unreal, and One Tree Hill, where she was the only female writer on the show in its second season. In 2017, she wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter alleging that sexism was rife on the set of One Tree Hill: name-calling, lunch trips to Hooters, and her male peers conspiring to install a hot tub behind the writers’ office. She also described fighting for “truth” in the female characters’ storylines.

“How can we make those smart, strong women less frightening to many of the men in America?” she wrote at the time. “By telling their stories. Letting viewers into their hearts and minds.”

Sex/Life is precisely that show. It’s largely steered by women, but is a collaborative effort. Rukeyser serves as executive producer with J Miles Dale, Jordan Hawley and Jessika Borsiczky. The music is by Emmy-nominated composer and producer Isabella Summers – a founding member of Florence and the Machine – and Mark Isham, who created the soundtracks for films including Blade, Crash, and Point Break. And the show itself is based on 44 Chapters About 4 Men, BB Easton’s biting memoir about female sexuality.

While Sex/Life is frequently let down by its melodramatic script, the sex scenes and premise make it stand out even among a swathe of increasingly explicit shows. Fans squealed at the bodice-ripping in period drama Bridgerton, but were deflated by the nature of the lead romance, which many accused of glorifying toxic relationships. There was also something of a Napoleon complex about the much-heralded raunch of Bridgerton, when the reality was quite different. It was criticised for queer-baiting a relationship between two male characters that was never actually realised; a scene where the lead character rapes her husband was not addressed as such. Headlines were made at the briefest glimpse of a swinging penis in the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace; other recent shows to go full-frontal include the ludicrous film 365 Days, the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People, and Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking I May Destroy You.

Sex/Life makes a serious effort to rebalance the scales post-Game of Thrones, which was notorious for its willingness to depict female nudity but was strangely shy about its male characters. Within the first few seconds of Sex/Life, we see Billie’s former lover pleasuring her at a nightclub. Twenty minutes later, her best friend Sasha (Margaret Odette) gives oral sex to a singer after a concert but stops to remonstrate with him when he holds her neck. “Put your hand on my head again, I’ll bite the whole thing off.” Rather than sulk, he pleasures her instead. On the third, much talked-about episode, there’s a highly discussed, lingering shot of actor Adam Demos, fully nude, in the shower at a gym. Meanwhile, the fact that Billie narrates each episode gives her a level of omnipotence. She talks about sex with relish, and while she tussles with her present and past lives, she never apologises for her sexual experiences.

Sex/Life on Netflix: Official Trailer

Demos himself has spoken about the show’s sex scenes, which he said are there to “drive the story and the characters”. Rukeyser agreed that his scene was “not just for titillation’s sake” but to demonstrate how obsessed Billie’s husband, Cooper, has become with her ex. Meanwhile, Sarah Shahi, who plays Billie, told Refinery29 how the show was heavily invested in promoting sex positivity for women. “It’s sex represented by women for women,” she said, shouting out intimacy coordinator, Casey Hudecki. Sure, it’s not exactly high art, but neither is it salacious. It proves that showrunners are more willing to trust their audience not to recoil at sex positivity among female characters. Women are finally able to have their head.

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