Skip to content

A bleaker kind of sex

2012 April 1
by Zoe Strimpel

The new HBO series Girls is a far cry from Sex and the City (clearly- look at those clothes). But it's also about the death of sex as love: a lesson in how for many people, the act has become little more than a form of physically demanding coldness; a distancing tool.

“A brilliant gem for HBO”! crows the Hollywood Reporter.

Frank Bruni, food and TV writer for the New York Times, is less sure about Girls, the soon-to-launch American programme about four 20 something women living and shagging in New York. An excerpt from his review:

“You watch these scenes and other examples of the zeitgeist­y, early­ 20s heroines of “Girls”
engaging in, recoiling from, mulling and mourning sex, and you think: Gloria Steinem went
to the barricades for this?”

Not having access to Girls since it won’t be aired in the UK in the near future, I will pick sides based on reviews. And in this case, I’m inclined to side with Bruni.

Girls- crucially- is no Sex and the City. Oh no. “Any comparison to the older HBO series Sex and the City is wide of the mark in numerous ways,” warns  the Reporter. “Where that series had a high sheen to it [YUCK!] and was all about finding men and shoes and happiness (about in that order), and the four variations on a feminine theme came together all-too-neatly for lunch and chat sessions, Girls is a much more lo-fi, rooted-in-realism affair.”

Bruni is less swooning over the low-fi “honesty” of Girls: “The gloss of Manhattan is traded for the mild grit of Brooklyn’s more affordable neighborhoods. The anxieties are as much economic as erotic.   The colors are duller, the mood is dourer and the clothes aren’t much. It’s “Sex and the City” in a charcoal gray Salvation Army overcoat.”

Dull and shabby, then, but fun to watch, I’ll bet. Less fun is the kind of sex Girls depicts. That’s dull and  shabby; also a terrible, toilsome grind that has – vilely – become the norm.  Indeed, what the Hollywood Reporter sees as honest and funny and sooo zeitgeist, is a sorry reflection of what sensuality has become in a sexscape increasingly polluted by porn addictions and porn reliance. More and more men can’t orgasm with actual women because their triggers are all screen-based (A New York Magazine article published last year, by a 36 year old man called Davy Rothbart, was called He’s Just Not That Into Anyone). To match what they know they’re up against, women are spending more and more of their sexual attention and efforts on “performing” right in the sack. How a woman can avoid being self-conscious in the New York beds that Girls seems to accurately describe is a total mystery.

And so to the opening scene of Girls, so distasteful to Bruni (who, born in 1964, came of sexual age in at the peak of feminist stridency). In it, the lead character Hannah, played by Lena Dunham (also the producer and writer, at just 25), is only visible from behind. She is being screwed by her “loser” boyfriend. Pleasure seems about as present for her as a herd of unicorns wielding dildos. As for so many women these days, logistics and good service as the primary concerns. “So I can just stay like this for a little while?” she asks. “Do you need me to move more?” He wants her to get it right, but in silence: “Let’s play the quiet game,” he replies.

I am reminded of an article about the effect of porn by American journalist Natasha Vargas Cooper, printed last year in the Atlantic Monthly. Retelling a sexual encounter with a well-heeled chap in an Upper East Side apartment:

“He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.””

As Vargas-Cooper’s piece makes clear, we’ve arrived at a point where sex is about discomfort and porn-brokered kink. It’s a grind to get it right, and – so long as you’re real flesh and blood, being experienced in real time – for many men, you may never satisfy. So with its quirky humour and cool shades of Brooklyn grey, Girls seems to glamourise something very dark and very deep running wild in the bedrooms of the internet-accessing, choice-glutted daters of today.

What’s really bad about “the tsunami of porn” (Davy Rothbart’s words) is not only perpetuation of a seriously shady industry, rife with abuse, but the poisoning of the modern female’s sexual experience. Two-thirds of porn is watched by men. “Every guy watches porn,” shrieks sex podcaster Dan Savage in his weekly podcast – it’s one of his signature points. Porn, often violent, is how they want to get off because it’s how they get off easily. Women not only have a different relationship with porn and arousal narratives, they often have a different way of experiencing “good” sex. But for some reason, it’s the male way, ie the porn standard, that wins and so women are left trying to be as “good” in bed as Jemma Jameson. This kind of sex is not fun, and it’s not honest. Sadly, that doesn’t make it unreal.

One Response leave one →
  1. Suzi Creamcheese permalink
    April 2, 2012

    The show sounds dreadful but accurate. Hardcore sex has become so commonplace that the only way most men seem to be able to regain intimacy is by going cold turkey on porn. What’s worse is that isn’t just the 20 and 30 somethings that are finding it hard to come – kids are getting into porn before actually having sex. I’m in my 50’s and, like most of my generation, my first glimpse of a naked body was in my parent’s National Geographics magazine. I once found my dad’s Playboy magazine but I didn’t see my first porn movie, in a cinema, until I was in my third year of Uni. By then I knew the mechanics but it took another twenty years before I tried anything even vaguely adventurous. On a separate but related topic, I haven’t seen too much reported about the downsides of long term use of the vibrator. If porn is a man’s crutch, then the vibrator has become the modern day equivalent for girls. Nobody talks about women who can’t manage an orgasm without one or about the way it effectively desensitises a woman’s clit over time.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS