Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra

BroadAgenda

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Why women can’t stop talking about Sex/Life

Jul 27, 2021 | Commentary, Equality, Opinion, Sexuality, Feature

Written by Kat Berney

The TV program Sex/Life dropped on Netflix late June it’s a show that has got the world talking.

All of a sudden, thousands of folks were responding to the TikTok challenge that went like this:  “View episode 3 Sex/Life 19:50 and film your blind response”

Exhibit A:

@madheadbaldwin#tiktoktrend #couplestiktok #sex/lifenetflix #foryoupage #fyp♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod

Netflix Sex/Life has been out for two weeks, and become a global viral sensation with over 26.1 Million views of this TikTok challenge. Mainly this challenge shows how little society is used to seeing male nudity in popular culture and the emphasis and value we place on male genital size.

But after the TikTok challenge has faded why has Sex/Life remained on Netflix’s top ten streaming lists globally?

The premise of Sex/Life is straight forward. Billie is a housewife who had a wild past in New York City as psychology PhD student at Columbia; sex, drugs and music formed a major part of her life, and she was entwined with Brad, a troubled record label owner.

She eventually marries Cooper – a safe, kind man who loves her unashamedly. The pair move out to Connecticut to have babies, while Cooper commutes to the city daily for work. Billie can’t reconcile her present with her past so writes about it in her journal. Cooper reads this journal and life begins to unravel.

I binge-watched the whole series. My best friend was in lockdown, and I insisted he too watch it so we could discuss. More than once in the 700 messages exchanged during watching, we asked ourselves: “This is trash tv, why are we watching it? Why do we love it?”

A scripted masterpiece it is not. But one key reason women are so obsessed with the show is that it explores themes from a female perspective which we don’t see enough in mainstream media.

I related to Billie, having a wild-ish past around the globe; I found myself with child living in my hometown, a normal suburban family life. It was like an expensive designer jumper I really wanted; I saved, bought it and adored it; but was not sure how to wear it. It took me a long time to reconcile the change in my life and embrace the new world that had opened for me. Of course, this is an age-old scenario, popularised by the American feminist, Betty Friedan in the 60s.

The fantasy sex scenes are all shown from a female perspective with female pleasure being the central theme. It accurately portrays the passionless reality of sex with babies and small children. Often it isn’t a spontaneous wild shedding of clothing in every room in the house; there’s rogue breast milk, kids interrupting and work exhaustion. It also addresses how women struggle to reconcile a sense of sexual self with a body that doesn’t quite feel like their own anymore.

Most of the reviews have been dismissive citing the lead character’s perfect life. They don’t feel empathy for her situation, without digging further into the themes that appear obvious to most women who watch the show.

I decided to canvass others in my social circle and found there was a similar theme. These are some of the things my female friends said to me:

 “It’s not perfect there are parts that I think are worth thinking about. As a mum I can relate to feeling bored at home with young kids, wanting more intimacy and longing for our pre children lives and wanting it all”

“When you’re at home sitting on couch alone with mastitis and a baby that won’t latch screaming; that hook up with a DJ behind the booth at Fabric Nightclub is looking mighty appealing.”

“When I think about my sexual past, I wish my pleasure had mattered, as much as the woman does in this show. Its refreshing to see sexual content that doesn’t degrade women”

 “It was the leaking breast milk for me- that took a long time for me and my husband to recover from- no one warns you about it, when I saw this scene I just wanted to say – YES”

Most of these comments were received via sending out questions on social media. Most responses were sent through privately, and occurred during discussions that happened in private groups.

These informal forums provide a safe place for women to discuss sexuality, and desire without fear of a moral judgement from participants. I’d argue there’s an urgent need to discuss female sexuality and how it is represented in pop culture. It’s such a relief to see something not designed solely for male or abusive gaze! We need to break this taboo and discuss female sexuality from all angles, including the messy bits (not just versions of women’s bodies which are sanitised, commodified and homoginised through advertising and pornography). As a society we still tie morality to all aspects of women’s behaviour ranging from sexuality, politics to safety.

Friedan famously claimed that the problem had no name. We know better than that. The problem has a name: patriarchy. The patriarchal structures governing our society continue to regulate women’s bodies, making them the ‘other’, while the male bodies are the norm.

Billie attempts to be the perfect housewife after her husband discovers her raunchy past. Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2021

Women in popular culture are no strangers to being shamed in the media; winner of I’m a celebrity, Abbie Chatfield, has led a movement in pushing back and challenging norms on how young women own their sexuality and the torrent of hate that unleashed on her is unfathomable.

Women in leadership are used to being attacked and having their moral compass questioned by men who are anything but.

Most recently we’ve seen women’s sports teams fined for not wearing bikini bottoms to compete, and other women being fined for wanting to wear their bikini uniforms. Women’s sports has complicated history of uniforms, and unless there is a specific safety issue they should just be allowed the wear what they want.

It is a shame that the show catapulted to mainstream notoriety due to a brief glimpse of a male appendage. The naked female body has been so thoroughly sexualised, that we don’t even bat an eyelid when it enters our screens. Heck, even statues celebrating the work of women are still erected naked.

But in reality, this is a show about women, for women. It is clunky in places, but the global conversation it has generated shows there is a gap.
People – including myself – are relishing women taking centre stage with in-depth discussions of female sexuality.

  • Kat is the Associate Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation. In her spare time she consumes pop culture, new music and trash TV while  raising her 4 year old daughter in Canberra.

 

 

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Katherine Berney is the Director of the National Women's Safety Alliance. She's also a PhD student in sociology at University of Canberra.

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