MARCH 15, 2021
IN NETFLIX’s Sex Education, teenager Otis struggles with his mother Jean’s profession: she is a sex therapist. They live, the two of them, in a home adorned with vulval art. Patients — individuals, couples, groups — come to unpack their sexual difficulties and participate in pleasure workshops with Jean. It’s mortifying for Otis, whom Jean is constantly trying to get to talk about his feelings. And yet somehow Otis, despite his uncomfortable situation, finds himself advising students at his school on their sexual problems. He has problems too: he can’t masturbate, and is repulsed by the thought of ejaculating. Jean, for her part, has difficulty committing to a man. Having separated from a philandering husband — with whom she co-wrote sex books — she now has flings and one-night stands, attending to them with a brisk efficiency. Matter of fact with her partners about these arrangements, she is also straight with Otis, and he takes to pointing out to heartsick men coming down for coffee in the morning that his mother “doesn’t do relationships.”
Jean does, however, have a high sex drive, which often functions in popular discourse as a symbol of female empowerment. Contemporary feminist discourse often figures the truly emancipated woman as one who is sexually confident and assertive, as brazen as a man. Gillian Anderson’s Jean in Sex Education is not dissimilar to Stella Gibson, the detective she played in The Fall, a BBC show that also starred Jamie Dornan (of Fifty Shades) as the serial killer Gibson is trying to track down. Stella is a ballsy feminist: she speaks back to presumptuous male colleagues, and she is sexually assertive. She pursues men for casual sex and, like Jean, treats these encounters with a breezy masculine air. Stella was readable — and rhapsodized over — as an admirable, crush-worthy feminist, just as Anderson’s Jean is in Sex Education.
The Fall in fact had a dark subcurrent running beneath its supposed celebration of female sexual agency. Its slavish depiction of the ways a killer pursues his female victims felt designed to instill terror in women (it certainly did in me). The show felt curiously pedagogical, even instructional; a scene in which Dornan acquired an unsuspecting woman’s address made me resolve, briefly, never to talk to a pleasant-looking man on a train again. The Fall seemed almost to salivate over the killer’s murderous schemes. Under the guise of feminism — and with a figure of Anderson’s stature standing in for female empowerment — the series got away with a lot of traditional, titillating misogyny, feeding an appetite for crimes committed against the bodies and hopes of women and girls. It addressed women by assuming, and insisting, that they must, as scholar Rachel Hall has put it, be “afraid of becoming the next body in line.” This kind of address to a viewer can be read as feminist — after all, the series is savvy about the violence and injustice women face. And what enabled The Fall to feel feminist was precisely its depiction of an assertive woman pursuing sex for its own sake, a woman who unashamedly satisfies her sexual desires.
A high sex drive in women may be read as assertively feminist, but it also worries us. In The Fall, Stella’s sexual confidence and pleasure set her up for a fall: they make her more vulnerable, or more hateable, or more punishable. The eternal warning is there: that the pursuit of sexual pleasure may bring women more danger than it’s worth. In many narratives, a high sex drive can figure as a red flag for some deeper pathology. In Sex Education, Jean meets Jakob, a rugged Swedish handyman, and they begin to have sex; gradually, a relationship develops, but Jean is ruffled and unsettled — Jakob leaves his things in her house; he noisily cooks or does odd jobs while Jean sees patients; he disrupts the calm space of her home. Her frustration grows, and she lashes out at him. Then her oleaginous ex-husband turns up, having been thrown out by his current partner, and she kisses him. Jakob finds out, is heartbroken, and leaves her. Regretful, she comes to realize that she misses Jakob and wants him back. But the betrayal is too much for him, and she has lost her chance at happiness. While Jean may be read as feminist in large part because of her “masculine” approach to sex — instrumental, pragmatic, unsentimental — this approach is also represented as a cover for her deep longing for intimacy and love. She fell in love, felt vulnerable, and sabotaged the relationship. Her sexual appetite was thus both a sign of her unhappiness — her impulse to keep intimacy at a distance — and a further cause of it.
Watching Anderson in Sex Education, I thought, too, of Samantha Jones, the sexual libertine of Sex and the City, which aired on HBO in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That show featured material that was in some ways radical for mainstream TV at the time: women talking irreverently about sex, their partners’ penis size, STDs, fertility. The four main characters were to a large extent stock types: Carrie was overwrought and creative, Charlotte prim and prudish, Miranda smart and cynical, while Samantha was the voracious and adventurous one, racing from one sexual encounter to the next. Like Jean in Sex Education, Samantha didn’t really, or comfortably, do relationships; like Jean, she stood in for the emancipated woman, finally free to be as sexually carefree as a man. Samantha’s character invited the audience to admire — and to enjoy being shocked and thrilled by — her brazen attitude toward conquest, her frankness about her needs.
It’s not, of course, that simple. The sexual freedom and assertiveness of Jean Milburn and Samantha Jones are also simultaneously portrayed as rather pathological; it’s hard to let time-worn stigmas go. Sex and the City’s defiant celebration of financially independent women pursuing sexual pleasure fought for space with the show’s own prescriptive undertones. It could be daring, insightful, and tender; it was smart and acute on the sexual double standard (remember the guy who criticized Samantha for inadequate genital grooming?), but it also tended to follow a neat, lesson-learning structure, emerging no doubt from the weekly advice column on which it was based. The four different types of girl would, in their weekly scenarios, learn an often-painful truth. In Samantha’s case, these lessons were usually cautionary: don’t expect commitment from a fuck-buddy; if you pursue men purely for sex, you are going to have no one to mend a broken curtain rod when you need it, or make you soup when you’re ill. These depictions were undeniably driven by some familiar misogynistic horror of unrestrained female sexuality. We may valorize women’s sexual desire, but that doesn’t mean we don’t also have the same old anxieties about it: the admonitory image of the out-of-control maneater who ends up alone.
Samantha, for all her pleasure-taking, her joyful escapades, was, we were meant to know, really searching for an intimacy she both craved and feared. When she loses her capacity to orgasm and, preoccupied by frantic, thwarted masturbation, is unable to express sympathy or tenderness on hearing of Miranda’s mother’s death, it is fairly clear that her sexual frenzy is a desperate keeping at bay of something else entirely (she eventually breaks down at the funeral). A promiscuous woman has to be in denial about something, right? Samantha suffers for her sexual liberation; she is lonely, she gets hurt. Ultimately, she represents not a joyous libidinal emancipation but a conservative anxiety about the very idea of sexual liberation for women, a sense that women are just not made for sexual freedom. Her promiscuity is denied depression, her sexual emancipation a delusion. The audience is asked to enjoy, vicariously, her unashamed sexual indulgences but is also warned that she is a pitiable figure — because her sexuality is ultimately empty, her voraciousness a facade behind which cowers a damaged woman fearful of love and commitment.
The recent BBC series Fleabag took this dynamic still further, ultimately probing it more thoughtfully. Fleabag flirts with earnestness, in a winkingly knowing way, only to puncture it; the show evinces a palpable distaste for the po-faced, an urge to deflate pomposity. But pretty soon, the more painful motivations behind the winking humor become clear. In the opening scene, the eponymous heroine pretends to have just arrived home at 2:00 a.m., so as to appear nonchalant when a booty-call appears at her door. She tells the viewers that she’s just gone through the rigmarole of digging out her sexy underwear and “shaving everything” so that she can appear effortlessly appealing. The sex, she says, is okay: we see them have anal intercourse, for which the man is grovelingly grateful, but it’s not clear whether the act is pleasurable or joyful for her. Fleabag is frankly cynical about sex: she enjoys using it, enjoys watching various men want her, need her, be grateful for her. Her sort-of boyfriend Harry, a rather wet, doleful character, tells her on the event of their umpteenth breakup that there’s no point her “turning up outside the house in your underwear, it won’t work,” at which Fleabag flicks her gaze to the camera and whispers, knowingly, “It will.”
She’s arch, she’s canny, but does Fleabag enjoy the sex she has? While she’s having sex with a guy with protruding teeth, he keeps repeating, “That was amazing,” but she just says, with a fake smile, “Yeah.” With another man who asks her if she’s okay, she replies, overly brightly, “Yeah, I’m amazing.” The insincerity is glaring. Fleabag is compulsive about sex but does not seem to be enjoying it very much. “I masturbate a lot these days,” she says, “especially when I’m bored, or angry, or upset, or happy.” Talking to a therapist, whom her father has paid for, she says — again brightly, a performative smile on her face, defending herself against sadness — that she’s “been for most of my adult life using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside my empty heart.” It’s self-knowledge as camp — but it’s still painful.
The sex in Fleabag, though often rather joyless, does have its pleasures, not least the knowingness of the performance, as the heroine dissects sex’s petty humiliations, pokes fun at masculinity’s fixations, all while speaking directly to the audience. But the savvy humor is often a kind of bargain, a way of gaining something while staving something else off. At the end of the first episode, we learn about the death of Fleabag’s mother, and about her friend’s apparent suicide, yet Fleabag seems to be trying not to grieve. In Sex and the City and Sex Education, a woman’s high sex drive serves as a marker of feminist fulfilment — you go, girl! — while also figuring as a cover for a deep longing for all the traditional trappings of marriage: stability, emotional commitment. Yet this longing is disavowed and converted into anxious avoidance. While Fleabag might nod to the pressure women feel to be performatively sexual, it also exposes the way sex can be used to manage unbearable grief, to keep excruciating loneliness at bay. When Fleabag takes her dead friend’s hamster out of its cage, and reluctantly begins to stroke it after a long period of neglect, she is acknowledging that mere sex does not amount to intimacy — that she is a lonely woman, in need of warm human contact.
When I first started watching Fleabag, it felt wearily familiar: as with Samantha in Sex and the City, it seemed to be asking whether a woman behaving like a man (or, rather, adhering to what is typically cast as masculinity) is a recipe for happiness in sex. Sex and the City was ultimately incapable of imagining a sexually adventurous woman as anything other than a failed mimicry of manhood, parroting clichés of what she thinks men are like — only out for themselves, unable to truly feel, prioritizing their orgasm over everything else, dispensing with tenderness or obligation. The way Samantha, and Jean in Sex Education, assert their right to sex uncannily mirrors the way men are thought to assert theirs: these women fuck like men; they avoid intimacy and vulnerability, treat lovers as dispensable — and it makes them miserable.
Fleabag is in some ways continuous with these portrayals. The sex Fleabag has is gallingly empty; she is so detached from it that she can talk to the camera while having it. These asides to the audience are an oblique way of critiquing and ruefully regretting the performative aspect of sex that so many women experience at one time or another — the hyper-awareness, the experience of seeing oneself from the third person, from the outside. This sort of critique often edges into a view that women’s sexual feelings are themselves inauthentic, only ever brought in from the outside.
But this is not all that Fleabag is doing. The second season offers a much deeper delve into the unbearable pain and shared grief in families that can manifest either in sudden aggression or in a wary keeping of one another at arm’s length. In the early episodes, Fleabag rather hyperactively defends herself against her own misery, trying to convince us that she is okay. In the later ones, her attempts to do so lose their potency, as both she and the series itself come to embrace a deeper reckoning with her grief. It’s a relief — though a poignant one — when Fleabag finally has sex that appears so genuinely joyous that she pushes the viewers and the camera away.
And yet something in me prickles at my own account of the show. Why? Because it has been so hard for women’s sexual desire to figure at all, except as a symptom, or a metaphor for something else. In popular culture, women rarely simply have sexual desire; instead, it is usually in the service of, or a cover for, something they want more (such as intimacy). Is it possible ever to see a woman’s sexual desire as simply itself, rather than as a vehicle that usually winds up affirming traditional virtues? This might be a worthy political aim for popular narrative: for sexual desire to simply be, without having to be explained, justified, or rationalized. (The Good Wife and Broad City did a good job along these lines.)
Because women’s sexual activity has so often been pathologized, it is important to be on guard when watching depictions of sexually voracious women. They often serve as warnings, or as rueful depictions of how unnatural a libidinous woman is, how her desire cannot really be what it seems but must instead be a communication of something else. Fleabag shows us, however, with unusual intensity, how everything else in life does pervade our experience of sex, and our desire for it. Sexual desire can both be sexual desire and something else, can express different, even competing aims and impulses. In addition to being itself, sex can also be, and often is, a way to manage pain and suffering, to contain and suppress certain feelings (sorrow, fear) while engendering others (relief, absorption, distraction). Sex can distract us, can help us feel something when we are numb, can help us release feelings we didn’t know needed releasing. Like any other human activity, sex can be recruited to the management of pain.
In his book on Freud, Jonathan Lear writes that the founder of psychoanalysis “regularly causes offence because he is seen as trying to reduce our mental life to our animal nature. But in our sexuality, as Freud understands it, we are unlike the rest of animal nature.” For Freud, Lear argues, the human sexual drive is importantly different from animal instinct, in that it is so varied in the activities it includes and the targets of that activity; we can recognize as sexual an activity that is unmoored from reproduction, such as fetishism; sexuality can manifest itself in the least overtly genital activities. Nothing, in other words, is excluded from potentially being sexual.
What’s more, while one of the clichés about Freud is that he reduced everything to sex, it’s more accurate to say that sex becomes, in psychoanalysis, a way of thinking about everything else. There is such ambivalence and melancholy in Fleabag’s portrayal of female desire. Rightly so, perhaps — and not just because sex is a source of deep pain and confusion for many, but because it acknowledges that sex is also about the rest of life. Sex can be a window onto meaning. The trick is to think about what sex can do without reducing sexual desire, especially in women, to something that is only ever brought in from the outside. But Fleabag’s hunch — one that bears further exploration — is that the way we have sex can tell us a great deal about what we want, what we fear, and what we grieve.
Katherine Angel is the author of Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (2012), Daddy Issues (2019), and Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (2021), and teaches creative and critical writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.