Astute readers might notice that I’ve watched a fair few things on Netflix recently. I cancelled my subscription last year over the whole Dave Chapelle thing but had to resubscribe because I feel weirdly professionally obliged to watch Bridgerton and then forgot to unsubscribe again because that’s how they fucking get you. I might have just let it roll because I don’t necessarily think boycotting a company forever because they’ve done one thing you dislike is sensible, especially if said company makes efforts to actually address your original issues (Blizzard, for example, seems to be making at least token attempts to deal with its massive climate of sexual harassment). Buuut then they went and did a Ricky Gervais special so it seems like their fucked up “we have to include explicitly transphobic content as part of our commitment to diversity” policy is still in place.
Do please, once again, take a moment to realise how fucked up that policy is. They don’t do this with any other kind of prejudice. They haven’t tried to balance out Heartstopper with a heartwarming series about a boy who gets sent to gay conversion therapy, is happily cured, and settles down with a nice girl. They haven’t tried to balance out Queer Eye with a show where a bunch of incels go around teaching men to blame all their problems on Chads and Beckys.
So, yeah, I have now finally recancelled my Netflix subscription and, again, this isn’t about individual performers or shows. It’s about the fact that a platform which loudly and publicly trumpets its explicitly progressive values seems to sincerely think that transphobia is, in and of itself, a marginalised identity that needs to be protected and uplifted. Which, let us be clear, it fucking isn’t.
In the meantime, though, let’s talk about Sex. And Life. And Sex/Life.
Sex/Life is actually from last year, but some strange algorithm magic has made it trend recently so it’s suddenly become very popular on Netflix. Streaming services are weird. Anyway it’s based on a 2016 memoir called 44 Chapters About 4 Men by BB Easton. I don’t know how closely it’s based on that book but since it’s two men short I’m assuming “not very”. And I’m upfronting that (spellcheck seems to recognise upfronting as a verb, which is nice, apparently MSWord is less bothered than Calvin and Hobbes about how much verbing weirds language) because my cursory googling (there’s that verbing again) suggests that the series has been … not super well received. And more specifically that it has been not super well received in ways that are a bit awkward if it’s actually closely based on a real person’s lived experience. Like a lot of people think the plot is silly and implausible which is a difficult criticism if the show’s plot follows the book’s plot closely and the book’s plot follows the author’s real life closely. Both of these are fairly large assumptions—the show describes itself as “inspired by” not “based on” and even memoirs often have elements of embellishment (at the very least since BB Easton is still apparently married to the same guy she was married to when she wrote the book there’s presumably some departure between book and show if only because the series seems unwilling to commit to “actually she’s with that guy now and it’s fine”).
So I want to make it really clear upfront that this long rambling post is very much about the show Sex/Life and not about the book 44 Chapters About 4 Men and certainly not about the real life of BB Easton, about whom I know absolutely nothing.
And actually I suppose the thing I should make really clear upfront is that this post isn’t really about the Netflix TV show Sex/Life either. It’s about me and the weird, complicated reaction I had to it. Because it’s my blog. And because my personal complicated reactions are pretty much all I feel qualified to write about.
Where to begin.
Let’s start with a bit of the mainstream response, because there’s a bunch of things I could say about the series that I’m not going to bother saying because they’ve been said better and more often elsewhere. The dialogue isn’t great. The plot is silly (and to be fair this gets awkward because at least some aspects of the plot also happened to a real person; I suspect this is partly a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction thing, after all implausible things do happen sometimes, but it’s probably also a consequence of the distorting effect of turning a real experience into a memoir into a TV show). There’s a lot of gratuitous sex. There’s a scene where you see the bad-boy-alternate-romantic-interest’s penis and it’s, like huge. Like so huge that there’s real internet debate about whether it’s a prosthesis or not. Like it’s genuinely the biggest thing people seem to remember about the show. Hur hur. Biggest.
Point being, there’s a lot to point at and mock about Sex/Life, and people have done a whole lot of pointing and mocking. I’m going to try to avoid that as much as my (fairly limited) better nature allows. But what I mostly want to talk about with the show is the weird and growing sense of values disconnect I got from watching it.
I’m aware that I’m doing a lot of frontloaded disclaiming here but another thing (and I think it’s the last thing, although given the way my brain works it will probably wind up being the third-from-last thing) I want to say upfront is that while this post is going to be about the vast values disconnect I had with the show, my intent here is to engage with that in good faith. We live, ultimately, in a world where many different values systems exist and acknowledging, as respectfully as we can, the differences between them is probably important.
And that’s kind of where I am, going into this post. My experience of watching this show was, ultimately, the experience of watching somebody who had totally internalised a value system that’s pretty much alien to me slowly articulating the possibility that other value systems might exist and then running away from them as fast as possible. Which was weird. At times it felt almost (and, I should stress, wholly unintentionally and indeed unforeseeably on behalf of the creators) gaslightey. Like the show was asking Very Serious Questions about whether it was possible to live a life that wasn’t like the kind of life that pretty much nobody I know actually lives and whether it might be possible instead to live the kind of life that loads of people I know are living perfectly fine, and not coming to any conclusion more concrete than “maybe”.
Sorry. That was digressive. Let’s start again.
The framing device/inciting incident of Sex/Life is that its protagonist, Billie Connelly (and incidentally this makes the show a tougher watch for UK viewers of my generation for whom Billy Connolly will always be a Scottish comedian) is a frustrated wife-and-mother in her… I want to say mid thirties? Possibly early thirties? She’s played by the always excellent Sarah Shahi, who is 42 but she also dropped out of grad school around eight years ago, and grad school is an early-to-mid-twenties thing so the character can’t be much over 35. Although it’s also suggested that she dropped out to have a kid, and that kid is three, so she might not even be much over thirty.
Sidebar: this is a very early shadow of my deep values disconnect with this show. What praise it has received (and it has received some) has been for its celebration of female sexuality which sits awkwardly alongside its strict adherence to the TV rule that sex and romance can only exist for people in their 20s.
Anyway, Billie has a seemingly perfect life. Or rather, and this is where my intense values disconnect with this show really gets up and running, she has a life which codes as “seemingly perfect” in the language of American television circa 1987, which is to say she has two kids, a husband with a good job, and isn’t getting any sex.
I want to be super clear from the off. I’m not intending to shit on anybody for whom those elements really do code as “seemingly perfect”. There is nothing wrong with wanting the picket fence life. There is nothing wrong with wanting kids. There is also nothing wrong with wanting to get laid more. But there is, I would argue, something wrong with assuming that “husband / two kids / no sex” is some kind of universal “seemingly perfect” with the “perfect” expressed unambiguously by the husband and children and the “seemingly” expressed unambiguously by the lack of fucking.
Anyway because she’s sexually frustrated, Billie takes to writing a steamy sexy journal in which she reminisces about how wild and horny she used to be back in her twenties. Her husband discovers this journal and reacts by trying to, like, do the sex stuff from it to her. She realises that this is what has happened, calls up her best friend Sasha and has a long conversation in which these two women who are both professional, trained psychologists suggest that she has “stumbled upon the holy grail of behavior modification techniques”.
You might have noted the US spelling of “behavior” in that quote. That’s because it’s pulled directly from the back cover copy of 44 Chapters About 4 Men so this plot beat at least—arguably the one that seems the most implausible to the largest number of people—is direct from the original memoir, as is its description. And as I’ve said, I want this to be about the show, not about the book or about BB Easton as a person. But the thing is this absolutely was the point where my values dissonance went from a low-key disconnect to a full-blown hang-on-what-the-fuck.
Because, and do stop me if I’m overreaching here, in an absolutely ideal world wouldn’t the “holy grail of behavior modification techniques” be to—y’know—talk to each other? Especially because, I should also stress these women are trained psychologists. Like I try not to go too deep into my or anybody I know’s experiences of the world of professional mental health care because it’s, y’know, personal and invasive, but I will say that I have never once met any mental health professional who has said (or met anybody who has had a mental health professional say to them) that if you’re dissatisfied in your relationship, the best thing to do is to avoid having an actual conversation at all costs and instead write your feelings down in a secret journal and then hope your partner has no respect for your privacy.
Again I should stress that I don’t know how this beat plays out in the book. The quote I grabbed was from the back cover copy and I know first hand that author input on that copy varies wildly. Plus the impression I get about 44CA4M is that although it’s autobiographical and although the author really did work as a school psychologist, it has a deliberately humorous tone and in that context “looks like I’d hit on the holy grail of behaviour modification techniques” is a great tongue in cheek line. But in the show this is a real-time conversation between a woman who has been feeling profound dissatisfaction in her marriage (and this is definitely a show-only thing, BB Easton’s marriage seems like it’s fine and has always been fine) and her best friend who is a professional psychologist and neither of them seem to think it’s even worth suggesting that she could maybe, maybe talk to her husband about sex directly.
This is the point where I step back and say that I do realise it’s important to realise how varied people’s experiences can be. I move in very alternative, very left-leaning circles where people who go the spouse-and-two-kids route through life are honestly in something of a minority. And one of the problems with the sorting effect of—well the internet is part of it but honestly a whole trend of social forces have been doing the same for coming up on a century now—is that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your context isn’t the only context. And I suppose what rankled me about watching Sex/Life was that I wound up having to work quite hard to bridge the gap between its context and mine and didn’t feel like it was making any effort to meet me halfway.
You see the thing is, it’s not just that Billie hasn’t told her husband (his name is Cooper) about the fact that she wants to get laid more. She hasn’t told him about pretty much any of her personal history. And don’t get me wrong, nobody is obliged to tell another person everything about their past, but it’s made pretty explicit in the show that she doesn’t feel able to tell him. He even states outright that he thinks that she thinks he wouldn’t love her if he knew The Truth, and she states explicitly that this is, in fact, exactly what she thinks, because That’s What Women Are Taught Their Whole Lives.
And that’s … hoo boy that’s complicated.
Something I keep circling around with Sex/Life is the difficulty of engaging with a work of what is essentially fiction based on a work of what is essentially memoir. In memoir, you do kind of have to take things as they are. If the memoirist’s honest experience was that she felt intense social pressure to conceal her sexual history from her husband (I should stress that I don’t know if she did, I haven’t read the book) then that’s her experience. And chances are if that’s her experience, it’s probably a lot of other people’s experience too, and clearly there’s value in exploring that.
But with fiction, it becomes more complicated. With a memoir, there’s an implicit caveat that it’s just one person talking about their experiences. With fiction, depending on how it’s handled, there’s more chance of something coming across as a blanket statement. Worse, there’s a chance of it coming across as a normative statement rather than a positive one. As describing an ought rather than an is. Because in fiction you aren’t saddled with the unfortunate baggage of reality, statements about what things are like can be addressed and explored. In a context where you control what happens because you’re making everything up, they can be challenged, deconstructed, examined from different angles. They don’t just have to be taken as how things are and will always be.
Don’t get me wrong. While I think the dialogue in which it’s expressed (like, as mainstream consensus holds, much of the rest of the dialogue in Sex/Life) is clunky, I don’t think “women are raised to believe that men won’t want to marry them if they’ve had too much sex, and that a man not wanting to marry you is basically the worst thing in the world” is necessarily a bad or untrue thing for a work of fiction to articulate. I suspect it’s probably reflective of a lot of people’s real experiences. But I do think it’s not a great thing for a work of fiction to articulate and then … to kind of validate?
Something I’ve touched on in a couple of things recently is what you might call the rhetorical power of questions. It’s not like this is new—hell they don’t call it the Socratic method for nothing—but I think it’s sometimes worth taking a step back and acknowledging explicitly the fact that sometimes the questions you choose to ask can be as rhetorically powerful as the answers you give. There is, after all, a reason that “I’m just asking questions” is such a common troll tactic in modern discourse. I think a large part of my confusion with Sex/Life is that it commits so much of its narrative to exploring questions that, within its value system are complex and probably irresolvable but within my value system and the value system of most people I actually know, are so simple as to barely be worth considering.
The show asks a whole lot of questions. It asks them very, very explicitly. Questions it asks include but are not limited to:
- Can monogamy work?
- Can you have intense sexual passion with a person who also makes you feel safe and cared for?
- Can a good man love a woman who was very sexually adventurous in her early twenties?
- Can a woman who was very sexually adventurous in her early twenties find happiness in marriage?
Because of the values disconnect I’ve been talking about for 2600 words now, my answers to all of these questions are short and trivial. They are roughly:
- Yes, but so can several other arrangements, talk to your partner about what works best for your relationship.
- yes, but you have to be honest about what you’re looking for.
- Yes, and not being able to get over your having an adventurous sexual history is a massive red flag.
- Yes, but marriage isn’t your only option, and marriage is different for everybody.
And I’m not saying the show had to reach the same conclusions I did. But the problem is that it doesn’t really reach any conclusions. Or rather, it reaches the conclusion that these problems are imponderable and unsolvable. True, we’re still in season one, and it can’t wrap up all of its thematic questions immediately (although maybe that’s the problem with trying to adapt half of a single relatively short book into a multiple-season TV arc) and it will probably grope its way towards some conclusions eventually. But it persists in treating these ideas as if nobody has ever so much as thought about them before, rather than their being issues that huge numbers of real people have dealt with perfectly well.
Of course part of this is a TV issue. You want your show to run for six seasons and a movie, which means you need to preserve the conflict. Sure it would be way healthier to have Billie and Cooper sit down and have a conversation that goes:
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this earlier, Cooper, but I had a lot of wild sex in my past and I kind of miss it”
“Well it feels bad that you didn’t think you could share that with me, but I understand that you had quite a conservative upbringing. Just know that I’m not at all threatened by that, and I want you to be happy.”
“Thanks. Also I know you didn’t sign up for this and if wild sex stuff isn’t your thing I’ll get it. It’s just then we might need to have some serious conversations about where we go in the future because this is more of a dealbreaker for me than I thought it would be.”
“That makes sense, after all we did get married in our early-to-mid-twenties so we probably rushed things a bit. I should let you know right now that I’ll do my best but I’m probably not personally okay with an open marriage, but I think that’s something we should revisit down the line because I love you and want to make this work…”
… would probably make for a very short series. But what this means is that the show can’t actually genuinely validate Billie’s needs or desires because the moment it does, it has no story.
Poking around the interwebs to find out a bit more about the book the series is based on, I’m beginning to suspect that a lot of my bigger issues with the series come from these kinds of adaptational issues. A memoir, ultimately, doesn’t need the same kinds of conflict as a novel or a TV show. It’s just a straight-up matter of fact that Billie’s real-life analogue stays with her husband, is happy with her husband, and ultimately gets a successful career writing books about what she self-describes as her “punk rock past and deviant sexual history” (I’m quoting here because that’s language I’d very much hesitate to use myself). The TV adaptation, however, needs to make everything far more present tense.
I think the shakeup in timeline actually makes a huge difference here, for what it’s worth. The original book was published in 2016 and while the my-husband-found-my-sex-journal framing device is contemporaneous, the other three of its eponymous “four men” seem to have been people that the author met and got together with in the late 1990s. The TV show not only brings the present day story up six years to be set in the nonspecific “now” of television, but also dramatically shortens the amount of time that has elapsed since the events the journal chronicles, bringing it down to just eight years whereas IRL it seems to have been closer to 16.
Just this difference, I think, explains some of what frustrated me about the show. Something I’m becoming depressingly aware of as an ageing writer working in a medium where my protagonists are still often required by genre convention to be in their early thirties at the latest is that what it meant to be twenty-five for me and what it means to be twenty-five for modern twenty-five-year-olds are radically different things. TV Billie, in the show’s many flashback sequences, is a graduate student at Colombia University in roughly 2013. She’s had her most formative experiences of early adulthood in a world where tumblr, twitter, and facebook have always been a thing. She’s definitely a millennial. And comfortably a millennial, young enough to have come of age slap bang in the middle of the 2008 financial crisis. I can’t help but wonder if the reason her values, and the uncertainties her values cause her to experience, feel so odd to me is simply that they make a whole lot more sense if you assume they belong to a significantly older woman. (I’ve mostly framed this issue in terms of the original book, but it’s worth pointing out that even setting that aside, the series’ showrunner and lead writer is herself fifty).
I mean hell, if nothing else she’s a grad student in psychology whose explicit area of study and research is sexual relationships in the 21st century and yet almost all of her emotional conflict seems to come from the fact that she has genuinely never considered the possibility that a white-picket-fence-two-kids lifestyle isn’t the only thing she could aspire to. And again, no shade on people who sincerely do want that kind of life. Hell it seems pretty clear (at least from my relatively cursory research) that BB Easton has that kind of life and feels happy and satisfied in it. But Billie definitely does not. She definitely wants something different but somehow has managed to grow up and go to grad school in the 21st century without ever realising that different is not merely possible, but something plenty of people do every single day. It’s weird enough that she spends the whole series torn between two guys but neither she nor the text seem to have any awareness that open relationships or poly relationships are a thing. But even weirder is that half the time it seems like this highly-educated millennial woman who lived in New York has genuinely not heard of sex positivity.
Then there’s the other major impact of the present-tensing (there’s that verbing yet again) of the story. Which is that while 44CA4M is strictly a memoir, with three of the men discussed in past tense and the 4th the guy the author is definitely still married to, Sex/Life is a comedy drama about a love triangle. As I mentioned at the start of this post, one of the clearest examples that Sex/Life is only loosely based on 44 Chapters About 4 Men is that it’s two men short. Instead of being (as the BCC of the memoir suggests) about how Billie’s sequential relationships with a number of men “led her to finally find true love with a straight-laced, drop-dead-gorgeous . . . accountant”, it’s about how Billie is specifically horny for one specific guy she dated eight years ago, and how that guy is still in love with her and shows up back in her life and Now She Has To Choose.
That’s a … that’s a very different story.
A problem that fiction often has is what you might call “metaphor drift”. You can see really clear examples of this in, for example (and I apologise this is exactly the kind of dated reference I’d accidentally have my twenty-something protagonist make and need to change in editing) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where something will happen to Buffy that is a metaphor for a standard teenage problem (“I had sex with a guy, then he got all weird”) but will actually be a dire supernatural threat (“I had sex with a guy and he literally turned into a literal monster and started murdering people I care about”) and then the text will have trouble deciding whether Buffy should be treating it as the thing it’s a metaphor for (in which case changing her name and running away to LA because of a bad teen breakup was kind of an overreaction) or as the thing that actually happened (in which case changing her name and running away to LA because her ex-boyfriend turned into a magic serial killer but then he stopped being a magic serial killer and was fine again but it was too late and she had to literally murder him with her own hands is kind of understandable).
Sex/Life has chronic metaphor drift.
Is it okay for women to like sex? Yes.
Is it okay for a married woman to want a more satisfying sex life? Yes.
Is it okay for a married woman who wants a more satisfying sex life to rebuff her husband’s attempts to give her a more satisfying sex life because she doesn’t actually want a more satisfying sex life with him, she wants to have it specifically with an Australian bad boy she was with eight years ago? Okay now it’s getting complicated. Not, I should stress, “great and imponderable” complicated. More “girl get some therapy and maybe some couple’s counselling” complicated.
Is it okay for a married woman, having decided that she is going to rebuff her husband’s attempts to give her a more satisfying sex life because she doesn’t want a more satisfying sex life with him but instead wants to have it specifically with an Australian bad boy she was with eight years ago and having further decided that she wants to remain in a conventional, monogamous relationship with that husband, and committed with said husband to making said conventional monogamous relationship work, to then start fucking her the Australian bad boy anyway because she, like, really wants to? I don’t normally like to give oversimplified answers but in this case: fucking no.
So, four thousand words in, potted summary of the plot of Sex/Life. Billie writes a steamy sex journal, ostensibly about the kind of lifestyle she lived in her early twenties (which, again, it was in the original book and IRL) but in practice very, very specifically about this one guy called Brad (which, again, it wasn’t). Cooper finds the journal, tries to Do The Good Sex On Her and kind of fails, they pretty much don’t talk about any of their issues. Brad turns up and decides he wants Billie back. Cooper gets extremely jealous of Brad and normally I’d have little sympathy for this because a grown damned adult should be able to cope with his wife having had boyfriends in the past, except for all Billie’s protestations that her journal is just about that time in her life in general (which, I should reiterate, seems to have been genuinely true of 44 Chapters) in the TV show it’s pretty clear that it’s just about Brad, only about Brad, and explicitly about Brad. They back and forth for ages about what Billie actually wants and Cooper and Brad have absurd (and occasionally literal) dick-measuring contests and the last episode opens with Billie deciding that no, she doesn’t really want Brad at all, she wants the life she’s built with Cooper. So she commits to that, but then she’s all unfulfilled and stuff and so the last episode ends with her running out of her best friend’s book launch (an event I should stress that she’s at with her husband and kids) to show up at Brad’s house and give him a really self-serving speech about how she’s a strong independent woman who’s entitled to have it all and that means being able to ride Brad’s enormous cock so can he please fuck her now.
And… okay where to start.
When I was talking about metaphor drift above, I used Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example because I thought it’d be familiar to a lot of people but a better example might be the 1990s BBC sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart. In that show, Nicholas Lyndhurst plays a man called Gary Sparrow who is trapped in a marriage he doesn’t especially like and who finds a time portal back to the 1940s where he falls in love with a barmaid named Phoebe. Something that was pointed out even at the time was that if you took out the time-travel gimmick, it’d just be a show about some arsehole cheating on his wife. But dress it up in 1940s hats and blitz nostalgia and somehow it’s okay.
The metaphor drift in Sex/Life is a bit more subtle and a bit fiddlier but has basically the same vibe.
Although it’s based on a memoir, the show is structured and framed very much like a contemporary romance. And one of the features of a lot of romance, especially love triangle romance, is that the two guys the heroine has to pick between are often, on some level, metaphors for aspects of the heroine’s personality. Choosing between Guy A and Guy B very seldom just means a literal pros-and-cons choice between two human beings both of whom have some flaws and some good qualities. It’s almost always more a question of Guy A And What Guy A Represents vs Guy B And What Guy B Represents.
The problem is, that framing really messes with a lot of the themes of Sex/Life.
I mentioned above that one of the questions the show explicitly asks (and I mean really explicitly asks, like Billie asks it directly in voice-over in pretty much these exact words) is whether you can have passion and excitement with the same person who gives you comfort and security. And in real life the answer to this is obviously yes and if you want evidence you can cite the fact that Billie herself is clearly great at providing both, being at once an excellent homemaker, caregiver, and all-round supermom and also being super-duper into wild sex.
The question only becomes difficult when you put it through the genre-filter of a love triangle story where each guy has to explicitly represent a different facet of the protagonist’s personality. At that point the answer becomes “well I suppose maybe not, but only because the implicit framing of the question is that you live in a world where individual men inextricably represent specific ideas.” But that’s not especially interesting. It’s like trying to use Lord of the Rings to help you pick out an engagement ring. Like there are lots of things to consider in that scenario but sometimes jewellery is innately and intrinsically evil isn’t actually a real-world problem.
This makes the final scene incredibly weird. It’s framed as empowering—as the moment where Billie decides that She Can Have It All. But the problem is that the “it all” she seems to want is to at once be in a monogamous relationship but also have sex with a dude who isn’t her husband. Worse, it’s not even just any dude who isn’t her husband, it’s one specific dude. One specific bad-boy with a huge dick who seems to be the only guy who can give her sexual and emotional fulfilment. For a show that, even by mainstream critics who otherwise don’t seem to like it, is so consistently praised for centralising and celebrating female sexuality, it’s bizarrely phallocentric. Sure, Brad is a metaphor for Billie’s desire to be a wild and passionate free spirit but because he has that metaphor-role in the story it also means that she kind of can’t be a wild and passionate free spirit unless she’s with this one man with a huge dick who has kind of consistently treated her like shit. Which isn’t a great takeaway for a story about a woman’s sexual liberation.
I said at the start of this now very, very long essay that I was going to try to engage with this show’s values in good faith but given the final shot of the final episode I’m honestly not sure I know what they are.
And don’t get me wrong. I really, really, really try to stay out of the business of being The Guy Who Calls Women Out For Doing Feminism Wrong because that’s deeply fucking obnoxious. What I’m trying to express here is sincere and genuine confusion.
When Billie shows up at Brad’s flat and tells him to fuck her, what exactly am I meant to be thinking?
It’s framed as empowering. So I think I’m supposed to take is as positive? But why? Because Billie is getting what she wants? Okay but what she wants in this context is to cheat on her husband.
And don’t get me wrong, I think there are very narrow contexts where cheating-as-empowerment is a valid dynamic. If your existing relationship has a sufficiently unbalanced power dynamic—either because it’s abusive or because it’s some kind of historical setting where you just don’t have the power to decide who you’re married to at all—that you literally couldn’t leave it if you wanted to, then cheating-as-reclaiming-your-power has its place.
And double-don’t-get-me-wrong, there are plenty of ways to have sex with multiple partners that aren’t cheating. Open relationships are a thing. Poly relationships are a thing. Consensual threeways are a thing. Notably I’d point out that (as happens in the actual show) getting sucked off by another woman at a sex party while your wife watches helplessly but clearly does not want you to get sucked off by another woman is cheating despite what Billie says.
But since Cooper has repeatedly told Billie that he’ll try to change to give her a more sexually satisfying relationship if she wants him to and has made it clear that he’ll support her even if she straight-up leaves him for Brad, that means she’s not being forced to go behind his back. And since there has been literally no suggestion that anybody in the series (including the Colombia professor whose stated, explicit belief is that monogamy doesn’t work) believes consensual nonmonogamous relationships can exist in any form it’s one hell of a leap to expect us to assume she and Cooper have had a frank conversation where they’ve decided to be in a throuple going forward.
The uncomfortable conclusion I find myself coming to is that what the show wants is for me to congratulate it for suggesting partial solutions to problems that only exist in the first place because it invented them.
Because yes, I suppose if you accept that everybody has a right to a satisfying sex life (which I broadly do with a few caveats about consent and honesty) and if you also accept that it is impossible to have a satisfying sex life with your own husband (which I don’t) and if you also accept that the romantic idea of monogamy is so important that the illusion of it must be conserved even if you want to fuck more than one person (which I don’t) and also accept that the white-picket-fence suburban lifestyle is the default lifestyle that everybody just kind of gets the moment they hit twenty-five and that you can’t or shouldn’t opt out of completely no matter what your personal desires are (which I definitely don’t) then in that highly specific set of circumstance the y’know what. Sure. Under that extremely narrow set of assumptions, Billie is being totally empowered here. The society in which she lives (and in which we are briefly pretending she hasn’t chosen to live) refuses to let her experience sexual fulfilment on her own terms. Monogamy is so sacred that she can’t either leave her husband or have an open relationship. Therefore her only option is to just fucking cheat on him with a big-dicked Australian who symbolises all of her lost freedom.
Under that exact set of assumptions. Sure. Go Billie.
And I know that… well I’d say “came across” as sarcastic but I’ll double down and just say “was extremely sarcastic” but on at least a partial level I do kind of mean it. The world portrayed in Sex/Life is a stultifying Real-Housewives-of-Stepford-esque suburban nightmare in which Billie and the various other Moms she hangs out with (including the one who sucks off her husband at a really, really badly organised sex party) feel trapped by the demands of a small-c-conservative society that none of them really chose for themselves. And I am sure for some people that really is what it feels like.
But I think the key phrase there is “for some people”. I’m on my second draft of this post now and something I’ve noticed reading back is all the times when I’ve been explaining how awful and soul-destroying Billie’s white-picket-fence life is and, because it’s one I would never choose for myself, I’ve felt the need to reiterate that for a lot of people it’s a real source of happiness and fulfilment. And it’s slowly occurring to me that the show … kind of doesn’t do that? Not only is Billie clearly unfulfilled in her marriage, the show makes it pretty clear by the end of the first series that so is literally every other woman she knows. And I think that’s part of why I find this show’s value system so perplexing. It seems to simultaneously assume that the white picket fence lifestyle is the only possible choice, while also assuming that it is a choice within which it is literally impossible to be happy unless you’re banging an Australian with a massive dong.
That’s … I don’t know I guess I just find that kind of depressing? Especially, and I’m aware I’m circling back a little, in fiction rather than memoir. If the goal of the series is truly to be a celebration of female sexuality then is the message it wants to send really “you can’t find sexual fulfilment within the bounds of a conventional marriage, but you also aren’t allowed to choose a lifestyle that isn’t a conventional marriage”? In a different show, one that was more introspective and more down-to-earth, one whose protagonist wasn’t a millennial with an ivy-league education and supermodel good looks, that might be an interesting dynamic to explore. Because I’m sure it is real for some people.
But Sex/Life is a fantasy. Sure it’s inspired by somebody’s real experience but, well, all fiction is inspired by real experiences. And it honestly feels fucking weird to me to have a fantasy that sort of tacitly concludes that happiness is impossible.
Of course that’s my perspective from outside the show’s value system. It’s easy for me to sit here and say “honey, for real, just tell Cooper you want an open relationship” or for that matter “Billie, have you considered how weird it is that you’re basically imposing a Madonna-whore dichotomy on your own husband?” But then I’m not living a white picket fence lifestyle that I spent my whole life being told I had to want, only to get it and find it unsatisfying.
Ultimately, like the majority of critics and 78% of people on Rotten Tomatoes, I didn’t much like Sex/Life. But in retrospect I am weirdly fascinated by it.
There’s a famous speech by David Foster Wallace called This Is Water which opens with an anecdote-parable-thing about an old fish who swims up to two young fish and says “how’s the water” and then after he’s swum away the two young fish look at each other and say “what’s water?” Because I’m a British nerd, I slightly prefer the Terry Pratchett formulation of “fish have no word for water”, but both constructions are getting at the same basic idea. Some things are so ubiquitous, so utterly pervasive, that it’s easy to forget they’re there at all.
I think what I found by turns fascinating and frustrating about Sex/Life is that it so often feels like it’s about a fish trying to understand water.
Again I should stress that here I’m talking about the show, not about the book. There’s a really sweet interview that BB Easton did with ITV’s This Morning where she talks about writing the book and about her husband reading the journal the book was based on, and it’s very clear that she was perfectly happy and not-at-all-trapped-feeling in her marriage at the time. Similarly it’s clear that her husband’s journal-inspired-sex-antics were a welcome and fun way to spice things up, and that the only really negative experience she was going through at the time was being sleep deprived on account of having a newborn and a three-year-old. The wider theme that conventional marriage is inherently soul-crushing but also impossible to avoid definitely doesn’t come from the book. It’s super clear from listening to BB Easton talk about her life and her work that her position is, essentially, that bad boys are fun in your early twenties but that after that settling down with a sensible guy who loves you and treats you well is probably a good idea (especially if you can find a way to persuade him to have wild sex with you sometimes). As far as I can tell, she’s happy being who she is and doing what she’s doing and more power to her.
But this is not Billie’s position in the show. Hell, it’s not the position of basically any woman on the show. The show seems to take as read that the suburban husband-and-kids lifestyle is a gilded cage for an educated woman, but seems to take equally as read that you … just kind of have to do it anyway? The other suburban moms Billie hangs out with pivot slightly at random between empathising with her desire for the life she left behind, resenting her for having had that life in the first place, and randomly making speeches about how she’s having the courage to challenge assumptions that all the rest of them have “accepted as canon” (this is a real line from the series and while I do sort of love the idea of framing the unsupported assumptions we sometimes unquestioningly allow to restrict our lives as “cultural fanon” it doesn’t land well in dialogue).
Essentially the show portrays all of these people as feeling trapped by the value system they’ve bought into, but genuinely doesn’t seem to recognise that it’s possible to not buy into it. Thus we have Billie struggling to reconcile her desires with a worldview that can’t accept them, but it’s in the context of a story that doesn’t seem to realise that the worldview is the issue. From outside of that worldview, looking down into the water, it’s a genuinely surreal experience. Because there are so many ways that Billie’s life could be fixed basically overnight.
She could recognise that her past is behind her because while institutional sexism is real, one of the few things you can’t blame the patriarchy for is the fact that your twenties don’t last forever. But the show doesn’t seem to want to accept this option because it’s too attached to the idea that Billie should be able to have “it all” even if “it all” means somehow getting to both be married with kids and also be single and not have kids.
She could just straight up leave Cooper for Brad. By the end of the series it’s pretty clear that they’re still in love with each other, that he’s the only person she has ever found real sexual or emotional fulfilment with, and that his daddy issues that made him treat her like shit are genuinely fixed. (Sidebar, there’s a whole thing where he’s afraid of commitment because his father abandoned him as a child, and she—as a professional psychologist remember—tells him that he absolutely has to go find his father and talk to him and if he does he’ll be fixed because that’s how psychology works, then he does and as far as I can tell from the framing it’s given in the show, it actually works and actually does just literally fix him). Cooper has even given this plan his blessing. But the show won’t do this because … I don’t know? Because apparently the Motion Picture Production Code isn’t as dead as we thought and it’s still taboo to challenge the institution of marriage?
She could stay married to Cooper, but they could agree to have an open relationship, or a semi-open relationship where she’s specifically allowed to fuck Brad. She basically does this to him non-consensually in the final episode and it seems to be presented as empowering. But doing the same thing consensually isn’t on the table in large part because this show which, let’s remember, is about exploring female sexuality and whose protagonist is a graduate-level psychologist who specialises in exactly this kind of thing, seems to sincerely not realise that open relationships are a thing that people can have.
She could stay married to Cooper but make a serious go of making her sex life with him more exciting. For what it’s worth this is basically what seems to have happened with the real BB Easton although I should again emphasise that there’s no indication that her marriage was in trouble at all before she started journaling, the journal just provided a useful way for them to communicate with each other which made their already perfectly fine marriage better by improving their sex life. But the show won’t do this one either because … again I don’t know. Partly because it seems really wedded to the idea that Billie has to “have it all”. Partly because it seems genuinely squicked out by the idea of a married couple with kids having good sex (there’s a bit where Billie and Cooper go to a suburban sex party and it’s awful and they both hate it and it’s a terrible experience and they express how awful it is so clearly and—as per the framing in the show—correctly that the couple in question literally gives up having sex parties).
And I’m not trying to script doctor here. And nor—despite my slightly glib “just talk to the guy” / “just tell him you want to fuck Brad” framing—am I actually suggesting that any of these things would be easy in real life, or even easy to write in a TV show. Although the writing-advantage of their not being easy in real life is that there’s still plenty of ways you can get conflict and drama out of any one of these options.
I’m just genuinely baffled that the show manages to be so radical on its surface—full of nudity and sex-positivity and did I mention nudity—but so small-c-conservative deep down. It recognises that not everybody can get everything they need from one partner, but completely blanks any relationship model beyond monogamy. It recognises that people can feel trapped and powerless within marriage, but it never lets its protagonist seriously consider divorce. It lets Billie celebrate her sexually adventurous past, but also lets Cooper frame that same past sexual behaviour as a “stain on their marriage” and has Billie tacitly accept that even though, dude, that’s fucked up.
And probably I’m overthinking it. Probably it’s actually just Netflix going for the soft-erotica audience by serving up a miniseries that puts more emphasis on the sex than the story. But it keeps coming so close to saying something that, like Charlie Brown with a rhetorical football, I spent eight episodes running up to try and kick at what it meant, only to slip on empty air.
Gosh. That was long.
At some point I should probably get back to Austen.