There are many reasons to love Lena Dunham’s HBO television show Girls, and some of them have nothing to do with sex, but I’m going to begin with the sex scene in the second episode that most critics have mentioned and described with some amount of repugnance or lament. It’s one of the most complicated and intelligent sex scenes I’ve seen. The fact that it’s part of a funny, winsome, half-hour television show makes it all the more astonishing and exhilarating a thing to see. In reviews and profiles of Dunham, journalists, most of them admirers of the show, have broadly characterized what’s happening in the scene as an example of “bad” sex—not mutually satisfying, awkward, degrading, distasteful. This is not necessarily untrue, but it is a limited and literal reading, a set of familiar words and ideas unequal to the virtuosity and novelty of the scene. [...] The scene feels surprisingly frank. For one thing, though it is not particularly explicit visually (their bodies are always partly obscured), it is very explicit aurally: the sound of the condom snapping off, of Adam’s masturbatory motions, and of the changing lilt of his voice as he becomes further aroused all lend the scene a startling sense of intimacy. [...]
Indeed, romantic comedy (and its television variations) devotes its energies to obscuring the possible gaps between things like companionability, attraction, and intense sexual arousal. Hannah’s is also a situation that would be impossible to depict without a graphic sex scene, and offers a clear example of what sex scenes are good for. If all you want to do is convey an erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit depictions of sex acts. But if you are interested in the psychological implications of what happens between people during sex, you need to show something of the sex. [...]
In a New York Times interview Dunham has spoken, apropos of this scene, about her male peers’ saturation in pornography, and about her own suspicions, in some intimate situations, that her partners were mimicking gestures that they had seen online. Pornography depends, as we know, on showing sexual acts other than intercourse, since intercourse inconveniently hides a lot of the hot throbbing action. Hollywood films are, on the whole, anti-pornographic, in the sense that, in spite of their supposed interest in titillating their audience, they are almost uniformly content with the suggestion that couples are having vaginal intercourse—no more, no less. So there you go: a dose of porn, judiciously applied by an extremely intelligent director, can save cinematic sex. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it on Girls.[...]
But sexual freedom is, in a way, least about sex itself. The sexual revolution is a social revolution. Men and women are free to talk to each other without prior vetting or pretext, to see each other in any setting. We can form acquaintances and friendships that are laced through with attraction and desire (or not), and of course we can form romantic attachments as well. All of us can know more people in more ways than was ever previously allowed.
In the face of such vast possibility, to think of one’s romantic life as a game of numbers and animal pleasures, on the one hand, or as one long search for a spouse, on the other, is to miss the point. We can only justify our freedom by giving full attention to the human relationships formed by sex, even if those relationships are brief or strange. We would like our movies and television shows, the ones that devote themselves to matters of love and sex, to give their full attention to these relationships too. Girls seems poised to do exactly that.