How to dip your breasts in body paint, and other things ‘Girls’ doesn’t tell us about sex

Here is an impossible task: to write or talk about women in their twenties and their sex lives without making mention of the television series Girls. Unlike Sex and the City, Girls isn’t a fantasy or a morality lesson in the ways you can be an empowered woman only through finding a sensitive partner and owning a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s, but a reflection of real life. From internships, to nudity, to casual sex, Girls is our conversational touchstone.

And so, in the interests of talking about young women and sex, we refer, once again, to Girls.

We don’t use condoms nearly as much as our high school P.E. teachers would hope

You rarely see anybody unrolling a condom on TV, yet Girls is one of the few shows to at least discuss condom use. In the first season of Girls, Hannah says to Adam “we always use a condom.” “Do we?” he asks, before commenting that most girls he sleeps with don’t ask him to wear a condom.

Girls isn’t really making a point here, it’s reflecting reality. A recent survey found only 45% of men and 38.7% of women aged between 18 and 24 used a condom with their last sex partner. And on top of that, most of us who do it are doing it wrong – ie, putting it on after sex has begun or not withdrawing promptly enough when it’s done.

Sex outside a relationship doesn’t shatter your soul

There is a school of thought that claims young women are the victims of ‘hook-up culture’. An article published in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan argues that young women ‘endure’ hook-up culture when what they want is a boyfriend. Her argument’s logic is that young women are the passive victims of ‘sexualisation’ and ‘pornfication’, never acknowledging that young women might possess their own sexual agency. Hanna Rosin subsequently wrote a rebuttal to Flanagan, arguing young women are not the delicate flowers Flanagan takes them to be. And that is what we see in Girls: Hannah or Jessa might have casual sex – and sometimes things might work out badly – but it is never because casual sex in and of itself is soul-destroying or toxic for women.

Women make a lot of mistakes. And you should let them do precisely that.

We grew up with a lot of weird and completely confounding sex and relationship advice, collected from friends, the mystical abstractions of high school sex-ed and the ridiculous tips handed down by the likes of Cosmopolitan, which proffers pearls of wisdom like “dip your breasts in edible body paint, and use them to ‘sponge paint’ his entire body. Then lick it off.”

Shoshanna is the character in Girls who spouts this kind of ridiculous. Reading from a self-help book in Season One, Shoshanna says, “sex from behind is degrading. Point blank. You deserve someone who wants to look in your beautiful face, ladies.” And in the closest thing to a manifesto Girls comes to, Jessa tears it apart: “What if I want to focus on something else? What if I want to feel like I have udders? This woman doesn’t care what I want,” she says. “I’m offended by all these ‘supposed to’s’. I don’t like women telling other women what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it. Every time I have sex it’s my choice.”

(No swearing, but acknowledges the existence of sex and different sexual positions)

This is one of the greatest achievements of Girls – it acknowledges just how complex and subtle sexual relationships are on an individual level. While there are experiences Hannah has with Adam, or even Natalia had with Adam, that might indicate a lack of awareness or agency, they are not automatically shattering.

Sex doesn’t always conform to a narrative imposed from the outside: it has it’s own internal power dynamics, and sometimes things can be ugly and painful without having anything to do with empowerment. You make mistakes when you’re young, and you can’t realistically reach maturity without taking some dark detours along the way.

Sex and relationships are messy, sometimes ugly, and frequently complex. It’s a part of being human. And it’s nice, for once, for popular culture to portray sex without an added morality lesson.

By Madeleine Watts