Trigger Warning: This article discusses sexual consent which may be triggering for some. Please read with caution and exercise self-care.
Netflix’s show Sex/Life broke the internet in 2021 for one pretty massive reason — let’s just say it involves actor Adam Demos taking a post-gym shower — but there’s more to this series than just its infamous full-frontal scene.
If you haven’t seen Sex/Life yet, the lowdown is that it focuses on housewife Billie (played by Sarah Shahi), who appears to have everything in her marriage to Cooper (Mike Vogel) but still fantasises about her ex, Brad (Adam Demos).
As Billie weighs up her options — should she stick with reliable Cooper, or go back to wild Brad? — we see some seriously explicit scenes that depict her sexual adventures with both men. From getting fingered in a restaurant to doing it in a rooftop pool, Billie is not afraid to explore or experiment, and we love that for her.
But according to sex coach Georgia Grace and entrepreneur Lucy Wark of sex toy brand NORMAL, Sex/Life fell seriously short with regards to accuracy, consent, and respect for people’s boundaries.
Here the pair discuss the shortcomings of the first season and how they hope to see the show improve in season 2.
That sex party episode in Sex/Life season 1
In the show’s seventh episode, Billie and Cooper attend a sex party thrown by their friends Tina and Devon, and it’s here — in one of the show’s raunchiest and most famous scenes — and Wark and Grace think it could have been handled better.
The first issue, sex coach Georgia Grace highlighted, is that the couple had no idea they were arriving at a sex party.
“It’s pretty important to know you’re going to a sex party,” she explained. Because what if either Billie or Connor wasn’t cool with, y’know, stripping off and getting down to it in a room full of strangers?
“If you’re talking about sex parties, generally there are pretty clear agreements around consent that are shared and understood within that community,” added Wark.
Here, she explained that before a sex party begins all attendees should have a clear idea of how they can approach someone they’re interested in having sex with, how a person can say no to sex, and how others should react if a person doesn’t want to have sex with them.
“There’s a lot of things that aren’t being discussed here, and these guard rails are actually really important to have a fun, healthy, safe, and enjoyable experience,” she said.
But the biggest issue in this episode of Sex/Life is the way it treated consent at the party, something both Grace and Wark point out is a huge problem for a show that presents itself as sex-positive.
If you haven’t seen the episode, shortly after Billie and Cooper arrive at the party they watch another couple having sex on a couch and decide that they want to get in on the action too. Cool!
But they quickly become “like a chip surrounded by seagulls”.
“Billie starts getting uncomfortable, and her nonverbal signals start to change,” shared Grace. “Cooper seems to be ignoring that, and continues pushing it.
“We see it play out that here there is some really active ignoring of verbal and nonverbal communication. Billie’s consent, enthusiasm, and excitement for what is going down changes, and there’s lots that she’s doing to let Cooper know verbally and non-verbally that this isn’t exciting her anymore,” said Wark.
Both Grace and Wark pointed out that it’s absolutely vital to obtain consent before beginning or continuing with any sexual activity, whether you’re having sex with someone for the first or the hundredth time.
Just because Billie and Cooper are married doesn’t mean that he gets a pass to do whatever he wants to her — and it’s frustrating to see that after all the discussions of consent that have been making headlines for the past decade, shows like Sex/Life are still getting this wrong.
Even though Billie does respond with arousal when Cooper touches her, she still seems uncomfortable. Wark and Grace highlighted that this could have been ‘arousal non-concordance’, which occurs when your body becomes aroused even though mentally, you’re not interested in having sex or going further.
“Arousal doesn’t mean that you’re consenting, it just means that your body is having this physiological response to touch or stimulation or something that you’ve seen.”
By this point, Billie is keen to leave the party but Cooper wants to stay. Ideally, Cooper would have left with Billie, but he instead accepts a blowjob from Trina, one of the friends who invited them to the party. This then leads to Devon making a pass at Billie even though she’s clearly uncomfortable.
“She’s clearly so vulnerable and so upset, and this absolute moron comes over and is thinking that his dick is going to fix it and make her happy, assuming he knows what’s best for her… Devon is just a really gross archetype of no one you’d ever want to have at a sex party,” Grace said.
Cooper is offended by Devon’s behaviour, so much so that he actually lashes out and punches him.
“It’s very interesting that having just ignored Billie’s consent and, in a number of ways, been horrible to her, Cooper suddenly feels threatened by Devon’s behaviour,” Wark shared.
“Cooper has just deliberately made his wife incredibly uncomfortable by receiving a blow job from Trina, and now he’s dashing in like a white knight to save the day. I think it’s really interesting, and it speaks to a kind of sense of possessiveness over his wife.”
Where the show can do better
Of course, it’s tempting to say that Sex/Life may have been trying to reflect real-life by depicting characters as flawed humans who don’t always handle these complex situations in the best possible way. Even at the most well-planned sex party, there will always be people who mess up, get jealous, and can’t read the room.
While Grace and Wark both recognised that possibility, they still took issue with the way these storylines were presented.
“Just because it’s art doesn’t mean you have to remove things, like a consent violation, from a storyline,” suggested Grace.
“Those are absolutely things you can depict as events, but it’s the way we’re positioned to feel sympathy for this ‘nice guy’ character, and then to feel as though his actions might have been justified or that he even may have been heroic in punching Devon for her…I would love it if the creators made different choices here.”
Sex/Life has been positioned as a female-led desire piece, where men’s pleasure isn’t the central focus — but, “I really don’t think we ever saw that throughout it [season 1],” said Wark.
“So if I were to change it, I want to see Billie—as the main character—really being the person who’s receiving pleasure and who’s not demonized for being sexual. I want to see more focus on consent too, and you know what? There’s a great acting role for a cool sex party facilitator in this, too.”
When it comes to hopes for season 2 of Sex/Life, Wark shared she thinks it will be interesting to see if the show “brings us a more meaningful form of sex positivity and exploration of relationships for Billie”.
There’s certainly a chance that we’ll see these changes develop. But, as Wark highlighted, it could keep “falling back on romanticising controlling behaviour and forcing the tired ‘stable relationship or hot sex’ trade-off onto her character”.
Guess we’ll have to wait and see.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please contact the Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732) or head to The Australian Human Rights Commission for a list of state by state resources.
Every week sex entrepreneur Lucy Wark and sex coach Georgia Grace dissect some of pop culture’s most iconic sex scenes in their podcast, ReScript. Check out the latest episode here, or get 30% off sex toys made for this century at Normal using the code RESCRIPT.