Joss Whedon’s television shows thrive on subverting convention, by challenging preconceived notions of gender, genre, religion, and class. His work, in most respects, has a liberal slant, at least in terms of philosophy, if not political affiliation. Interestingly enough, however, Whedon’s stories were often conservative when dealing with the issue of casual sex. It was an odd dichotomy for shows that seemed to push for social freedoms, yet condemned nonmonogamous sexual relationships.
It is important to make the distinction between Whedon’s approach to relationships and his approach to sex. It is clear from his shows that Whedon would prefer to deal with serious relationships and the leave the casual kind alone. Aside from the obvious exception of Buffy and Angel, Whedon’s couples have healthy, if not vibrant, sex lives. In fact, those characters who exclusively engage in sex only when in monogamous relationships avoid sexual trauma altogether, creating the appearance that, in the Whedon universe, sex is only positive if it’s tied to a committed relationship.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the only character who ever mentions engaging in and enjoying casual sex is Faith, who is later painted as being mentally unstable and borderline evil. While Faith implies that she’s had multiple sexual partners over the years, the only one we know of during Season Three is Xander. As if to underscore that casual sex is a bad thing in the Whedonverse, Faith tries to kill Xander, who approaches her because he thinks their encounter meant they had a connection. The shallow, promiscuous character tries to kill a former conquest who perceives sex as holding a deeper meaning.
While Buffy’s initial attempt at a monogamous sexual relationship ended in disaster, her relationship with Riley was healthy. However, she engages in two attempts at casual sexual relationships, one with Parker, the other notoriously with Spike. Buffy’s one-night stand with Parker leaves her emotionally distraught. Her relationship with Spike, on the other hand, takes her to dark places, culminating in violence and attempted rape.
There were only two serious relationships on Angel, the first between Gunn and Fred, the second between Wesley and Fred. In both cases, their sex lives were kept mostly off screen. The twisted relationship between Wesley and Lilah, however, is well-documented, from trust games to role playing and eventually dismemberment. It is Cordelia who suffers the most profound curse of casual sex. The most obvious instance would be her demon-possessed tryst with Connor that resulted in a physical form being given to Jasmine, not to mention Cordelia’s eventual death. But this was no Cordelia’s first mystical pregnancy as a result of a one-night stand. In Season One’s “Expecting,” she was the central figure in yet another cautionary tale on the evils of having sex with someone you’re not in a relationship with. She became part of an entire harem of women who were impregnated with the potential spawn of a demon. Perhaps it was this original pregnancy that convinced Jasmine to hitch a ride with Cordelia when she returned to the mortal plane.
If there is any Whedon-created television show that attempted to go against the existing stigma placed upon casual sex, it’s Firefly. Inara, being a registered companion, or legally approved prostitute, must clearly symbolize that sex outside of a monogamous relationship is okay. The problem is that it has taken that idea too far. This isn’t casual sex, it is sex as business. In fact, the only sexual relationship we see over the course of the show outside of Inara’s business comes between Wash and Zoë, who are, of course, married. Casual sex isn’t an issue that’s dealt with on the show, as all sex seems to be divided into committed relationships or business arrangements. Even Inara makes a point on several occasions that she usually sticks with repeat business. One of the few times we see anything resembling casual sex in the future comes in a brief flashback when Mal first meets Kaylee, when she is having sex with Serenity’s earlier mechanic, but even then it’s surrounded by comments on Kaylee’s poor upbringing, implying that even in the future, casual sex is not accepted by polite society, something that’s underscored often throughout the brief run of the show.
If Firefly was an attempt at advancing a positive view of casual sex and overshooting the mark, Dollhouse is an extreme step back. The government sanctioned, business of sex that Inara was involved in has now become perverted to involve nearly lobotomized sex slaves. It is, without a doubt, the darkest place Whedon has gone with his shows. There is no casual sex on Dollhouse, at least nothing what would match the definition. All of the sex is paid for, and debatably consensual. The dolls have regular customers, but they’re similar to Inara’s, aside from the fact that Inara is given a choice in who she has sex with. The concept behind Dollhouse leaves little room to address the issue. As evidenced by his other shows, casual sex is not an issue that’s in Joss Whedon’s wheelhouse; it’s not a subject that he’s particularly inclined to discuss on his shows.
On the surface, it would appear that Whedon would prefer not to tackle casual sex on his shows. After all, Whedon’s strengths lie in dealing with drama, more often than not drama that stems from relationships. He is comfortable with Angel turning evil after sleeping with Buffy, with Tara dying, with Fred dying, with Wash dying, or with Melly turning out to be an Active. Whedon wants the audience to care about the characters and, in particular, their relationships, so that when things go bad — and they will go bad — his viewers are invested. This is why the shows were so affecting, and Whedon knows it.
The problem, then, lies in Whedon’s dabbling in noncommitted relationships. Because he’s not invested in those types of stories, and because they stand at odds with the stories he is telling, casual sex becomes something negative, something that, as an opposite to a committed relationship, has to be wrong. Unfortunately, this falls in line with fairly puritanical views on sex. Buffy is allowed to have sex, but to be truly good, she’s only allowed to have just so much of it, and only under certain circumstances. If she tries to break out of that narrow role, she, like Whedon’s other characters, is punished. With regards to sex, if the works of Whedon represent a furthering of a progressive agenda, they only go to the edge of what is socially acceptable, but never beyond that point.