The Plight of ‘Secondary Sex’

On TV and in the movies, there's no time after the "first time'".

Sex scenes in film and TV have become truncated clichés. They begin with a kiss and end seconds later with the couple, post-coital, and strategically wrapped in sheets—he exposing his chest, her covered up almost to the neck. It is a particular type of scene that has been played out so many times and so many places that it’s hard to even start remembering where the last one happened. More importantly, however, these scenes don’t really depict the passion or intimacy of sex these two characters supposedly just engaged in.

But this is not the only aspect of on-screen sex that that is troubling. It’s also how in movies and TV, we seldom—if ever—see two characters being intimate with each other who have ever been intimate with each other before. For screenwriters, the only sex that matters is “first time” sex, the initial “hook up” between (usually) the male and female leads. And once that’s over and done with, sex ceases to matter or be notable. In fact, for the most part, it doesn’t even exist.

One can call these kind of nonexistent scenes the “secondary sex”. “Secondary sex” is that time after the first time as seen on TV or in the movies. But when was the last time you saw two characters on TV or film engage in it? We see it so seldom that the one or two times when it is depicted, it’s extremely memorable. Consider the 1973 horror film Don’t Look Now. That film, directed by Nicolas Roeg, is remembered today for the graphic love scene between a married couple played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

In the eyes of Hollywood, sex with the same person twice has to be boring, or at least of very little importance; only the first time counts. Even if sex between characters happens again—even if it is good or valuable to character development—it certainly doesn’t deserve any screen time.

Of course, there are some caveats to the “secondary sex” rule. We do see “secondary sex” depicted when men on TV visit their mistresses, or when some long-estranged couple (like former college sweethearts) reunite and decide to “do it” again. And there are some very randy cable series currently on the air that have scenes such as these. Onn the HBO series Girls, for example sex, whether it is the first time or the umpteenth time, is usually more about humiliation or emotional domination on the part of the participants. Love is a battlefield on that show. One begins to wonder if celibacy wouldn’t better for everyone—or, at least, for Hannah Horvath and her friends.

Furthermore, sometimes “secondary sex” is depicted on TV sitcoms. In those instances, it’s usually played for laughs: consider episodes of Modern Family, where these secondary sex scenes usually occur only after scenes of men begging and women resisting. For the most part, married sex is, as far as TV is concerned, an oxymoron.

By and large, humans do tend to be a species preoccupied with “firsts”: the first day of school, first car, first job, first kiss, and, yes, the “first time”. Whole films (Risky Business) or film franchises (American Pie) are built around this theme. And it’s not just the moving pictures of the big and small screens that care only about the first time or the first time with a new partner. Other popular media—like romance novels, etc.—center their plots on that prized, celebrated initial interaction.

This links into the variety of television program, found in both dramas and comedies, that are centered on the premise of, “When are these two getting together?” It’s as vintage as Mr. Peepers and I Dream of Jeannie and travels up through time through Cheers and Moonlighting and carries on today through series such as Castle and The Mindy Project. These series’ prolonged sexual tension and banter-as-foreplay humor has often been these show’s raison d’art.

Once these characters finally do go to bed together, often these series spin off their axis. “Secondary sex” in these shows has often spelled the end of them. Moonlighting got so soapy after Maddie and David got together that it never recovered. Cheers only endured because Shelley Long left the bar and it was able to refocus in a new direction. Did these shows have any other options, or is “secondary sex” a curse?

Once we get beyond the cutesy first glances and the first trip to the bedroom, Hollywood can’t figure out how to make romance, relationships, or sex interesting anymore. The third season of FOX’s New Girl has largely floundered because the long-simmering attraction between lead characters Jess and Nick was finally consummated.

We will have to wait and see how The Mindy Project fares next season now that its two leads have finally admitted their attraction. Can they make “secondary sex”, and the issues that might come with it, as interesting as the long process into bedroom in the first place? If they do, they might be forging a brand new path for a whole rash of television programs and films that prove both that the first time isn’t all that great, but also that it isn’t the last time.