Sex and the City

The fifth season of Sex and the City premiered on Sunday (21 July). At last, the return of the one show on television that warrants organizing a veggie dip and wine get-together every week with your girlfriends, your gay boyfriends, and the occasional straight man interested in a light-hearted evening of gossip, fashion, and women’s secrets about sex and relationships.

A lot of people are watching Sex and the City. An astounding 7 million people tuned in for last season’s final episode; the episodes from the first three seasons are now available on DVD and VHS. And while some critics say the series has become mainstream, seeking higher ratings through more one-liners and trivial banter, other viewers see it as one of the most politically “progressive” shows on television today, citing its depiction of four [mostly] unmarried women not only having sex, having children, having jobs, and having friends, but most noticeably, having fun too.

Sex and the City is one of those shows that people love to watch together. Maybe it’s because HBO is expensive. Maybe it’s because the issues raised solicit conversation as well as laughter. Maybe it’s because the show’s promotional apparatus and secondary media encourage group activities. Last year, (a website for event and party planning) introduced a new category in their event-theme list: alongside baby showers and nights on the town, you can also find Sex and the City. Last week, the party-theme-of-the-month for an Austin radio station was Sex and the City.

Each episode includes engaging, funny group discussions, in particular, frank conversations about something that is rarely addressed on television: the female O. It’s the only series on television featuring intelligent, career-driven, attractive, middle-aged women using words like “orgasm,” “clitoris,” and “masturbation” on a regular basis. We discover new aspects about sex and female pleasure in nearly every episode: not just about the act per se, but about different types of sex, various meanings and stigmas attached to sex, silence about sex, attitudes toward orgasm and partners, and masturbation. As Samantha (Kim Cattrall) gets loud with her 539th boyfriend in a new position, or Charlotte (Kristin Davis) becomes obsessed with her vibrator (which leads to “an intervention” by her friends), or Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) tells her girlfriends that she is faking orgasms with an inept lover, we can laugh, recognizing our own situations in theirs.

Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) occupation as a sex columnist for an alternative newspaper is a useful framework for the series’ weekly challenges to the rules governing women’s (and men’s) sexual and relationship behaviors. She poses probing questions about sex and relationships, taking these issues out of a private space and into a public forum, both in and outside of the show. As her “readers,” we can recognize our own thoughts and actions, and know they’re not weird, perverted, or wrong.

Consider Samantha, the sexual conqueror, an assertive, horny, middle-aged woman, at once envied and supported by her friends. In the episode “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” sex columnist/narrator Carrie describes Samantha’s newest fling: “Amazingly, Samantha was still with James, a monogamous relationship for a woman whose bedroom was usually busier than Valducci’s on a Saturday.” Yet, there’s a problem: James’s small penis means that Samantha is not orgasming during intercourse. She holds a hotdog for her girlfriends: “I don’t think you guys understand the seriousness of my situation. How would you guys like to make love to this every night?” Deciding that she’ll try coaching James, Samantha is soon in bed with him, shouting, “Go! Go! Lift that ass! Give it to me! Fuck me, you hot stud!” Eventually, Samantha gives up and breaks out her vibrator. While this scene is funny, it addresses a very real issue: women who can’t achieve orgasm with a lover.

In “The Awful Truth,” Miranda seeks advice about a lover who keeps talking dirty to her during sex and leaves her unsure of how to respond. After sharing her dilemma with her gal pals, Miranda decides to give such talk a shot too, and realizes she enjoys it more than she could have imagined. She ends up having fantastic orgasms with him as she calls his penis a “big hard rock.” Similarly, in “The Freak Show,” Charlotte gossips with her girlfriends in the women’s bathroom at a club about a cute guy she met at the bar, whom Samantha recognizes as “Mr. Pussy,” the man known citywide for his skill in oral sex. Carrie narrates that Charlotte was initially uneasy being with someone just for his skill, but once in bed, Charlotte “came harder than she ever had before. That is, until Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. Friday. Friday. That night, Charlotte saw God seven times.”

Most often, the girls’ chats about bisexuality, masturbation, and other “unladylike” topics take place during mid-day jogs in the park or over brunch. When they meet at a local cafe, the camera takes a point of view as though we’re seated at a nearby table with our own friends, giving us a model for talking about what’s on our own minds about sex and relationships, while also enjoying Samantha’s report on her tryst with a Charles Schwab executive.

They don’t always have triumphs to recount. In “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” Miranda confides that she has been faking orgasms with a lover, and has recently not returned a call because she doesn’t want to do it again. Shocked, Charlotte says, “If you really like the guy, what’s one little moment versus spending one whole night alone?” Miranda decides to stop faking and start tutoring her lover instead. Even with instruction, he seems lost, so she decides to give him one last gigantic fake orgasm for his efforts. It’s left up to the viewer to decide whether faking is the “nice” thing to do.

Such decisions are individual but also culturally framed. We conducted an informal and wholly unscientific survey, asking women (straight, lesbian, married, single, dating), some we know and others we don’t, about their experiences with sex and orgasms. And we were surprised by what we learned. Many hip young women living in major cities: 1) are not having orgasms at all (never have); 2) “think” they are having orgasms (probably never have); or 3) rarely have orgasms during sex, and not at all during masturbation. The more we talked to girlfriends and random interviewees, the more we realized that many women want to talk about their sexual pleasures, elusive or immediate, with each other.

Which leads us back to Sex and the City. The much-anticipated fifth season premiere revealed a shift in mood, a post 9-11 sense of fragility, sobriety, and self-reflection. The women are embarking on new chapters of their lives, each single again, and more attentive to relationships than hot sex per se. But if their lustful escapades are toned down, giving way to more serious connections, the candid discussions among Samantha, Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte remain an open invitation not only to listen in, but also to talk.