Sex Has Evolved Beyond ‘Sex and the City’
A new season of the HBO hit would drag the conversation backward rather than push it forward
Back in the early 2000s, when I worked in a sex toy shop in Manhattan, there was a specific sort of customer they taught us to look out for. She would be in her thirties or forties, slightly more suburban-looking than the average patron, probably wealthy, usually white. She was easy to help because she would always be looking for one of two items: Either the Hitachi Magic Wand or the Rabbit. This would be her first vibrator purchase, and she would ask for these models by name because they had been on Sex and the City.
It’s now 2021 and Sex and the City has become a punchline, a hot-pink Juicy Couture relic of the gaudy consumerist ’00s, the TV equivalent of a bedazzled flip phone or sugary sorority-girl cocktail. The news of its impending revival, which will follow (most of) the original cast as they “navigate love and friendship in their fifties,” fills me with deep existential dread. Yet I can’t hate it.
In its time — let’s say 1998 through 2004, the length of its initial run — the show was a powerful and even feminist phenomenon. It’s just that its moment was 20 years ago, and since then, everything about our sexual politics has changed. I couldn’t help but wonder: In 2021, when the world’s pornography is a Google search away and knockoff Rabbits are stocked at Walgreens, do we have anything left to learn about sex from Sex and the City?
Sex and the City centered on four single, more-or-less-straight women in Manhattan — Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha — who were able to enjoy lots of casual sex because their primary bond was to each other. Though it’s hard to remember how the idea of women liking casual sex, let alone preferring it, was deeply scandalous in 1998. (In the show’s pilot, the women themselves have a hard time wrapping their heads around it; they call it “having sex like a man.”) So was the idea of women masturbating, or expecting to have orgasms with their partners, or even talking about sex.
Women had life-changing realizations while watching Sex and the City — I knew women who, thanks to the show, discovered that they’d never had an orgasm, or a partner who cared about what they wanted, or maybe that they themselves didn’t know what they wanted because they’d never been encouraged to ask. Those women coming into the sex shop to buy their first vibrators were breaking a deeply held cultural taboo and taking a scary first step toward bodily autonomy. That’s a great thing—and a rare thing for any TV show to inspire.
It’s also a very limited idea of “empowerment” and its limitations have grown more obvious with time. Sex and the City was perhaps the most popular manifestation of third-wave “sex-positive” feminism. That movement began from the margins, with queer feminists and sex workers rejecting the idea that there was one right “feminist” way to have sex. Activists like Carol Queen and Annie Sprinkle taught that having sex the way you wanted, without shame or constraint, could be revolutionary.
Yet as the movement hit the mainstream it was watered down into sexual consumerism, telling women that bodily liberation was the key to political liberation, and that having sex “like a man” was the same as achieving social and political equality with men. At its best, sex-positivity helped women reject centuries of patriarchal shaming. At its worst, it substituted orgasms for meaningful political engagement. And Sex and the City erred on the side of orgasms most of the time.
‘Sex and the City’ cleared a path for frank discussion of sex on television. But the show now looks conservative, heteronormative, and prudish.
In Sex and the City, the leads pursue fulfillment through sexual gratification, but they’re so white, straight, cis, and wealthy that nothing else complicates their happiness. The show destigmatized spanking and analingus but also had episodes explaining that white women couldn’t successfully date Black men and that all bisexuals were going through a phase. Its gay characters were desexualized sidekicks, and its biggest transgender subplot concerned Samantha complaining about the trans sex workers in her gentrified neighborhood. (She does not call them “trans sex workers,” I’ll tell you that much.)
Even misogyny can’t really touch these characters. Rape culture, domestic abuse, and sexual harassment don’t exist in Sex and the City, and though abortion does — the show’s bravest episode revealed that Carrie had an abortion and didn’t regret it — the characters never struggle to access it. In Sex and the City, sex was just one more high-end lifestyle accessory. It was less about smashing patriarchy or rejecting heteronormativity than finding a trendy vibrator you could ask for by name.
It has become painfully clear in the past two decades that the problems with our sexual politics are structural, not psychological; the problem is not that we’re uptight, it’s that the world is set up to marginalize everyone other than white, cis, straight men. Entrenched, systemic sexual violence, of the sort uncovered by the #MeToo movement, is beyond Sex and the City’s purview. Legislation to ban health care for trans minors can’t be solved by telling those kids to loosen up or be less repressed, and sex workers endangered by FOSTA/SESTA can’t fix the problem by loving themselves more. Individual gratification doesn’t change oppressive systems; “empowerment” is not the same as having power. It’s not 2000 anymore, and it has become painfully clear that we cannot fuck the pain away.
It’s not that I want the new season of the show to confront these realities; it’s that I know it is built, by design, not to include them. Sex and the City was designed to be a warm, fuzzy, conflict-free empowerment fantasy where (white, straight, cis) women could see their idealized selves reflected and be told that their sexual curiosity was normal and fun.
Maybe I’m a softie, but I do believe that sort of friendly, accepting, safe environment is key to reclaiming one’s sexuality in a world where sex is so often shadowed by shame and trauma. Again, in my brief life as a vibrator salesman, I found that what most customers needed, more than anything else, was simply a calm, smiling person who didn’t act scared or judgmental when they brought up what they liked in bed. Sex and the City was the TV equivalent of that person, for a lot of women, and as such, it provided a service: Most people are terrified that they’re secretly abnormal. Most people aren’t. All they need is to be reassured.
It’s not 2000 anymore, and it has become painfully clear that we cannot fuck the pain away.
The show is a victim of its own success. The straight women it focused on helping — and will, almost to a certainty, keep focusing on in its next iteration — have more or less been freed of their sexual shackles. (Well, except for the ones they bought special for the occasion, anyway.) The project of “sexual liberation,” in terms of destigmatizing individual acts between consenting straight people, feels pretty close to accomplished. All the Annie Sprinkle performance pieces in the world couldn’t match the impact of raising a generation on free internet pornography.
In 1998, Sex and the City spent a full episode processing anal sex (“Men don’t marry the up-the-butt girl!”) but it wasn’t until 2015 that Broad City showed its heroine pegging somebody. That younger generation is also more likely to challenge the whiteness and straightness Sex and the City took for granted. In 2021, lightweight comedies like Sex Education or The Politician contain more queer content in one episode than Sex and the City did for most of its run. Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton is an adaptation of a Regency romance novel, yet it has more recurring Black cast members than Sex and the City’s 21st-century Manhattan. Sex and the City cleared a path for a frank discussion of sex on television, but that path is well-trodden, and the show now looks conservative, heteronormative, and frankly prudish.
I’m not asking the new iteration of Sex and the City to make cosmetic changes for the sake of “diversity.” Nor am I expecting Carrie Bradshaw to morph into Elizabeth Warren. Sex comedies and romantic fantasies have their place; Bridgerton is a massive hit for a reason. Yet Sex and the City’s appeal always rested not just on the idea that it was fun, but on the idea that the fun it provided was important. It argued that women taking their own pleasure seriously could change their lives, and maybe even change the world. Now, with the world changed, a new season of Sex and the City would be more likely to drag the conversation backward rather than push it forward. If there are questions about sex that still need asking — and there are — they don’t pertain to wealthy, white, straight women like Carrie Bradshaw.
Sex and the City is best seen in its historical context; a fantasy from a more innocent time, when even serious feminists believed that pleasure could not only substitute for political action—it could be political action. That idea gave a lot of people happiness and courage. It helped them get more comfortable with their bodies, maybe experience a little joy in this life. But it’s not something to hold onto forever, and so, as with any hookup, it’s time to say thank you and goodbye, without insisting on repeat performances. The thing about keeping it casual is that you can’t hold on once it’s done.