For the past couple of weeks, my most recent TV obsession has been HBOMax’s The Sex Lives of College Girls. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, and it’s sexy, obviously, and there’s so much to love about the series.
It stars Renee Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Amrit Kaur, and Pauline Chalamet (yes, Timothee’s sister) as college freshmen navigating their way through identity, sexuality, and friendship. In what feels like one of the first true college-focused teen offerings, the series shines as an example of what young adult TV can be like when allowed to leave the tired halls of high school.
While the show is incredible, and beyond sex-positive, there is one issue I’ve noticed over the past 8 episodes: There’s a clear difference in the treatment of Renee Rapp’s Leighton and Midori Francis’ Alicia’s relationship in comparison to the heterosexual pairings on the show, specifically in how their sex lives are portrayed.
The show is called The Sex Lives of College Girls, so there’s bound to be a lot of sex happening on the show, with varying degrees of explicitness. Though, when comparing Leighton and her exploration with women, and specifically with her girlfriend Alicia, to the likes of Nico and Kimberly (Gavin Leatherwood and Pauline Chalamet), the difference becomes clear.
Episode 7 of season 1, titled “I Think I’m a Sex Addict,” consisted of several extremely explicit hookup scenes between Nico and Kimberly, each with various degrees of nudity. On the other hand, Leighton and Alicia have only been shown on screen post-hookup or about to go further before a cutaway. Even her hookups pre-Alicia were fade-to-black, never quite getting the same treatment as the heterosexual sex scenes. This could just be a stylistic choice for Leighton as a character, but that argument is undercut by episode 4, in which Leighton was shown in an explicit sex scene with a man.
This censoring, for lack of a better term, has been happening for years, way before The Sex Lives of College Girls started airing on HBOMax in November.
It feels like a type of over-correction in response to the hyper-sexualization of lesbianism but ends up shifting the dial in the opposite direction. When a show gives its heterosexual couples these explosive and explicit sex scenes but its sapphic couples get kisses with their clothes still on and a fade-to-black, it others the sapphic couples from their heterosexual peers. This has not only been a problem for Sex Lives but other sapphic couples as well, with a popular example being Maya and Carina on Station 19.
The de-sexualization of sapphic couples ties into a much bigger problem within queer representation in media as a whole: Visibility ends up breeding invisibility.
After media becomes aware of its mistreatment of a certain group through stereotypes and negative portrayals, there’s often an effort to correct those mistakes. Though, in that effort, a certain aspect of the queer experience often ends up getting erased in the process.
For example, to move away from the stereotypical butch lesbian on television, there was an influx of femme lesbians shown on screen. While it’s extremely important to show diversity in sapphic representation, the TV went full-throttle on the femme lesbian, until the butch experience became untold. On The CW, the leading network in LGBT representation four seasons running, there is only one butch lesbian main character in all of their shows; Coop from All American remains the sole representation of the butch experience after Batwoman wrote off Kate Kane.
All of this isn’t to say that Leighton is a bad representation, she’s wonderful representation, but treating her sex life differently than her straight roommates puts her in a different category than them; one that might communicate to viewers that sapphic sex is too explicit, even for this show.
Of course, consideration for the comfort levels of the actors is truly what’s most important, and if it was a decision made based on their comfort, I absolutely won’t hold that against them. It’s just a little disheartening to see lesbianism, or, actually, not see lesbianism, portrayed on screen in the same ways as heterosexual sexuality.
I truly admire the effort of the series to avoid the over-sexualization of the lesbian experience, but in a show like Sex Lives, it honestly feels odd and out of place to not be shown Leighton’s sex life in the same light as her roommates. Because at the end of the day, it really should be all about, and I think Nico said it best, equality.
There are still two episodes left of the first season, so I hope this could be rectified before it’s finished, but at the very least, in a potential season two.
The Sex Lives of College Girls airs on Thursdays, only on HBOMax.