This Clinical Sexologist Has Some Strong Feelings About Netflix's Sex/Life
It might be saucy, but please take this show with, like, a million grains of salt.
In case you haven't heard yet (or seen the viral episode 3 reaction videos on TikTok), Netflix's new series, Sex/Life, recently became an instant hit. Truth be told, I binged the whole thing in two days. A show about a woman being insatiably horny and loving sex and having lots of sexual adventures? YES!
I'm all for female sexual empowerment, and I've loved seeing how many new shows have showcased female desire in a way that gives women agency over their wants (ahem, Bridgerton, Feel Good, Grace & Frankie, and Easy). In a lot of ways, Sex/Life does exactly that. It gives Billie (the show's protagonist) an opportunity to be a very sexual woman who enjoys getting it on (pretty damn aggressively, too) before she winds up in a marriage with the perfect "man of her dreams" and two children.
Warning: There are a lot of spoilers ahead. But if you're currently watching Sex/Life or just finished and have been left like 🥴!?!?! then hopefully this will help clear things up. And if you haven't watched yet, well, you might want to keep reading anyway: I do honestly think you'll want to know some of these things before you watch it. It sucked me in really fast (it's HOT and there is a LOT of sex), but it also left me feeling disappointed and despondent. There was a lot this show got right… but there was a lot it screwed up. You can't get everything right all the time, I get it, but the way the plot unraveled felt so unnecessary and backward that I couldn't help but think: What in the hell did I just watch?
It's worth noting that this show is indeed based on a book — and not just any book, but the memoir 44 Chapters About 4 Men by BB Easton (Buy It, $14, amazon.com), meaning the show's plot was gleaned from someone's actual life. That said, this is still a fictionalized show, doesn't necessarily reflect real life, and is certainly not something you should idealize (as fun as the sex scenes look). Here's why.
Who's the "right" guy for Billie, anyway?
I put "man of her dreams" (when referring to Billie's husband Cooper) in quotes above because there's a kind of hollowness to this notion — one that becomes detectable as the show progresses. Cooper is super loyal, a great father, and basically, everything Brad (Billie's ex) is not.
Yes, Cooper is objectively a "Good Guy." In fact, the show goes almost out of its way to constantly remind us of that. He wants to save the world by investing in smart technology that will save people's lives. He punches his co-worker friend in the face at a sex party because he's hitting on his wife, and then he takes the matter to his boss and HR. Cooper is a "Good Guy" and Brad is a reformed — though it's kind of unclear how genuine this is — "Bad Boy." The triteness of this whole "Husband and Toxic Ex" dichotomy is a bit of an eye roll, IMO.
But that's not really the point here. The problem is how Billie handles her extreme sexual desire for Brad and her love and stability with Cooper. Is she convincing herself that Cooper is worth all of this mental strain? Is he really "The One?" We're never given enough insight into her true feelings to get a straight answer to this question. I suspect that she really does love Cooper, but chooses to express her sexual frustrations with their own disappointing sex life in a diary rather than simply bringing it to his attention. To me, this feels kind of WTF. (Related: Can You Journal Your Way to Better Sex?)
It seems that Billie always expects her lover to fulfill her sexual desires to a T, without ever explaining what she wants or needs. She also relies on immediate sexual chemistry to keep her sex life afloat — but as a certified clinical sexologist, I can tell you that this isn't possible for many, many couples. Most couples do have immediate chemistry (hence the initial attraction), but that chemistry can also wane over time. Sex takes work and gets better over time (usually) as long as both people are committed to making it better.
To make it even more frustrating, Billie was also on her way to a Ph.D. in psychology (and currently has a master's degree in psychology) before she met and married Cooper. She's a psychologist without her own therapist. She writes an article in Psychology Today about trust and safety being key components for the female orgasm, but never thinks, "Hey, I really have a crappy sex life with my husband. I think we should see a couple's counselor." Or, like, even talk to him about it. Instead, she goes with, "I think I'll completely ignore the problem and then resent my husband forever while dreaming about all those hot nights with my ex, Brad."
A couple's therapist could have helped them work through their differing sex drives, their sexual incompatibility, where they could make changes, and help them reaffirm their commitment to each other. A couple's therapist could have helped them heal instead of allowing resentment to fester, the way it slowly does for Billie.
The depiction of open relationships is an absolute dumpster fire.
This seems to be a point the show tries to make in good faith: You actually don't need to choose between someone who gives you all the lust and someone who gives you all the trust. You CAN have both: It's called non-monogamy/an open relationship/polyamory. However, it then goes on to f*ck this up so spectacularly, it made my skin crawl.
Yay for female sexual empowerment, but boo for making non-monogamy look like a "less-than" form of relationship, only practiced by unhappy couples just trying to have "enough."
This brings me to one specific scene: The sex party Billie and Cooper attend with their (seemingly buttoned-up) Greenwich couple friends, Trina and Devon.
Look, their friends are non-monogamous — specifically, in an open marriage. They go to sex parties. That's fine, but Cooper and Billie have no business being at a sex party. Billie wants to experience amazing sex but has always done so in the context of a monogamous relationship. Meanwhile, her relationship is in complete turmoil. Sex parties are for couples who are happy, secure, and sexually explorative. They're for couples who want to explore sexually with others — not for those who want to try to bandage a problem between them.
The only thing Trina and Devon do wrong is bringing Billie and Cooper to the party without touching base beforehand. That said, you can't always expect a random couple who swings to know how to navigate these complicated waters. They're not sexuality professionals.
Cooper gets a blowjob from Trina because it appears that Trina thinks this will help them relax into the flow of the party. Billie gets freaked out, which is a totally normal reaction if this is not your jam, and you're completely unprepared for a sex party. Devon tries hitting on Billie (and definitely pushes it too far, FTR). Then Cooper insults Trina (insinuating she's a slut — nice one, Cooper) and gets into a fistfight with Devon.
Let me be clear: Devon and Trina weren't the ones who acted like fools, Billie and Cooper acted like fools. The show attempts to make Devon and Trina look like weirdos when really they're doing a perfectly normal thing that lots of married couples do.
Ideally, Billie and Cooper would be in a good, healthy place in their relationship wherein they were open to experiencing sexuality with other people. It takes a lot of trust and boundaries to attend a sex party and not have an emotional meltdown — it's a highly charged event that is considered quite taboo in society. This could absolutely have been a positive experience if the conditions of their marriage were solid, and not on the brink of collapse. This is a mistake a lot of couples make: They think opening the relationship will "fix" their issues, when actually, it can (and will) compound them, possibly leading to a breakup. (See: How to Have a Healthy Polyamorous Relationship)
The fact that Cooper's speech (at their children's school World Fair night, no less) about how he and Billie are standing strong and love each other "inspires" Devon to close his relationship with Trina is straight-up depressing, not something to celebrate. Trina's sexuality is being stifled because this show and its main characters are pushing the idea that monogamy is "better" and the way people with kids "should be."
In reality, non-monogamy can work for couples who have solid, non-monogamous relationship styles and values who explore different ways of exploring sexually in order to keep both people satisfied and fulfilled — but more on that in a sec.
Acting like an asshole is not sexual empowerment. It's just acting like an asshole.
Listen, girl power, women getting their own, having amazing sex, skipping slut-shaming — these are themes I can totally get behind. But we cannot call all of what Billie does "sexual empowerment."
She shows up at the door of her ex's apartment (after ditching the end of her kid's school play?!). The narrator's voiceover (which is Billie throughout the show), is speaking in empowered, excited language about "wanting it all" and "wanting it now." She shows up, the elevator doors open and she says: "This changes nothing. I'm not leaving my husband. Now, fuck me."
The season ends.
What the showrunners (I have to believe, I truly MUST) were trying to convey was that women CAN have it all — a real 180, considering the rest of the entire show defines "true love" as monogamy and complete commitment to one single person.
My guess? Season 2 will be about Billie and Cooper opening their relationship. Well, I hate to break this to you — please excuse the all caps because I am very pissed: THIS IS NOT HOW HEALTHY OPEN RELATIONSHIPS WORK.
You don't get to just run off and cheat on your husband and then retroactively open the relationship as some kind of way of "making it work." Open relationships can only function and survive when both primary partners are 100 percent on board and want it. They can be just as wonderful and fulfilling as monogamous relationships. Every single relationship functions differently and in its own distinct way. No one relationship style is better than any other as long as there are boundaries and communication. (See: 6 Things Monogamous People Can Learn from Open Relationships)
But this is essentially the exact opposite of what's happening in this show. She does basically nothing to change the situation in her marriage. A few months later she realizes she's "code-switching," (aka when people change their personalities based on the people, group, or partner) as her — actually empowered — friend Sasha puts it. (Sasha is a total badass both sexually and academically, but that is an article for another day.) Instead of approaching Cooper, seeking therapy, or trying to do what's right by herself and her partner, Billie instead decides to take the easy route when someone isn't sexually fulfilled: Cheat.
We have to stop pretending that women doing shitty things makes them "badass" by wrapping it up in sexy feminist packaging. We need to look at the actions themselves. And in this case: They aren't great. She acts like an asshole. Sorry, it had to be said. If we swapped the roles and it were Cooper running off to Francesca (his boss who he has confirmed sexual feelings for) to have his needs met, we'd be thinking: He sucks! I can't believe we liked him!
Honestly, there's nothing left to say. Let's see what happens in Season 2. Maybe they'll come back and totally fix this hot mess of a situation … but I find that unlikely.
And just to get this on the record: Regarding that episode 3 scene? Size isn't everything.
Gigi Engle is a certified sexologist and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @GigiEngle.
So Gigi is all for female sexual empowerment. Is fine with Trina, judges Billie.Read More
She’s “judging” Billie bc SHE CHEATED ON HER HUSBAND instead of just bringing her wants/needs and her problems to him
She’s “judging” Billie bc SHE CHEATED ON HER HUSBAND instead of just bringing her wants/needs and her problems to him