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4 August 2021

From Sex/Life to 365 Days: The rise of TV soft porn

Why we should celebrate the ascent of popular erotica. 

By Eleanor Peake

The couple met in an indie bar, presumably in Brooklyn. Both were wearing leather jackets. Brad is the archetypal bad boy; tall and mysterious, complete with an all-black wardrobe and zero personality. Billie is a suburban housewife, bored of her life as the perfect woman. After “intoxicatingly intense” conversation, he drove her in his Range Rover to his luxury apartment, where they had sex in his penthouse pool, lit up by the New York skyline. 

In Netflix’s new series Sex/Life, all this couple do is have sex. The lighting is always low and sensual, the close ups always explicit. But unlike the on-screen sex women have grown used to, Sex/Life is a genuine attempt to offer us the female perspective. “Making a show about a woman who wants sex, who is emotionally and physically fulfilled by partaking in this very normal, human behaviour, is in and of itself a revolutionary act,” reflects the show’s director Stacy Rukeyser in an interview with Netflix.

Still, it is easy to be snobby about this rom-com erotica. From the first moments of the eight part series, it’s clear that Sex/Life is more of a romp than the nuanced exploration of stifled femininity that Rukeyser claims (the first 30 seconds involve Brad giving Billie oral sex in a dimly lit corner of a New York club). The dialogue is cliché: “The stability and sanity he offered was a soothing balm to my spent, scorched soul,” Billie writes in her diary. The plot line is even sillier: somehow Brad appears in Billie’s life at every corner, like a horny grim reaper. But, clearly, the story arc isn’t why it raced to the top of Netflix’s charts. Streaming is becoming an increasingly private affair.

[See also: Bridget Jones and the Blair years]

In 2020, 30 per cent of US streaming audiences said they watched TV on their mobiles every week, and in the past five years Google searches for “Netflix porn” have also risen steadily. And as interest in explicit streaming increases, so do its viewing ratings: despite being the worst-reviewed Netflix film ever, gaining 0 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, the erotic thriller 365 Days was one of 2020’s biggest hits. The 114-minute film centres around a stunningly handsome mafia boss and the woman of his dreams, whom he kidnaps. The show was widely slammed for glamorising sex trafficking and assault. Bridgerton, with some of the most explicit sex scenes of any period drama, was watched more than 63 million times, making it the fifth most watched Netflix series of all time. 

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These offerings all succeed at tapping into an old heterosexual female fantasy; the “bad boy” as the central source of temptation. Bridgerton’s Duke of Hastings is the unattainable bachelor ( “it’s because I regard you so highly that I cannot marry you,” he tells protagonist Daphne). Sex/Life’s Brad, as well as being extraordinarily well-endowed (audience reactions to a nude shower scene in which Brad reveals his comically large penis have become a viral TikTok trend), is the ultimate cliché of the distant sex symbol, his absent father offered up as the explanation for his inability to commit. Often mocked as a relic of teenage girls, it is a well-trodden trope in female-gaze fiction: from Jane Eyre to Twilight. He is an emotionally complicated man that needs to be nurtured and, ultimately, fixed by feminine love. It speaks to the female protagonist’s longing to be the perfect woman. An unhealthy dynamic; sure, but a sexual desire that many women relate to nonetheless.

[See also: How Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends influenced a generation of film-makers]

Is this a win for women? Last year in Hollywood 82 per cent of top grossing films were directed by men. In 2020, the share of films with female protagonists dropped from 40 per cent in 2019, to 29 per cent. And yet, erotica may be on its own path, with Bridgerton, 365 Days and Sex/Life all directed by women. “It was so important that the show was both written and brought to life through a female gaze,” Rukeyser said of Sex/Life, boasting that almost the entire senior team that worked on the series were women. 

We should applaud these shows only tentatively: it is not radical to make erotica that simply rehashes vapid tropes of femininity. Still, while there is a lot of work to be done to make this growing genre something to be proud of, there is space for it to become an unlikely platform for progress. Instead of focusing on the myriad ways men desire women, the rise of female-centred TV erotica could popularise what it means for women to do the desiring. In a few years, perhaps its characters will have even ditched the leather jackets.

[See also: Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a trippy eco-horror]