What Sex and the City Got Right (& Wrong) About Consent
Throughout the six seasons of Sex and the City, there was, unsurprisingly, a lot of sex. Among talking about sex over plates of eggs at brunch, planning sexual conquests over cosmos or actually having sex, the four main characters were placed in countless sexual scenarios and positions. But re-watching the show in 2018, what's noticeably absent? Addressing the less-sexy aspects of dating and mating, like sexual assault and consent.
As Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of Sex and the City and Us, wrote recently in Vanity Fair: "Amid the four main characters’ many encounters with men, very few involve danger, nonconsensual sex or even harassment. Such incidents that do occur are played off as jokes, 'bad sex,' or occasions warranting no more than an eyeroll."
On the one hand, it was kind of nice to have a break from using sexual crimes as plot devices, but on the other hand, at least some mention of consent would have been nice. Also, Armstrong notes that the show chose to focus on how Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte saw sex as empowering and enjoyable rather than something they had to endure.
"Sex and the City leaned heavily on the lighter aspects of sex — the funny, the embarrassing and the fun — to great effect," Armstrong tells SheKnows. "It showed us that sex could be all of those things for women, and not just a scary place we should never go outside of marriage or even commitment."
The clearest example of a nonconsensual sexual encounter was when Julian, one of Carrie's editors at Vogue, dropped trou in the fashion closet, and she flees the scene.
Then there are other examples in which men's questionable behavior was overlooked as some sort of quirk or fetish, like when Carrie's artist friend — The Modelizer — films himself having sex with models without their consent. Another is when Miranda is dating a guy who gets off on getting caught during sex and knowingly initiates sex with her at his parents' house knowing they would walk in.
Overall, there's not much in the way of sexual negotiation on the show; as in, the sex usually just happens without much discussion or checking in with a partner regarding whether or not they're comfortable with what's about to happen.
When you think about it, the most useful and important conversations surrounding sex and consent didn't take place in the bedroom — they took place over brunch. "It did teach women how to explore their own desires and boundaries, namely through the ways the women talked about sex with each other, which was revolutionary," Armstrong tells SheKnows. In her Vanity Fair article, she likens these chats to a modern-day yes/no/maybe list, where a person or couple actively considers a variety of sexual scenarios and determines whether or not they'd be interested in trying them.
What Sex and the City lacked in meaningful dialogue about consent, it made up for in making sex socially acceptable for women to have and talk about, so at least it was a (high-heeled) step in the right direction.