Whats Wrong with the Sex in HBO’s GIRLS? One Vital Ingredient is Missing.

In the first season of HBO’s GIRLS, we see three sex scenes written by Lena Dunham that really leave us wondering:

First, Hannah who makes a half-hearted effort at a deeper emotional connection with her boyfriend Adam but lapses into role playing his sexual fantasies, much like an anthropologist might engage in participant observation. “I knew when I found you on the street you wanted it this way,” Adam tells her. “But we didn’t meet on the street,” she answers laughing, “We met at a party.” But as Adam thrusts into her she whispers, “Ah, ah…my god, on the street. Yeah, the street.” It’s as if Hannah depersonalizes or actually leaves her body while she’s having sex with Adam.

Second, Marnie, who can barely hide her frustration when she has sex with her boyfriend Charlie.”Hey, look at me…Let’s look at each other when we come,” he pleads. “I’m gonna turn around,” she answers in irritation. “But you hate doggie.” And they move to doggie because Marnie can’t stand to have eye contact with Charlie. Later, Marnie tells Hannah that Charlie’s touch feels like a “weird uncle putting his hand on me at Thanksgiving.” When Hannah asks, “How does it feel to be loved so much?” she answers, “Like a bitch.” And of course Hannah, the accomplished participant observer, explains, “Because you’re sick of eating him out because he has a vagina.” Bravo to Lena Dunham for that line!

Third , Shoshanna with Matt an ex-childhood buddy from camp after they’ve watched a movie, nervously ticking off other movies they could watch on Netflix, “City girls are much hotter than Long Island girls,” he tells her. And, “Oh, I like to eat pussy too.” So Shoshanna finally has her first experience of oral sex, as if she’s undergoing a medical examination. It doesn’t help when she tells Matt, “Except for the fact that I’ve never had sex, I’m like totally not even a virgin, I’m like the least virgin-y virgin ever.” It also doesn’t help when Matt tells her virgins are not really his thing, that “I’ll totally have sex with you once you’ve…already had sex. It’s just, you know…virgins get attached or they bleed. It’s like not gonna happen.”

These sexual encounters are a long way from the hook-ups described in The Atlantic by David Masciortra because each occurs within the context of an existing relationship. But they’re also missing one vital ingredient: a deep emotional connection.

Sue Johnson in Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, describes three possible kinds of sex:

Sealed Off Sex which has only purpose: To reduce sexual tension and achieve orgasm. The whole focus is on sensation and performance. Any emotional bond with the other person is secondary. It happens most often with those who haven’t learned to trust and feel unsafe with their partners. Of the three sexual encounters desribed above, how safe would you say each person is feeling with the other?

Solace Sex in which the partners are seeking reassurance that they’re truly valued as persons. Here the sex is secondary and the main emotion fueling the sexual desire is anxiety. This kind of sex often leads to cuddling or spooning to relieve the anxiety. Omri Gillrath’s neuroimaging research has demonstrated that the more anxious we are about depending on others, the more we tend to prefer cuddling and affection to intercourse. The problem with Lena Dunham’s three sexual encounters is that virtually none of the partners, with exception of Shoshanna, are in touch with their anxiety.

Synchrony Sex. This one is the gold standard. It’s when emotional openness, responsiveness, tender touch and erotic exploration all come together in a synchronous feast that feels much like a tango in which each partner moves in sync with the other. It’s when sex is about making love and not just about working out with your genitals. Virtually all of the characters – Hannah and Adam, Marnie and Charlie and Shoshanna and Matt – in the above scenes are a very long way from the gold standard.

Each of these couples would benefit greatly from emotionally focused therapy that encourages them to get more in touch with the raw spots triggered when they feel emotionally deprived, deserted and unsafe with each other. They’d also benefit from low cost, brief solution focused therapy that encourages them to have new, out of the box emotional experiences and also build upon experiences that may have briefly worked for them earlier in their struggle for greater emotional safety and intimacy.

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