How Early-2000s Pop Culture Changed Sex

Sophie Gilbert on intimacy, Game of Thrones, American Pie, and more

Willie Garson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, and Cynthia Nixon in "Sex and the City"
Willie Garson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, and Cynthia Nixon in "Sex and the City" (Paramount Pictures / Newsmakers)

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The feminist writer and activist Ellen Willis is best known for defining the idea of pro-sex feminism in the 1980s. But only a little while later, Willis noticed that women’s liberated sexuality had turned out to be, as she put it, “often depressingly shallow, exploitative, and joyless.”

The Atlantic culture writer Sophie Gilbert contemplated Willis’s legacy in her recent review of Bad Sex, a new book by the writer Nona Willis Aronowitz—who also happens to be Willis’s daughter. I called Sophie to chat about some of the bigger ideas her article touched on.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

‘This Colored Everything’

Isabel: You write that “somehow, we let the thoughtful and charged sex positivity espoused by Ellen Willis and her peers curdle into the practice of sex as conspicuous, often unsatisfying, consumption.” What happened?

Sophie: In the ’60s and ’70s, Willis argued, the sexual revolution happened, but in the way of eliminating obstacles to sex. In 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided. Contraception for married couples was legalized during the ’60s and for unmarried people in 1972. The idea that women could have casual sex was becoming more socially acceptable than it had been at any point during the 20th century. For women, there weren’t as many obstacles to sex as there had been before, and there weren’t as many punishments for having sex as there had been.

But at the same time, what that meant for many women—and they talked about this in various consciousness-raising groups and feminist circles—was that there had become more pressure to have sex, and the sex they were having wasn’t necessarily good or pleasurable.

Isabel: It sounds like step one of the sexual revolution was to remove those obstacles and destigmatize sex for women, but then step two—how to have a sex life that is actually empowering and joyful and comfortable—got lost.

Sophie: One of the words I’ve been thinking about is intimacy. Intimacy doesn’t have to mean having sex only in a relationship, but concepts like intimacy, trust, and vulnerability, are, for lots of people, crucial components of a good sex life. I think they’re components that got lost along the way, because we were prioritizing things like quantity over quality, empowerment over slightly less buzzword-y terms.

Isabel: Something that has been called the “sexual counterrevolution” has popped up lately, particularly among Generation Z. Can you explain what that movement is?

Sophie: We’re seeing Gen Z come of age after Millennials dominated the culture, and they’re kind of disgusted by us. There’s a lot of talk about how cringe it is to just hook up with all these millions of guys and feel nothing and boast about it all over the internet. I find the tone of it really fascinating. But it makes complete sense that a generation reared among really ubiquitous and often really ugly online porn would want to place itself in opposition to that and explore other avenues.

Isabel: As a Millennial, what were the pop-culture forces that shaped how you thought about sex growing up?

Sophie: I’m such a clichéd old-lennial, because for me it was absolutely Sex and the City. I think we really saw it as a road map more than we should have, given that it was a show about women in their 30s not written by a woman. But it was this massively influential thing because it had this explanatory context. Here’s the anal-sex episode; here’s the having-sex-outside-of-a-relationship episode. Every chapter of it felt informative.

More generally, I think one of the most influential cultural products of that time was American Pie, which came out in 1999. A part of the plot is the hero hooking up with a woman who doesn’t know that she’s being taped, and the video of their encounter is being broadcast to the whole town. When you think about that now you’re like, Oh my God, this colored everything.

Isabel: Have you come across any positive pop-culture portrayals of sexual intimacy, either growing up or more recently?

Sophie: There are lots of sex-positive works on TV right now, and I think those are great. The show Sex Education on Netflix is not just sex positive, but relentlessly sex positive.

I do think that, as a culture, we are starved for explorations of intimacy. I’ve theorized that part of why the author Sally Rooney is so popular is how well she writes intimacy—the idea that you can have the most profound, intimate sexual interactions with someone else, and they don’t have to be within fixed parameters. That’s also why I found the TV adaptation of Rooney’s novel Normal People so compelling; you had this gorgeous, intimate scene of someone losing her virginity, and everything was a negotiation—Is this okay; is this okay?—but it wasn’t unsexy. If we’re talking about how you absorb road maps from culture of what your love and sex lives can and should look like, that was a really stunning one.

Isabel: Before we move on from pop culture, I have to ask about Game of Thrones and the new prequel series. How does Game of Thrones—an immensely popular series with troubling sexual dynamics—and its world fit in with what we’ve been talking about?

Sophie: This is a tricky one, because sex in Game of Thrones was always messily tangled up with other things, and in House of the Dragon it’s even more so. Without spoiling too much, House of the Dragon is a prequel that follows the Targaryen dynasty more than 150 years before the events of Game of Thrones. The Targaryens, notoriously, practiced incest as a royal prerogative to protect the “purity” of the bloodline. So although the series has been touting its moral superiority over GoT in the sense that you don’t have the same titillating or wanton portrayals of sexual violence, it’s impossible in House of the Dragon to separate sex from power. I don’t think intimacy gets much of a look-in, and vulnerability even less so.

Isabel: At one point in the piece you ask: “How do we even try to make bad sex better?” What do you see as a possible path forward?

Sophie: Whenever you engage in anything with other people, you have a basic human duty of care toward them. That’s partly what’s gotten lost. It doesn’t mean that care is marriage, or even dinner. That sounds really glib. But it’s care on an emotional, humane level. Let’s not mistreat people or take them for granted. Let’s absolutely not abuse or harass them. But let’s also think How is their experience with this? Is this pleasurable for them?


Today’s News
  1. Two men were convicted in the plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in 2020.
  2. A letter that the National Archives sent to Donald Trump’s lawyers reveals that Trump took more than 700 pages of classified documents from the White House when he left office in January 2021.
  3. The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting, at Russia’s request, about the situation at an occupied nuclear plant in Ukraine. Fighting nearby raises the risk of a nuclear accident.


Evening Read
A blurry plane on a black background
(Mendelsund & Munday)

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane?

By William Langewiesche

(A 2019 story from the Atlantic archive)

At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Animated gif of a screen on an airplane seat playing snippets of movies
(DreamWorks Pictures; The Atlantic)

Read. Privacy,” a new poem by Melissa Cundieff.

“All the riverine words / (confluence, mouth) take on / new meanings now. In what / part of ourselves do we keep / them?”

Watch. Have a flight coming up? Our writer reflects on some of her favorite airplane movies.

Play our daily crossword.

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