There are many reasons to love Lena Dunham’s HBO television show Girls, and some of them have nothing to do with sex, but I’m going to begin with the sex scene in the second episode that most critics have mentioned and described with some amount of repugnance or lament. It’s one of the most complicated and intelligent sex scenes I’ve seen. The fact that it’s part of a funny, winsome, half-hour television show makes it all the more astonishing and exhilarating a thing to see. In reviews and profiles of Dunham, journalists, most of them admirers of the show, have broadly characterized what’s happening in the scene as an example of “bad” sex—not mutually satisfying, awkward, degrading, distasteful. This is not necessarily untrue, but it is a limited and literal reading, a set of familiar words and ideas unequal to the virtuosity and novelty of the scene.
The sex in question is had by Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham), a twenty-four-year-old recent college graduate and aspiring writer living in Brooklyn, one of the four young women at the center of the show. Her partner is Adam (Adam Driver), also in his early twenties and also best described as aspiring, in his case to acting, playwriting, and carpentry. What they are doing is this: first, they are having intercourse. Then Adam stops, takes off his condom, and masturbates over Hannah’s torso while spinning a fantasy that she’s a heroin-addicted eleven-year-old girl whom he’s found in the street and is going to send home covered in semen. Adam is completely absorbed in his fantasy. Hannah is somewhat flustered but gamely tries to keep up with the drift of Adam’s filthy thoughts by adding her own rather tentative lines.
Afterward, while she is getting dressed, Hannah jokingly refers to herself as the eleven-year-old girl. Adam looks confused and asks what she’s talking about. Hannah reminds him about his fantasy, but clearly her joke has fallen flat, and the disparity between their respective experiences of sex is further amplified: Adam had been blissfully lost to himself while they were doing it, while Hannah was taking mental notes. It is, among other things, an amusing metaphor for Hannah’s chosen profession: the writer is the one busily jotting in her notebook while other people are having orgasms.
The scene feels surprisingly frank. For one thing, though it is not particularly explicit visually (their bodies are always partly obscured), it is very explicit aurally: the sound of the condom snapping off, of Adam’s masturbatory motions, and of the changing lilt of his voice as he becomes further aroused all lend the scene a startling sense of intimacy. Even more startling is the choreography. How often, in movies or television, do you see autoeroticism incorporated into a scene of two people having sex? And then of course there is…
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