Do Shows Like “Insecure” Have A Responsibility To Depict Safe Sex?


Recent controversy over the lack of condoms in
Insecure‘s sex scenes have sparked questions about the
role scripted television programs play in promoting safe sex.

Posted on August 19, 2017, 14:36 GMT

HBO / Via screenshot

Issa and Eddie in a scene from Insecure.

Determined to partake in some casual sex, Issa, the
winsome, bumbling protagonist of HBO’s half-hour comedy
Insecure, heads to her neighbor Eddie’s apartment
under the pretext of returning his phone charger in “Hella
Open,” the third episode of Season 2. They watch a bit of
Gossip Girl before she initiates a kiss, accidentally
hitting his nose.

“It’s all good, don’t worry,” says Eddie. “I actually like it
a little rough.”

Thus begins a truly awkward sex scene, alternately
cringe-inducing and hilarious in its depiction of first-time
sex with a virtual stranger. Eddie can’t take her jeans off.
Issa hits her head on the headboard. But eventually, with
buttcheeks in full view (this is HBO, after all), they find a
rhythm.

There was one thing conspicuously absent, however, in this
frankly rendered depiction of a spur-of-the-moment hookup.

“I love love love #Insecure but I hate how they don’t
mention/show condoms during all this random sex Issa and
Molly be having,” one viewer tweeted the night the episode aired.

“Does anyone in #InsecureHBO use condoms or y’all just
skip that part?” asked another.

Where are the condoms? wondered writer
Jozen Cummings the next day: “Insecure has thrived
because it depicts a reality that is drenched in awkward
moments, and one of those awkward moments for anybody who has
ever taken part in casual sex is what to do with a condom.”

Indeed, up until last week’s episode, “Hella LA,” there was
nary a shot of a condom nor an allusion to other forms of
contraception on the show. And while Insecure’s sex
scenes aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as on some other HBO
shows, the characters do have sex. Issa had impromptu, quick,
wordless sex with her ex, Lawrence, in this season’s opener.
And a big plot twist in the first season’s finale was a scene
of Lawrence vigorously fucking a cheery bank teller after
Issa had cheated on him with an old high school friend in an
earlier episode.

Insecure’s showrunner, Prentice Penny, weighed in on Twitter two days after the
controversy, “For the last time: 99% of the show our
characters are protected. We get 28 minutes to tell a story,
we use that to tell the story. We good?”

A week later, after Episode 4 aired, Insecure’s
creator and star Issa Rae tweeted feedback of her own:

“We tend to place condoms in the backgrounds of scenes or
imply them. But we hear you guys and will do better next
season.”

The controversy surrounding Insecure’s condom use
attests to both the sense of possessiveness fans have about a
show that feels quietly revolutionary in its subtle, nuanced
depictions of ordinary middle class black folks, and to a
larger dilemma surrounding TV shows oriented toward twenty-
and thirtysomething viewers. What responsibility, if any, do
TV shows geared toward “mature adults” have to depict safe
sex, or to show the consequences of unsafe sex?

“Young adults ages 18 to 29 actually have twice as many
unplanned pregnancies as teens do,” says Marisa Nightingale,
senior media adviser at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen
and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy
group that works to lower the rate of unplanned pregnancy
among young people. Ten years ago, the organization began to
devote more resources to reach young adults in that age
bracket — forty percent of whom, according to Nightingale,
aren’t using contraception consistently. And though the teen
birth rate in the US is at an historic low (America still has
the highest teen birth rate compared to other developed
countries), according to a 2016 CDC report, STD rates are at an all-time high.

Studies have shown that television
portrayals of sex are often people’s first exposure to sex,
period. And the clamor for condoms on Insecure
suggests that audiences still expect television programs to
lead the way in that regard. But the history of safe sex in
scripted TV has been one of good intentions, often clumsily
and didactically delivered.

The first primetime sitcom to air the word “condom”
was NBC’s Valerie (later changed to The Hogan
Family
), in a February 1987 episode featuring a teenage
Jason Bateman. He’s about to hook up with a childhood friend,
before he realizes that she’s not on birth control. She
suggests he go to the drugstore to pick up “some protection,
you know, condoms.” He accidentally gives his mom the bag of
condoms and a sweet, kind of corny conversation between the
two of them ensues. Although Bateman’s character and his
friend never even end up consummating the relationship, the
episode was controversial enough that some NBC affiliates
refused to broadcast it, and there was a special warning
before it aired: “Due to its subject matter, parents may wish
to view tonight’s episode with their children.”

Television shows had alluded to contraception before; earlier
in 1987, the CBS police-drama Cagney & Lacey won
the distinction of being the first primetime drama to say
“condom” (also in the context of a safe-sex talk between a
parent and a teen). In a seminal offhand line, from a 1972 episode of The Mary
Tyler Moore Show
, Mary implies that she’s on the Pill
when her mother tells her father as she’s leaving the house,
“Don’t forget to take your pill!” and father and daughter
both respond, “I won’t!” And there were Norman Lear’s shows
All In The Family (1971–79) and Maude
(1972–78), both of which featured storylines about
birth control; Maude has an abortion in the latter show as
well.

screenshot / Via N

Jason Bateman and Valerie Breiman in a scene from
Valerie.

But the real boom years for safe sex–related content on TV
would come in the 1990s, a direct result of an influx of
teen-oriented scripted programming. In 1996, the same year
the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies was
founded, 4 out of every 10 teenage girls would become
pregnant. The Campaign quickly realized that television was
the best way to get the news out about safe sex. “We turned
to entertainment media because that’s where our audience was,
is, and will be, especially on issues related to sex, love,
and relationships,” says Nightingale. The Campaign started
off in nonscripted TV (its first media partner was a series
of town halls called “Don’t Kid Yourself” on BET), but began
to venture into scripted programming shortly thereafter.

“Once [BET] brought our messages to life, we were able to
show that to ABC, the WB, NBC, and the other networks,” says
Nightingale. A long-lasting relationship with former WB head
of programming Susanne Daniels meant that the Campaign was
able to get in on the ground floor with shows like
Dawson’s Creek and 7th Heaven. “Our
conversations with the executive producers and writers were
not, ‘don’t show teenagers having sex,’” says Nightingale.
“Show the real consequences, show what happens when someone
is not ready, show what happens when someone is ready and
decides to use protection and what that looks like.”
Nightingale stresses, though, that the Campaign has no
creative control over the scripts: “The reason we’ve been
allowed into the sacred space of writers rooms for 20 years
is that we have the utmost respect for the creative process,
and we know that these are their shows, not ours.”

The history of safe sex in scripted TV has been one of good
intentions, often clumsily and didactically delivered.

Still, if you remember the scene in Dawson’s Creek
when Dawson stands before the condom aisle at the drugstore
and receives unwarranted recommendations from customers on
what to get, you likely have the Campaign to thank.
Gilmore Girls, 90210, Felicity — they
all worked with the Campaign at some point or another,
although it wasn’t the only nonprofit that worked with
Hollywood. Advocates For Youth, another teen pregnancy
prevention organization, had The Media Project, which was
around in the 1970s and ’80s, but ended in 2008 because of
budget cuts.

The Campaign regularly consults with TV show writers and
network executives to this day on programs like Jane the
Virgin
, The Mindy Project, East Los High,
and The Fosters. They fact-check scripts, offer
statistics, and write social media posts and tweets in
conjunction with series. When Jane the Virgin
showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman needed perspective on what
life would be like for a single mom in her twenties, she
called on the Campaign. In an early episode of the Hulu show
Casual, a spunky, sex-positive teen character sports a
Campaign T-shirt that says “Thanks, birth control.”

But there is, of course, a big difference between teen shows
and original scripted TV programming directed toward older
viewers. There’s much less pressure for shows catering to
older audiences to depict characters behaving responsibly.
And while popular network TV sitcoms geared toward twenty-
and thirtysomethings, like Friends and
Seinfeld, featured sexually active adults who talked
about birth control occasionally (Elaine had a diaphragm;
Monica and Rachel once fought over who would use the last
condom) — it was the advent of cable shows like Sex and
the City,
and more recently Girls, that really
augured a sea change in the way sex is talked about and shown
on TV.

Over the course of six seasons, the women of Sex and the
City
talked about or had a plethora of sex — oral, anal,
good, illicit, confusing, queer. And their discussions around
safe sex, while certainly not as frequent as the sex they
were having, did form some narrative arcs. The need to get
her diaphragm stops Carrie from immediately having sex with a
then-married Mr. Big. Miranda gets chlamydia and has to call
all her past sex partners. Samantha passes out in the clinic
as she awaits the results of her first-ever HIV test.

The advent of cable shows like Sex and the City really
augured a sea change in the way sex is talked about and shown
on TV.

But while Sex and the City sex talk was frank and
occasionally graphic, the sex depicted hardly felt visceral,
or painstakingly true to life. In that sense, Girls
offered a revelation. “If all you want to do is convey an
erotic tension between two people, you can leave out explicit
depictions of sex acts,” Elaine Blair wrote of the show in the New York Review
of Books. “But if you are interested in the psychological
implications of what happens between people during sex, you
need to show something of the sex.” And on that front, early
seasons of Girls delivered. The sex was generally
awkward, disheartening, confusing, and directly addressed
STDs (Hannah gets diagnosed with HPV and has oral herpes).

And as more platforms for original scripted TV programming
crop up, with fewer strictures over what can or cannot be
shown or talked about, shows with sex — real sex, with all
its attendant dilemmas and awkwardness — are given room to
thrive. Safe sex can be a real source of story movement,
revealing things about characters that wouldn’t otherwise
come to light.

A turning point on the Comedy Central show Broad City
occurs when Ilana finds a used condom and Abbi is forced to
lie about whom it belongs to, leading to the first
significant fallout between the two best friends. In
Catastrophe, a receipt Rob finds for his wife’s
morning-after pill leads to a big fight. In Master of
None,
we first meet Dev and his eventual girlfriend
Rachel looking up what happens when a condom breaks. On
Being Mary Jane, the title character’s fastidious need
for control filters into her approach to casual sex. All her
sexual partners have to take rapid HIV tests (at least in
earlier seasons). On the erstwhile Looking, one of the
show’s main characters struggles to get used to having sex
with his HIV-positive boyfriend. Clearly, there are a lot TV
shows out there that are interested in depicting sex in all
its strange, exhilarating, messy, technical glory.

Comedy Central / Via screenshot, Netflix / Via screenshot,
HBO / Via screenshot

Which brings us back to Insecure. “We’re not a
documentary; we’re not a public service; we’re not a
nonprofit,” showrunner Prentice Penny told me in a recent
phone interview. “We’re a scripted television show, and so
our thing is always about how do we tell the best story?”

“Our show tries to be nuanced and show the flaws and the
imperfections, just like in real life,” Penny said. “There
are times when you’re responsible, and you have safe sex;
there are times when you’re irresponsible and you don’t, and
there are times when you hook up with the ex and you go,
well, we didn’t use condoms. It hasn’t been that long, so
maybe we’re still okay
.” He does think that there’s a lot
of pressure on Insecure to tackle every subject
because it’s a show that, in its HBO-grade depictions of
black Angelenos, still feels rare. (Incidentally, according
to a 2010 study by Indiana University, black
and Latinx Americans are more likely to use condoms more than
their white counterparts.) Also, just because condom use
hasn’t been mentioned explicitly on the show doesn’t mean
that the show’s creators haven’t put any thought into this
idea. Penny stresses that their sex scenes are always
designed to advance the story. “We’ve pulled sex scenes that
just feel like sex scenes,” said Penny.

In last week’s episode, “Hella LA,” Lawrence has a threesome
with two white girls. After raving about his “black cock,”
both girls shun him when he can’t perform again right away.

According to Penny, there was a lot of thought that went into
the threesome scene, particularly with the prop team. “A lot
of conversations that we actually have about [safe sex
happen] when we talk to our props department,” Penny said.
“We were like, Well, what condom does Lawrence have. Are
the condoms from the girls? And if the condoms are from the
girls, do they have certain [expectations] because they deal
with black men, so do they have Magnums
?” And indeed, in
the scene, there are two torn Magnum condom wrappers on the
dresser.

It stands to reason that if a show is going to take up the
mantle and write about sex in a way that feels honest, then
whether or not the sex is safe and the means by which this is
ensured — is of tantamount importance. If television programs
are interested in depicting the more quotidian aspects of
adult Americans, overlooking how safe sex and contraception
factor into these plotlines seems like a missed opportunity.

Ultimately, Penny doesn’t begrudge the conversation around
the way Insecure has depicted safe (and unsafe) sex.

“To me, this Twitter debate is kind of perfect for our show
because we have so many discussions on our show that are
uncomfortable,” said Penny. “It’s sort of ironic. This could
very well be a topic that I could see all the girls in the
show talking about in their own personal life.” ●

Tomi Obaro is an associate culture editor for BuzzFeed and
is based in New York.

Contact Tomi Obaro at tomi.obaro@buzzfeed.com.


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