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.
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.
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.
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.” ●