Sex and the City S1E5: The Power of Female Sex
More like Sex Work and the City, am I right?
Honestly, this particular episode – The Power of Female Sex – is the first episodes of the show that really stand out to me as one that fee as though they wouldn’t have flown in this day and age. Because that first episode, Power of Female Sex, revolves around paid sex and sex work. And look, there’s no doubt that our cultural attitudes (at least in the parts of the world that Sex and the City purports to appeal to) towards that has, in some ways, changed. And in some ways…well.
I actually found this a really interesting episode (which is why I’m dedicating a whole article to it) with regards to that; Carrie runs into Amalita, an old friend who travels the world at the expense of rich men in return for her companionship. This sparks a run of events – including Carrie being left a few thousand dollars by a man after having sex with him – that leads the show to ask about the value, both literal and metaphorical, of women’s sexuality.
There’s no doubt what side Carrie, and therefore the show, comes down on with all of this: to exchange any kind of sexual favours for any sort of financial benefit is to do something inherently shameful. When Carrie is offered the chance to knowingly exchange her companionship for travel and glamour, she turns it down, talks about shame and pride and how she has too much of them both to go through with it. She’s horrified and disgusted when a man leaves her money after they spend the day (and night) together. While Carrie doesn’t dislike Amalita – in fact, actively thinks she’s pretty fun – the show comes down quite firmly on one conclusion: it might be good For Other Women, but our heroine would never. This is an issue-of-the-week story, not one that’s worth exploring on a deeper level, because sex work is still something that exists on the outskirts of the boundaries “acceptable” society. Even in a show like this one, which puports to and even sometimes does push those boundaries, what this show finds moral and passable in women’s sexuality still has its limits.
It got me thinking about the attitudes towards sex work that I’ve encountered in my adventures on the internet and real life; I work writing erotica, which I would consider a sort of sex-work adjacent industry, in that a lot of my clientele overlaps with that of people who do camming, full-service work, or other kinds of sex work, online or in real life, and there are quite a few people out there who view me as a sex worker because my job is about providing sexual pleasure for other people. I think that it’s become a lot more common to exchange sexual services for money – the rise of stuff like OnlyFans being a good example of that – and initially, I thought that this episode would feel really out of place in this day and age.
But the more I thought about it, the less I actually agreed with that. The stigma around doing anything remotely sexual for money – or favours, or financial support, or anything other than 100% mutual desire – is still very much present. It might be talked about more, it might be something you’re more likely to run into, but there is still that distinct air of well, that’s for a certain type of person, isn’t it? I can’t even tell you the amount of times that I, doing even one of the more widely-accepted kinds of sex-related work, have heard some form of I didn’t think you were that kind of girl, I could never date someone who did that, you’re cheating on your boyfriend, I’m going to contact your family and expose what you’re up to over the years.
I can’t imagine even a more modern version of Sex and the City (so, Girls) including a character who was a sex worker on the regular without making that the entire point of their existence in the show – front and centre, they’d still be that, more than they were anything else, because it’s fundamentally treated as so overwhelming that it must define a peron’s entire life. Sex work is still scandalous, and even though you might be more likely to meet someone like Amalita these days, the way they’re treated in pop culture – and culture at large – has remained much the same. Yes, we’ve had shows like The Girlfriend Experience and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but both look at one very specific aspect of sex work in a pretty sensationalistic way – and still stand out as pretty rare amongst a media landscape that sidelines sex workers to one-note bit-parts at best.
I still think the inclusion of a character like Amalita – who’s shown as a pretty sound person, all around, and with whom I would for sure go and get a few dozen drinks with – is pretty notable in a show like Sex and the City, especially presenting her as successful, charming, and likeable when so many sex workers were (and still are) reduced to desperation or dead bodies. But there’s still this sense of arm’s-length that the show and the rest of Carrie’s crew have to her, one that feels like it reflects a very modern attitude towards women who embrace the very literal and palpable power of female sexuality; it might be more common, but it’s still treated as about as normal as it was then, which is to say, not very. Sex and the City scatters words like shame and pride around to make sure that we understand that Carrie is Better Than That, that she, like the viewer, would never forfeit demean herself like that. I mean, yeah, she’ll demean herself by letting Big give her the constant run-around, but not in the money-for-sex kind of way. Because that would just be a step too far, wouldn’t it?
The Power of Female Sex is a really interesting episode of this first season – not entirely awful for the time, but reflective of a depressing similarity between the attitudes towards any kind of sex work then and any kind of sex work now. What are your thoughts on this episode? If you are or have been a sex worker, do you think it’s a fair representation of attitudes towards sex work, either then or now? Let me know in the comments below!
If you liked this recap, and want to see more stuff like it, please feel free to jump into some of my other recapping projects – the Fifty Shades of Grey book series, the first Harry Potter book, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and American Horror Story, to name a few. I also write about movies with my brilliant co-editor over at No But Listen. If you’d like to support my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or buying my books!
(header image via Sex and the City Revisited)