Educational television

If I watch "Sex and the City" with my teenage daughter we end up discussing important subjects like vibrators, blow jobs -- and the female point of view.

By Stephanie Lehmann
Published July 19, 2002 7:02PM (EDT)

Thanks to Tower Records, where you can rent the boxed sets for the first three seasons of "Sex and the City" for 99 cents a night, and a friend who taped the fourth season, I've caught up all 66 of the past episodes. My 14-year-old daughter watched the marathon with me as we sewed name labels on her wardrobe for sleep-away camp.

Some parents I know would label me an unfit mother for exposing my daughter to the sexually explicit exploits of Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie. But I've discovered that "Sex and the City," which is back for a fifth season this week, is a great way to explore the subject of S-E-X with my teenage daughter.

Yes, I've come late to the show. When it first started airing in 1998, my household didn't have HBO. Even when we did become subscribers after my 9-year-old son insisted on watching some baseball movie directed by Billy Crystal, I still didn't tune in. I didn't want to watch some glib portrayal of promiscuous, attractive women enjoying sex in some totally unrealistic, glamorized way that would only end up making me feel depressed and inadequate.

My conversion happened after I sold my first novel, "Thoughts While Having Sex," earlier this year. My editor told me they were marketing it as a "Sex and the City"-type book. They were even putting a teaser on the cover saying, "Sometimes finding great sex in the city is a no-brainer."

At first I was horrified. They were demeaning my literary efforts! I begged my editor to have the teaser removed from the cover, but he claimed it was too late.

The idea that they were marketing my book to the "Sex and the City" audience seemed absurd at first. Though my novel is about a young single woman living in Manhattan, she's repressed and avoids sex. If anything it's about having no sex in the city. But my publishers were happy to make the stretch so they could capitalize on the show's appeal. So I decided to check out the boxed set for the first season and see what "my audience" was so excited about.

To my surprise, I'm now delighted to have my book associated with that show. It's funny, well written and as thorough a sex primer as you could ever find. If only the main character in my novel had watched, maybe she would've had a better sex life.

And that's why I think "Sex and the City" is great for girls. What better way is there to learn the mysteries of human sexual behavior? When I grew up, my parents didn't tell me much of anything about sex. I had the typical sex education class at school taught by the only married gym teacher. (Since the others were single or gay, they weren't supposed to know about sex, right?) I can remember the tanned, white tennis-shoed Mrs. Hanson explaining the usual few sterile facts to us girls in our blue bloomer uniforms. How unsexy can sex get?

But "Sex and the City" touches on every topic relating to the carnal proclivities of the human race. As I said to my daughter while we watched shows that touched on such topics as oral sex, threesomes, fetishes and faking orgasm -- they leave no stone unturned. If I'd been exposed to all that when I was a teenage girl, I could've set forth into the world with so much more confidence!

For example, we were watching the show where the four women are in a cab talking about anal sex. I'm not about to tell my daughter about anal sex. Way too embarrassing. But why shouldn't she know, for future reference, that this option exists? Thanks to "Sex and the City," not only does she know, she hears a fairly balanced discussion on the subject in which all possible viewpoints are expressed. As usual Samantha is the most liberal, proclaiming it a "physical expression the body was designed to experience," while Charlotte is the most conservative, declaring she would never do it because she "went to Smith." Not only has my daughter been informed on another way to have sex, she's also gotten some info to help her select a college, which is her other favorite subject these days.

One side benefit I get from watching with my daughter is that I have the chance to learn a little more about her. When the women are in a store looking at vibrators, she asks me, "What's that?" My daughter is at an age where I am no longer privy to details about her private life. Only through covert ways such as this can I get a sense of how extensive her sexual knowledge really is.

And then there's the monumental subject of blow jobs. Scary stories have been appearing in newspapers and magazines about girls as young as 13 liberally giving boys blow jobs. Before "Sex and the City" I'd managed one conversation on the subject that included the warning that if she ever did engage in such an activity, don't give if you aren't receiving. That's when I was feeling cocky that she wasn't in fact about to put a boy's penis in her mouth. I myself was of the "You want me to suck what?!" (said while screwing up eyes in disbelief) school of thought (punch line for "Why do Jewish American Princesses have crow's-feet?). But after seeing my daughter's crowd engaging in some sexy dancing they call "grinding" (picture lap dancing standing up) I realized that maybe they were further along (and less inhibited) than I imagined.

My daughter, of course, did not want to discuss blow jobs with me.

"Mom, have you been reading those magazines again?"

"I just want to keep the lines of communication open."

"OK, but you're bothering me, OK?"

"I just worry that one of those jerky boys you know might pressure you into doing something you aren't ready for."

Imagine my horror when she responded in this I am more mature than you are voice: "Mom. Some of them aren't jerks."

Well. Thank God for the show where they talked about blow jobs. As usual, all four women had their own opinions, and their discussion provided a great overview on the pros and cons. Plus, it gave us the perfect opportunity for a second talk. I started out by emphasizing that she really shouldn't be engaging in that sort of behavior.

"Mom, I'm not stupid," she said.

I said it wasn't a matter of intelligence, but peer pressure. That's when she put her hands over her ears and started chanting, "I'm not listening! I'm not listening! I'm not listening!"

I continued on, saying she was not ready ("I'm not listening!") and the boys most certainly aren't ready for the emotional intimacy that needs to exist between a couple for that behavior to take place.

Maybe her hands were over her ears, but she heard.

OK, so then what, you may ask, about Samantha? She's the one who is basically having sex with a different man every episode, usually doesn't know (or want to know) much more about him than cock size, and doesn't suffer for her sins either. She's not a very good example for a teenage girl, right?

I agree that maybe Samantha is a little overdone, and I don't think anyone like her actually exists (do they?) and I take care to mention that to my daughter at one point when they show her (almost) having sex with two gay men. And I also mention that the actress who portrays Samantha wrote a sort of instructional book about sex and her main point was how important it is to communicate during sex. ("Mom, would you please leave me alone?") And I go on to mention how the actress, Kim Cattrall, actually revealed that she wasn't able to enjoy sex all that much until quite recently (and she's in her 40s!) and isn't that ironic. So you can see, I pointed out to my daughter, how the media tries to portray sex as if it's something simple, but it's really very complex.

My daughter rolled her eyes and said with exaggerated irritation, "Doi." Of course, she knows it all already.

But, OK, I know that she doesn't really know everything and that this time together while watching the show was an excellent opportunity to talk.

After all, Samantha does champion the cause of "enjoying sex" and that's good, right? I also mention that they use Samantha mainly as a comic foil to the other characters. Samantha is the promiscuous one, Miranda is the practical one, Charlotte is the repressed one, and Carrie is the "everywoman" we identify with most. Carrie is always asking questions about what we do, and tries to absorb and synthesize all the different points of view of the other characters.

"Dar," my daughter says. I don't know how "dar" has come to replace "duh" or "doi" (or perhaps it has a subtle difference in meaning that I'm not aware of), but somehow they did find a sound that is more annoying. In any case, she knew all that. She didn't need me to tell her. Maybe she didn't have it as a clear, thought-out sentence in her head, but it is there subliminally.

I realize that many other moms might tell me that the problem these days is that kids know too much. They've got the Web, MTV, and dating shows like "Blind Date" and "Shipmates." Plus, of course, there's the usual plethora of sexually explicit teenage movies hemorrhaging out of Hollywood. "American Pie" 1 and 2 had many scenes that made me blush and turn away, but my daughter's crowd saw them repeatedly. Worst of all, those movies were written and directed by men, and most certainly are geared toward the teenage-boy mentality. They inevitably portray women and girls in the same old demeaning, stereotypical sex-object ways, featuring the usual skinny blondes in bikinis giving blow jobs and relegated to "girlfriend of the leading guy" parts.

"Sex and the City," on the other hand, is unabashedly from the female point of view. Though its creator, Darren Star, is a man and gay, many of the directors are women. And though Star wrote many of the episodes, especially in the first year, many of the writers are now women. And I'm guessing that Sarah Jessica Parker, who is executive producer, has a lot of input too. The characters are smart, clever, funny, and totally not bimbos. My daughter asked me, as we watched Carrie typing away on her laptop, "Do you think she's pretty?" I could hear the doubt in her voice. "She's interesting looking," I said. "Attractive, sometimes. But I don't think she's pretty."

"Yeah," she agreed. "She's not pretty."

It didn't have to be said out loud -- how reassuring and affirming it is to us that a "not pretty" actress could be the lead.

The men come and go, for the most part, other than mainstays like Mr. Big, but they are still most definitely subordinate to the four main characters and the emphasis is always on that bond of friendship that functions like family for these single working women. I know of no other media offering that portrays women with as much dimensionality. So what if there's so much sex. Even my daughter knows there's too much sex. I felt great relief when she said, as we watched Miranda making out, "I wish they wouldn't show them kissing for so long." I agree. We don't need the prolonged sex scenes even if HBO is flaunting the fact that it's not network TV. And we don't need to see Samantha's breasts so often even if they do show, for good measure, the butts of some of the men. We also don't need to see them actually humping away, or those legs spread so wide while he comes down on her, and yes it is a little embarrassing during those moments when you're watching that with your daughter.

But then again. At least, in this unspoken way, we are both acknowledging that this does exist, it is part of human behavior, and we don't have to pretend otherwise. We don't have to talk about it, but we do silently acknowledge it together, and I appreciate that.

So the other day (my daughter is at sleep-away camp) my son and I were in the Blockbuster on 94th and Broadway. He was taking a break from day camp, and was picking out a tape. The air conditioning was broken and the cute young man shelving tapes had actual beads of sweat running down his cheeks. I thought of my daughter lounging at the pool in her bikini. That's when I noticed the tapes for "Sex and the City" on the shelf. Blockbuster doesn't rent the boxed sets, they break them up and it's a lot more expensive that way. I smirked, having found the better deal. Then I noticed the blue and orange sticker on the cases. "Youth Restricted Viewing. Must be 17 or older."

How annoying. They'd prefer she watch the Austin Powers tape my son was selecting? Where the most highly evolved females are "fem-bots" with mile-high blonde wigs in pink lingerie who shoot bullets out of their nipples? I don't think so. Though I do find the Austin Powers movies hilarious, I'm not quite ready to advocate Mike Myers as my favorite sex educator -- even for boys.

When my son and I reached the cash register, I resisted the current deal they have on jumbo size candy bars and bought three blank tapes for $4.99. Perfect. I can tape the new season of "Sex and the City" and watch it with my daughter in August. Maybe I'll even find out, while our eyes are fixed on the screen, something about what she did with all those jerks (I mean boys) while she was away at camp.

Stephanie Lehmann

Stephanie Lehmann is a playwright living in New York. Her first novel, "Thoughts While Having Sex," will be published in January 2003.

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