In the pilot of Sex and the City, four female friends sit around a table as they debate whether women can (or should) have sex “like men do.” In the words of the most adventurous among them, Samantha, this means “without feeling.” Carrie, the show’s protagonist, is incredulous about this idea, and Samantha counters, “This is the first time in history […] that women have had as much money and power as men, plus the equal luxury of treating men like sex objects.” I saw that the value of this statement was either great or dubious: It either lead to infinite possibility or infinite unfeeling boredom.
It’s not daring or revolutionary for four white, affluent, educated, and beautiful women living in New York to take the same sexual liberties as men. But seeing four women publicly talk about sex more than once or twice was a first for me at 18. From under the covers of my bed, all this action seemed relatively glamorous: Most boys are boring to me, and the ones I knew my freshman year of college, when I really got into the show, were especially so. I was too surrounded by my Christian community to make my sexual debut with girls I was less bored by. I was also beginning a two-year-long depression born of a thyroid condition. My illness makes my body feel like the weirdest place on earth: a place to which I want to invite no one. I’ve often been too weak, depressed, or sapped of energy to put myself out there and try to become a Samantha, Jr. (or maintain the level of hygiene that a hot date usually calls for). Watching Samantha, I tell myself that nothing she does is daring because of who she is: a beautiful and powerful 40ish-year-old woman living in a more liberal city than my own. I also recognize the effort it takes to achieve her fantasy of sleeping with as many people, in as many ways, as possible.
At that point in my life, everyone I knew talked about sex in one of two ways. It was either (a) the darkest act imaginable, one that carried undertones of hellfire and making a deal with the devil (these people always ended talking about the immorality of the act by hornily describing a time when they had to resist having sex in the heat of the moment), or (b) something they did that was pretty punk, but they could only hint at or speak about euphemistically before semi-ashamedly laughing at themselves. Each of the WILD sexual acts on the show were pretty tame in actuality: Samantha gave a man a blow job at work, but didn’t kids at my high school do the same in between classes in the drama room closet? Samantha became a hero to me pretty instantly just because of how naturally she talked about sex at her crew’s slutty brunches. Sex, for Samantha, wasn’t confined to two narrow paradigms, but was as varied—and ultimately normal—as any other part of her identity.
By the show’s definitions, Samantha “acts like a man,” as her friends frequently remind her. I’m aware of how corny this is—and I love it, reductive gender politics aside. Because Samantha acts not “like a man,” but however the hell she wants—like herself. She wears business suits to her job, where she wields great power. She pulls out a cigar after applying lipstick in order to go hit on Big (Carrie’s main love interest throughout the show) when the women first encounter him. When she takes off her clothes, she stands with her legs apart, chest out, and hands on her hips. She pretty much always stands this way, taking up as much space with her body and sexual energy as possible as she travels from lover to lover. She transforms herself throughout the show, dressing up as a rich benefactress in a high-collared fur when she tries to flirt with a monk; dressing in multiple wigs (pink after brown after a bob) when she has cancer; and in full costume to attend a S&M–themed restaurant’s opening.
In one episode, Carrie rants about the “kookiness” of bisexuals (more specifically, the discomfort she felt when she found out a man she’s dating is bi). She asks Samantha, who’s unconcerned about the “threat” bisexuality poses to heterosexual relationships, if she would jump off a bridge if “all the bisexual kids did.” Samantha smugly returns, “I’m a try-sexual. I’ll try anything once.” She means it—over the course of the show, this includes role-play, anal sex, a sex swing, Viagra, celibacy, emotional involvement and monogamy (this causes more shock at a sex-talk brunch than Carrie having an affair), a three-way, and a relationship with a woman. I was sometimes bothered by the tension between the banality of the sexual act and the amount of novelty Samantha assigned to it, as in the beginning of this (not safe for school!) clip where she talks about having sex with a woman like she’s discovered a tropical island she can both own and name after herself (though this island and its inhabitants have been chilling out there for a minute), but I admired Samantha’s continually self-renewing gusto. When presented with a fresh adventure, Samantha literally raises an eyebrow, her frosted lipstick and mole glistening in anticipation—like in this scene, where she gets excited about acting out porn (warning: includes swearing and Samantha being Samantha).
When she has sex, she looks like she’s relaxing into a familiar act, even though it’s often almost entirely new. I loved this. I envisioned slipping into and out of sexual acts as calmly and tidily as taking and waking up from a nap. Samantha’s certainty in her ability to just act was so appealing to me, a person whose life halts and starts so much because of my illness and depression. The ability to reinvent without destroying some essential part of oneself appealed to the same person, someone who felt she had no identity yet, and wanted one without becoming grotesque or limiting herself.
Samantha’s sexuality is indefinite and inconsistent, and that’s beautiful. Sex, in my world, was either moral within a committed relationship (but usually a marriage) or questionable and amoral outside, and people’s feelings about their actions matched, whether they were more likely to have sex freely or not. Samantha’s try-sexuality means she’s always moving—she’s never just one person. She makes her core the absence of a core, and does it with her shoulders back, chest forward, and legs posted squarely apart. This persona can seem insubstantial when she’ll “try anything once” but can’t necessarily find a way to properly consider a new experience, like when she tokenizes her love for a woman. But however flawed, her identity is valid as a non-identity. It allows her to act and act and act—to escape stasis for the continual renewal of possibility. Samantha showed me that I can create this much possibility, not just in my sex life but morally, socially, and academically. I can be someone who adheres to no one value—and therefore encounters everything. ♦