On Insecure's Revolutionary (And Real) Depictions Of Young Black People Having Sex

HBO screenshot
HBO screenshot

Last night's Insecure finale ended with both a bang (Lawrence finally deciding to take Tasha the bank teller up on her, um, offer) and a whimper (Issa's couch cry in Molly's arms); culminating a season unlike any other I'd seen on network or cable TV. Of course, we've seen shows where friendships between Black women served as the show's creative fulcrum — one of which was literally called Girlfriends. We've also seen love triangles, love trapezoids, love flow charts, and love Venn diagrams. Issa's back and forth with Daniel and Lawrence, while compelling, wasn't necessarily new. And although both Issa's and Molly's relationships with their well-meaning but oblivious non-Black co-workers — interactions which vacillated from absurd to "Are you fucking kidding me?" — was perhaps the "realest" part of the show (and my personal favorite) we've seen that before too. In fact, we see it every Wednesday on Blackish.


What I haven't actually seen before — and this is with 30 years of TV watching — is a show that literally showed so many Black bodies in various stages of undress having sex. It wasn't just alluded to hinted at or implied. We actually saw Issa fucking and Daniel fucking and Lawrence fucking and Jared fucking and Molly fucking. We saw Black asses and Black titties. We heard the shit talking and the skin smacking. We felt that shit. And there was a diversity both within the actual sex and the message the sex meant to communicate. The season's longest and most passionate love making scene (Issa and Daniel's studio hookup) was immediately preceded by the audience reflexively cringing — knowing exactly what was about to happen — and immediately followed by Issa's post-sex mirror glow-up and subsequent rush of shame. It was used to hilarious effect with Jared and Molly's hook-ups. It was employed multiple times to communicate Issa and Lawrence's still-very-awkward reconciliation; none better than their feeble attempt at post-workout shower sex (which, for the record, is always fucking awkward). We saw make-up sex and the sex scene to conclude the season, which can best be categorized as (back-breaking) break-up sex. We saw (lack of) sex used as a synopsis of a relationship's poor health, and a sexual history used as grounds for dismissal. It was used to console and to reconsider and to crush. We saw blow jobs. We saw pussy eaten. We saw blue balls. We even saw a Black strip club, with realistic-looking Black strippers and an extremely sobering (for Lawrence, at least) exchange about the blunt sexual currency within the club.

Of course, sex on TV isn't new. It's definitely not new on HBO. From Dream On and First and 10 and True Blood to Real Sex and Tell Me You Love Me and even Game of Thrones, HBO has never shied away from showing people having sex on screen. Girls — which probably should just be renamed White Girls Having Bad Sex In Brooklyn — wields and incorporates sex the same way Insecure has.

But Black people having sex — and having that sex run the gamut from mundane and matter-of-fact to explicit and explosive — has remained somewhat taboo in mainstream media. And a not-at-all-insignificant reason for this taboo is that our bodies are still considered to be more pornographic than our White counterparts. This makes Black sex scenes seem more obscene, a dynamic Wesley Morris explored last month.

There’s a more pernicious problem at work here, too. The underrepresentation of the black penis bespeaks a larger discomfort with depicting black male sexuality with the same range of seriousness, cheek and romance that’s afforded white sexuality. The history of American popular culture is an immersion in, if not loving white people, then knowing that white people can love.

Although his piece focused more on Black male sexuality — pop culture's relationship with the Black penis specifically — much of the same could be said about America's relationship with Black sex in general. With Insecure however, Issa Rae subverts this expectation, creating a show that seems to exist refreshingly oblivious to this historical context. Knowing how long this show took to develop and produce — and knowing Rae's history and how in tune she is to our cultural zeitgeist — I have no doubt that this obliviousness was intentional. That she's very aware of the existence of this context — of our country's uneasiness with Black bodies and Black sex — and intended to confront and eschew it.

I believe she knew this would be revolutionary. And all she had to do was be real.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



Is anyone else interested in having a discussion about Fidel Castro at some point?