Euphoria Painfully Breaks Down How Sexual Currency Can Be Damaging
Doing it all for love.
I had a lot of skepticism about HBO’s Euphoria, and to a degree, I do think the show leans on the sensational. Still, I found myself being emotionally drawn into the world of these teenagers of East Highland, mostly because it reflected realities that are still very present for myself. At 27, I’m older than the main cast by a decade, but still young enough to have been part of the evolution of the world they all exist in, especially when it comes to things like nudes, sexts, and the complicated nature of love, sex, and relationships in our modern world.
Most of the characters have a lot of things going on in their lives, but the relationships they have with other people really affect the way they see themselves. Kat (Barbie Ferreira), Cassie (Sydney Sweeney), Maddy (Alexa Demie), Jules (Hunter Schafer), Rue (Zendaya), Nate (Jacob Elordi), and McKay (Algee Smith) all have complex relationships with love and sex, often in ways that are destructive, despite whatever feelings of empowerment they are trying to draw from them.
One of the first sex scenes we see in the show is between Jules and Nate’s father, Carl Jacobs (Eric Dane), although we do not know that at this point. Before it happens, he tells Jules longingly, “I’m envious of your generation, you know. You guys don’t care as much about the rules.”
For a lot of young people dating and loving in this world, there are no longer the typical rules around relationships, monogamy, and sex. In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing. Polyamory, open relationships, and other forms of multiple-partner relationships are healthy and beautiful when communication, trust, and boundaries are set in constructive ways. It is about being vulnerable and honest with the people you are with. The characters of Euphoria have not been raised to have that kind of vulnerability. They are explicitly aware of their social standing, social capital and how who they date and who they sleep with will affect that. They have also been taught to see sexual violation, manipulation, disrespect, and brutality as normal.
Cassie encapsulates this perfectly. She’s an attractive, sexual person who is the object of desire for pretty much every dude we meet on the show. When McKay shows interest in her, however, he is told that she is a “slut,” and they bring up explicit videos and pictures of her that were taken by her former boyfriends. The show makes very clear that Cassie has fallen in love with every boy she’s ever been with and that since she started puberty, her body has been commented on by family members and classmates. We see that every picture and photograph taken is coerced. She did it to make them happy, but also knew that they would eventually turn on her. Despite the fact that all these men want to sleep with her, none of them respect her.
After a fight with her boyfriend, she nurses her ego and emotional wounds by flirting with Daniel (Keean Johnson). However, she doesn’t go all the way with him, and after realizing they are never going to have sex, Daniel tells her that she’s boring and the only reason anyone would want to be with her is because of sex, which Cassie fully believes.
Kat loses her virginity, and the guy who she slept with secretly recorded it without her permission and posts it online. Not only is this treated as normal (and sadly, I’m sure in many instances it is), but Kat handles it with such careful efficiency that you almost forget that her empowerment storyline is based around reclaiming her sexual violation. Kat realizes that there’s “nothing more powerful than a fat girl who doesn’t give a f—,” which, as Clarkisha Kent explains in her excellent article on Kat, frees her from a lot of the usual tropes around fat women in media.
Kat owns her sexuality. However, she is also sixteen and reveling in the fact that she is sexually desirable, without actually realizing that it means she doesn’t have to settle for any dude. We only ever get one scene with her getting sexual pleasure from a man, and that’s with Ethan (Austin Abrams), who she initially dismisses for being a virgin. Also, for all her bravado, Kat is still only sixteen and should be given the space to engage in healthy sexual relationships with people who appreciate her and aren’t just bank accounts to her.
Then there is Maddy—sweet and terrible Maddy—who is dating the abusive and mostly unhinged Nate. Maddy uses sex more as a weapon than Cassie does, and feels more active shame about her sexual history. In order to make Nate happy, she lies about being a virgin when they have sex for the first time, even though we find out she lost her virginity to a much older man when she was fifteen. She “cheats” on Nate when they are “on breaks,” but mostly as a way to make him jealous. She watches porn to “learn” how to perform sex, but it isn’t clear whether she actually enjoys it. I feel like Maddy cares about Nate, but she doesn’t seem to respect herself when she’s with him.
Nate is painfully stunted due to watching his father’s personal pornography collection and being indoctrinated with so much toxic masculinity that he can’t even look at another guy’s penis by accident. He is abusive, fantasizes about killing people to protect Maddy’s “honor,” and has turned into a violent, hateful shell of a person.
Jules and Rue love each other, but Jules feels a lot of pressure from Rue to be her support system, while Jules is still trying to discover who she is and what she wants. Almost all of her sexual interactions are with older married men, who feel compelled by the fact that Jules is trans to insist they are “100 percent straight” with this twinge of shame to them. It seems so odd because Jules is so confident in who she is, but the reality is that dating as a trans person is still hard, despite more mainstream depictions of those relationships. Still, it hurts to see Jules drawn to men who don’t appreciate her, just the experience of “what” she is to them.
McKay is a very interesting character (and one of the few men who isn’t 100% a dick) because he is one of the handful of Black main characters on the show and the only one who is in college, not high school. He and Cassie are dating, but he feels very insecure about her sexual past. The first time they’re together, he tries to choke her because of what he saw in the leaked video. Despite loving her, he can’t help but objectify her.
Taylor Crumpton has an excellent break down on Bitch Media about how tokenized he is, but on the episode that “focuses” on him, we see him being sexually assaulted by his white frat “brothers” while he’s in the middle of sex with Cassie. It’s brutal and jarring because of the racial dynamics of it.
Cassie is completely unable to connect to the racial aspect of the act, and McKay, wanting to reclaim his masculinity, does so by having rough sex with his girlfriend to prove he can.
Calling Euphoria “sex-positive” seems like a stretch. There’s a lot of sex, but most of it is being done by broken people looking for something in the wrong place. I’m glad to see young women wanting to have sex, but nearly all of them have some sort of sexual trauma linked to their first time. Still, a lot of people do have sexual trauma. A lot of people do use sex as a way to heal, feel, and hurt. It’s frightening how emotional I got when Daniel said that all Cassie had to offer was her body, but I know what that feels like—more so now as an adult woman, but it has been a part of my life since I was a teenager.
Euphoria has a lot of issues, but it’s also on the pulse of something dark and real about our world, especially when it comes to sex. We don’t have rules anymore, but in a lot of ways, that has left some adrift, not knowing how to express themselves in healthy ways.
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