The Secret to Girls: Lena Dunham's Paralyzing Fear of Sex

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Feb. 19 2013 10:26 AM

The Secret to Girls: Lena Dunham's Paralyzing Fear of Sex

Lena Dunham, and Donald Glover.
At least it was fun while it lasted.

Photo by Jessica Miglio/HBO

One of the criticisms of Lena Dunham's HBO comedy Girls has revolved around the amount of time the creator, lead writer, and star of the show spends naked and what she's doing while she's unclothed (eating cupcakes, playing pingpong, having sex that doesn't seem to be sexy). Accustomed as we are to highly choreographed on-screen sex, it's no wonder that so many of us can't grasp where the scenarios in Girls are coming from, assuming either that bad baroque sex is some kind of twentysomething curse or that Dunham is simply trying to shock.

But a new profile of Dunham in Rolling Stone suggests an alternate explanation. Dunham's depictions of sex as awkward, intimate, and deeply revealing may be less about trying to provoke prudes than about dealing with her own anxieties. Brian Hiatt writes:

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Dunham developed an intense dread of sex as soon as she learned what it was. From the evidence presented on Girls, it's unclear whether she's ever fully gotten over it. "I'd come up with a theory that I thought made a tremendous amount of sense," she says, "which is that you'd lay next to someone you loved, you wished for a baby, and then the sperm and the egg met through the pores of your skin. My friend Amanda was like, 'No, a man puts his penis in your vagina,' and I was like 'This is the worst thing I've ever heard; this is the worst thing that's ever happened to me.' "

One of the most significant differences between the first season of Girls and the second is the kind of risks that Hannah takes during sex scenes. In the first season, many of Hannah's sexual encounters with her sort-of-boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver) were about sexual boundaries. Was Adam actually going to put on a condom when he said he would, and would Hannah have sex with him without verifying that he was protected? Would Hannah play along with Adam's baroque fantasy about having sex with her as a teenage prostitute? And did Hannah enjoy this role-playing or did she think it was just her job to act the part?

But then came Season 2. When she was sleeping with law student Sandy (Donald Glover), the most risqué we saw them get with sex was Hannah on top. They were laughing and engaged with each other, and neither Hannah nor the audience had to wonder if she was comfortable proceeding. In her lost weekend with handsome doctor Joshua (Patrick Wilson), the most daring thing Hannah did was ask Joshua to get her off first. Later, Hannah described her earlier sexual encounters as part of a larger project to absorb all the experiences she possibly can—a project she's begun to find exhausting. "Please don't tell anyone this, but I want to be happy," she confesses to Joshua. "I think what I didn't realize before I met you was that, I was, like, lonely."

Some critics found this wish for happiness in a meticulously-decorated Brooklyn brownstone to be totally out of character for Hannah. How could she all of a sudden want this? But it actually makes sense. In the first season of Girls, Dunham was confronting her childhood fears of having sex. Now the show is daring Hannah to not just go to bed with someone, but to enjoy something she once was scared of and didn't understand.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate’s “XX Factor” blog. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com.

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