Two of my favourite romantic comedies are No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, both centred around an ostensibly modern dynamic: friends having sex. Once taboo, casual sex is becoming increasingly normalized — mainstream enough to be the centre of a romantic comedy.
But underlying their apparently modern stories is a reliance on outdated tropes. No Strings Attached opens with young versions of the main characters at summer camp, with Emma (Natalie Portman) comforting Adam (Ashton Kutcher) over his parents’ divorce.
“People aren’t meant to be together forever,” young Emma says, making evident her resistance toward commitment, a detail that will drive the plot in the rest of the film.
The opening scene of Friends with Benefits is similarly meant to set up character motivations for having casual sex: both leads are dumped by their long-term partners, leading them to be cynical about love.
The concept that people only have casual sex because they are damaged is not a new one and is often levelled specifically against women. Even more recent films, like Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, reinforce this message that women sleep around because they fear intimacy and crave attention.
Amy (Amy Schumer) is told by her father in the opening scene that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” which then jump-cuts to her current lifestyle of excessive drinking and one-night stands. The audience is meant to see her life as a calamity — see the movie’s title. She ultimately changes her ways when Aaron (Bill Hader) persuades her to pursue a monogamous relationship with him — after some conflict, of course.
The plot conveniently plays on the classic fairytale ending of a woman being saved by her Prince Charming, while embedding this antiquated storyline in a modern context. As casual sex is increasingly portrayed on the big screen, I can’t help but notice that female characters like Amy are often portrayed as emotionally stunted to explain their sexual choices. In contrast, male promiscuity is seldom psychoanalyzed or represented as a character flaw.
When I started sleeping with a friend in first year, it didn’t look anything like these films. We didn’t spend time developing a list of rules. Both of us still believed in love and commitment, just not with each other. We were 18, friends, attracted to each other, and living in the same residence.
It was a dynamic made out of convenience — but that doesn’t mean it was without complications. There were times when I thought I was developing feelings for him. However, it was hard to differentiate whether I truly wanted a relationship or whether I just wanted to be absolved from the guilt of having sex outside of one. I was often unhappy and conflicted about the dynamic. I’d tell him it would never happen again, but then it would. I questioned whether choosing to sleep with a friend meant I was damaged in some way.
Ironically, it took someone else saying what I had been telling myself to realize how ridiculous it sounded. A male friend recently imparted this advice to me: if I wanted guys to find me attractive, I needed to stop sleeping with them. Men don’t like women who sleep around, he said.
I realized that for all the judgment I inflicted on myself, I never judged the guy I was sleeping with for having casual sex. Moreover, anyone who determined others’ worth by judging their sexual history was probably not someone I wanted in my life, friend or boyfriend.
Casual sex had its benefits. I was sleeping with someone who respected me and viewed my pleasure as important. I learned that sex could be something I actually enjoyed. The experience also forced me to confront the double standards that I had internalized and ultimately changed my relationship with sex for the better.
For young women, taking ownership of our sexuality doesn’t have a uniform manifestation. While some can’t have good sex outside of a monogamous relationship, others find one-night stands to be empowering. We don’t all want the same thing — but we should all have the autonomy to make those decisions for ourselves. Society needs to see that women are competent adults, not sexual objects.
Navigating the complex Venn diagram of sex, love, and intimacy is a captivating topic for films, but I would love to see more that challenge misconceptions rather than reinforce them. Pop culture needs a new narrative, one that doesn’t equate promiscuity with damage and cynicism — and we all need to stop pathologizing women for their sexual choices.
You’ll still catch me watching Friends With Benefits and crying when Justin Timberlake surprises Mila Kunis with a flash mob at Grand Central Station or when, in No Strings Attached, Ashton Kutcher brings Natalie Portman a bouquet of carrots because she hates flowers. But I know that real women don’t need a backstory to explain their sexual choices, or a relationship to prove that they’re worthy of love.