I Want to Have Sex Like… Torchwood, Day One
Posted by demiandproud
Trigger warning for mentions of sex acts, including non-consensual ones. Also, spoilers ahoy!
I have a few movies and TV series I want rewatch to write posts for this series. Something in them taught me more about attraction and love. Today’s subject is not on that list. I was happily surprised by it when I rewatched an episode recently.
Torchwood was a nice change of pace from Doctor Who, its parent series. Cardiff a nice change from London, in characters’ accents and setting. The intergalactic conman and his team a nice change from the madman in the box and his single companion. It didn’t leave much of an impression then, but I have to say I’m liking it better now.
The series was hailed as an important step forward for queer representation in mainstream media, mostly because of the character Captain Jack Harkness and its actor, John Barrowman. Its fans were stoked to have a canon slash pairing. The series was meant to go into all the adult themes impossible in Doctor Who and its other spin-off, the Sarah Jane Adventures.
The first episode introduces the team of secret agents that clean up after an space-time rift running through Cardiff, which spits out intergalactic junk. Gwen, newbie with empathy. Owen, cranky doctor. Toshiko, tech whiz. Ianto, sassy butler.
The second episode, Day One, dives right into the first adult theme, sex. I’d written it off as a mediocre attempt at an overdone cliché: a femme fatale alien to shock the prudes in the audience and titillate the rest. And yes, there’s some of that, but it offered a surprisingly nuanced view of how attraction and sexuality works. I wanted to pick out and examine those newly-discovered good bits.
In it, a rock falls to Earth, Gwen throws a chisel and on accident releases a cloud of gas from it while the team examines it. The cloud possesses Carys, a twenty-something leaving a tear-filled voicemail to a married boyfriend. Carys becomes a succubus who roofies people with sex chemicals and dusts guys the moment they climax. The team needs to catch her before she kills again.
“Yeah, that’s what it can feel like,” I thought. A club scene that’s a platform for casual hooking up, complete with voyeuristic manager. A walk through streets with posters full of sexual objectification. A guy cheating on his wife with a younger girl. All of it presented as both normal and alien and on the edge of disturbing. That’s so totally how freaky sex’s presence can be, if it does not excite you at all. Society’s mostly harmless, but sometimes it can exhibit sex the way a haunted house exhibit ghosts.
To this world travelled an alien, basically as a sex tourist. Except that the humans dying in orgasm are more like a hit from a powerful drug, the way she describes it. Each time it’s less powerful, so she escalates, as a serial killer or an addict would. The alien breaks down Carys’s body slowly, the way an unending high or hormonal imbalance would.
In sharp contrast stand Gwen and Jack. Gwen with her domestic boyfriend she’s on a date with at the start of the episode, and whose phone call quite literally helps her get over the alien’s thrall. She symbolises the majority’s experience of a good sex and love life. She’s challenged in this episode. Jack, on the other hand, represents a much broader view of sexuality, in dismissing his colleagues as “you people and your quaint little categories” and flirting with everyone for fun or profit.
Objectification and consensuality
Gwen’s questioning of Carys turns into a Katy Perry moment, when she enters the cell to help and is kissed instead. The alien stops when she realises Gwen’s the wrong gender for the succubus’ deadly sex drug hit. This overriding of people’s sexuality continues in a later scene, when a guy proclaims he’s gay before being consumed by the alien anyway. The alien’ roofie power works, regardless of gender and orientation.
Another interesting twist is that it’s not a guy who’s committing sexual violence, but a woman. A woman who is herself a victim of the alien possessing her. It’s made clear it’s not okay, for example by the delivery guy she pulls into her house who’s not into it, and later the guys at the fertility clinic when she first approaches them.
Also present is the dismissal of the non-consensual aspect by the presence of the male gaze, first in the questioning of the night club owner who viewed Carys and her first victim. Owen even comments “he’d love to go like that”. Later by Owen and Jack drooling over Carys french-kissing Gwen before Toshiko points out they should really rescue her. They’d have been too late.
And this is where it gets good. When Owen teases Gwen she slams him into the wall, grabs him by the throat and demands he stop it. She makes it clear that the kiss disturbed her not because it was with a girl, but because it was a non-consensual act, just like it was for the possessed Carys.
So this one episode manages to address several aspects of sexual violence. That going against a person’s orientation’s not the most important reason to be angry it happens nor a protection against sexual violence. That it happens to men, which is as bad as when it happens to women but generally dismissed. That the male gaze, when in play, glosses over whether consent happened and can do much harm, even when, in Owen’s view, he’s just poking a little fun. And most importantly, that the victim is often treated as object, rather than a person, the way Carys is during this investigation.
This last message gets a ham-handed treatment. Gwen lectures the team about losing their humanity and attempting to profile Carys as if she’s in a Criminal Minds episode. As a result, that message is the most clear and the least palatable. I like the way the rest is handled better.
Sexuality and sexual freedom
Rather than attempting to say sex is right or wrong, the episode attempts to point out the right and wrong ways to have it. One’s represented by the alien representing Carys, in all its deadly sexual violence. The other’s represented by Rhys and Gwen, as a regular couple in an established relationship that makes a good counterbalance for this new, demanding job she’s taking on. It’s also represented by Jack, who likes to kick 21st century hang-ups about sexuality in the teeth with flirting and racy comments, all the while respecting people’s actual limits and being quite the gentleman at times.
The first episode sets up a mutual romantic crush between Jack and Gwen. He’s the romantic, mysterious hero for her. She’s the symbol of humanity and empathy for him. For Gwen it coexists uncomfortably with her relationship with Rhys because monogamy. For Jack it coexists comfortably with his later relationship with Ianto but goes unfulfilled. I’m somewhat unclear as to whether they are sexually attracted to one another. I’d say yes on Gwen’s end, on Jack’s end I’m not sure… I’d say it’s a platonic crush which actually makes him a little uncomfortable, seeing as how he’s mostly sexually attracted to people and rarely on an emotional level, and the last time it ended badly and he got a case of eternal life out of the deal, after which he’s had to watch people he loved die without him. Guy’s got some issues.
One scene, a team lunch, neatly captures the reactions people can have to a non-standard sexuality like Jack’s, which is either omnisexuality or pansexuality. Gwen, as the newbie, is shocked to be talking about it. Owen speculates he’s gay, because he’s not straight and dresses in period military clothes. It’s a rather binary and stereotypical view. Ianto appears dismissive. Tosh comes closest, declaring he’s shag anything gorgeous enough. The conversation’s short and treated as exchanging gossip between colleagues which is where the topic’d come up.
Sex is not special
In short, sex is treated as a power for good and for harm, that occupies people’s attention and really, that they obsess over too much and have too many hang-ups over, when you really don’t have to. If Carys is taken as a representative of all that’s bad in sex, it’s to say that consent and respecting a person are important. Gwen’s the representative of sex as part of a relationship and a healthy work-life balance most people attempt to have. Jack’s a walking challenge to current sexual morality. So far, so good, but also pretty typical.
One line that seemed bleak last time now struck me as powerful, even hopeful.
“Travel halfway across the universe for the greatest sex, you still end up dying alone.”
In other words, it’s not special, not worth all the grief. It’s underlined by Gwen giving Jack a chaste kiss as a thank-you, not sexual but meaningful. For Gwen, it’s a momentary break from her traditional monogamy. For Jack, it’s connecting physically and emotionally to a person in a way he rarely does.
It’s a small little moment that tied all the themes in the episode into a neat bow for me. That sex isn’t meaningful, but the connecting of two people is and yes, sex might be one of the means to that end. As a person on the asexual spectrum, that’s what made me love the episode, not just enjoy it.
It’s a view of sex that helps if you aren’t having it or don’t desire to have it at all. After all, if there’s one way to connect people, there’s plenty of others to choose from as well. It’s also a view of sex that helps if you are having it, but don’t necessarily feel any attraction. It’s still, meaningful, as long as it helps you connect to the other person.
Posted on September 8, 2015, in Demisexual satisfaction and tagged allosexual, consent, emotional attraction, heterosexual, sex-like, sexual attraction, sexual freedom, sexual orientation. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.