'The Sex Lives Of College Girls' And The Complexity Of Empowerment For Young Women

The HBO Max series shows that while many female freshmen today might be comfortable expressing their sexual desires, they still grapple with what they even mean.
Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur in "The Sex Lives of College Girls."
Reneé Rapp, Alyah Chanelle Scott, Pauline Chalamet and Amrit Kaur in "The Sex Lives of College Girls."
Photograph by Jessica Brooks

At a time when a horny 10th grader proudly thirsts after a boy on “Never Have I Ever” and an entire high school student body indulges their erotic cravings on “Sex Education,” a show about carnally empowered girls at a university seems rather conventional. After all, this isn’t the ’90s when sex positivity often meant watching female students in shaky videos drunk and scantily clad on a beach as men ogled them — or committed far more dangerous acts.

Women of all ages are supposed to be self-possessed now, so we’re told.

That is the challenge at the center of “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” the titillatingly named HBO Max series that portrays a more complex reality: Many young women today might be more comfortable expressing their sexual desires but still grapple with what they even mean. It is especially true for freshmen girls like the four suitemates at the center of this narrative, created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, who might be exploring these feelings for the first time in their lives. Part of that is because sex education is largely taboo.

“When I was growing up in the South, it was abstinence-only education,” said North Carolina native Reneé Rapp on a joint video call with her castmates. She plays closeted cool girl Leighton. “And obviously very heteronormative.”

Like her character, Rapp is queer, but said she had an easier experience owning her sexuality with the help of an out family member whom the actress turned to when she was growing up. Leighton, however — at least in the first six episodes made available to press — is more guarded, clinging to her image as the pretty girl who could bag any guy she comes across, even when who she really has eyes for is a certain outspoken activist Alicia (Midori Francis). Though Rapp considers herself confident in who she is today, it only took a few moments in Leighton’s shoes for her to become overwhelmed by a familiar feeling of self-doubt.

“That ended up proving to be much more difficult to have these moments where I’m acting and talking about the moments that I’m actually having in real life,” Rapp explained, “which is like being punched from both sides in a really great way. It was scary, but very therapeutic.”

This conflicting sense of self-assurance and uncertainty is what happens in a society that often emboldens women with pithy feminist maxims but doesn’t always give them the tools to navigate situations where their confidence can be usurped. Or even one that makes clear the fine line between sexual admiration and fetishization, which could rattle even those with the most aplomb.

Alyah Chanelle Scott, who plays Whitney, a soccer champ and daughter of a well-to-do politician (Sherri Shepherd), recalled when she thought the guy she was dating healthily valued her as both a woman and sexual being. Then she found out he really only had a thing for her Blackness.

“One day, we walked to the bus [and] out of nowhere he called me — wait for it — ‘Brown Sugar.’ I was like, ‘No, you did not.’ Broke up with them the next day.”

Thankfully, Scott felt empowered enough to end the relationship right then and there, but she’s still unpacking what it means for her race to be tied to how the world views her sexuality. While Whitney doesn’t share this experience, she does have an affair with her non-Black and married assistant coach (James Morosini), which could easily be perceived as a young Black woman whose race means that she’s literally down for anything — even adultery.

So far, the series oddly doesn’t contend with the idea that Whitney’s Blackness might have made her seem more available in her coach’s eyes. But Scott, who grew up in a Christian Texas household, is well aware of how Black women’s sexuality has been historically portrayed on-screen.

“What I was always seeing in the media was Black women being hyper-sexualized,” she said, adding that it made her feel like her sexuality was an object rather than her own to navigate. “So much of my experience was not really knowing anything about sex, being sexualized, being very ashamed of trying to explore sex for fear of it being public information.”

It’s not until college, Scott expounds, when many women of color even give themselves the permission to explore sex on their own terms. Still, when so much of your sexuality has been repressed or commodified for other people’s pleasure, who even knows where to begin on a journey toward sex positivity?

Amrit Kaur.
Amrit Kaur.
Photograph by Courtesy of HBO Max

This often means trying to overcompensate for all the parties and sex you missed out on growing up in your parents’ home by adapting an image of freedom you’ve only seen white women have on-screen. That’s where we find Bela (Amrit Kaur) on “College Girls,” an Indian American woman who can’t wait for her parents to say goodbye on move-in day so she can hurry up and finally have lots of sex.

Kaur can certainly relate to the sheer thirst Bela feels as a woman who had to suppress her own sexual urges for so long. The actor’s father is from a small village in India called Bompatti, and she’s not even allowed to talk to her male cousins because that is considered too sexual.

“I thought sex was something just white people did,” she said dryly. “Brown people — we didn’t talk about sex. Even the first time I was having sex with someone, I had a very difficult time having pleasure. That continues to be the case because we lied about our sexuality for so long.”

Because of this stigma around sex, Bela is left to come up with her own road map to assert herself as a sexual being. But, similar to Scott’s experience, she is forced to contend with how that intersects with her other identities as a brown woman. For someone who’s never had to contend with each of these things in a new, supposedly freer space, her deep-rooted insecurities bubble to the surface.

“She deals with the reality of not feeling beautiful enough,” Kaur said. “She’s always wearing sexy clothes [because of] what she thinks meets the white ideals of sexy. She lost a lot of weight. She got all this lasik eye surgery. But she has to do that internal work.”

That’s what’s really at the core of “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” which is far less the sexual awakening its title promises. It’s more about these characters tapping into their true selves at a time in their lives when they’re working through everything they thought they already knew, including their sexuality, and realizing that they might not have it all figured out after all. Pauline Chalamet plays Kimberly, who comes to college a virgin in a committed relationship with her hometown boyfriend, and attests that her own academic experience made her feel less secure than she did in high school.

“It was like all the confidence I had at 18, although it was masking a lot of insecurities, disappeared,” she shared. “I had no idea who I was, what was going on and was trying to build it back little by little. I think now I’m starving to find the confidence that my 18-year-old self had.”

So, what becomes of the young women who are grappling with these very real, sometimes confusing feelings while platitudes about sexual empowerment come from every music video video and women’s magazine they consume? Eventually, as we see on “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” they have to face the truth.

“I just remember the TV shows and movies I would watch,” Chalamet said. “I was really delusional in my head of what sex was and how you build it. And no one ever was showing the nuance of what that is. Meanwhile, everyone’s going through it.”