In EyeshotAn “Insecure” Roundtable for 3

Insecure has reached its first crossroads: After Issa (Issa Rae) went to Sexplosion with her three closest friends, she decided to try out her newest oral sex tricks on Daniel (Y’lan Noel). It didn’t end well. The polarizing response to Daniel and Issa’s sex scene led to this roundtable. In this roundtable, Ashley Duchemin, production editor at Bitch; Evette Dionne, senior editor at Bitch; and culture writer Ashley Ray-Harris delve into that infamous sex scene, how the writers could’ve handled the scene better, and what we can all learn from the show’s awkward Black girls.

When Daniel came on Issa’s face, what was your first response?

Evette Dionne: Honestly, I thought it was one of the awkwardest moments of the entire series. It was the first time I watched Insecure and didn’t see something reflective of my sister-friend circle’s experiences with sex. I laughed at first because it was awkward as hell. Oral sex is often an ordinary part of sex, but through this experience as well as her interaction with her neighbor, it’s clear that Issa isn’t sexually experienced. Any person who’s given oral sex to someone with a penis knows it ordinarily ends with cum. So, needless to say, I was surprised by Issa’s response. We’ve all had awkward sex moments that didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but the fact that she stormed out struck me as odd because she could’ve made a different choice in that scenario. She could’ve told Daniel that sex act made her uncomfortable, and that she didn’t want to do it again. She could’ve told Daniel that she was offended. Instead, she expected him to apologize for a perceived transgression when it wasn’t clear that he’d crossed a boundary.

Ashley Ray-Harris: At first, I thought it was an accident. Insecure obviously focuses on the most awkward parts of our sex lives and bad aim is very much a reality of that. It was Daniel’s reaction to Issa’s anger that made me realize it wasn’t an accident. He doesn’t apologize. He doesn’t say sorry. He doesn’t say it was an accident, which would’ve been an easy way to calm Issa down. Instead, he says Issa seemed down for whatever and she shouldn’t have given him a blowjob if she wasn’t down with cum in her face. That, to me, justified Issa’s anger. If Daniel had apologized or said it was an accident, they could’ve moved on. Daniel came on a woman’s face on purpose without her permission and then blamed her for it.

Ashley Duchemin: I laughed, and then I saw Issa’s reaction. Though that’s never happened to me in that exact way, it felt super relatable because sex is awkward and messy—and without a discussion beforehand, it gets weird. It all happened really fast. Daniel gave Issa a warning (“Oh, shit, you about to make me cum”), and then it was too late. I don’t think he meant to cum on her face because he immediately says, “Oh, shit, you need a towel.” But I agree with ARH in that he shouldn’t have assumed she’d be down for cum anywhere near her face. Giving head is not equal to wanting cum anywhere in, near, or around your mouth, especially if you don’t explicitly say that you’re into that. At first, seeing how mad Issa was threw me off, but I’ve definitely had someone use the “I didn’t ask you to ___” line on me before (though not about sex), and I was just as pissed.

Issa in Insecure

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

ED: I can see both of those points. Daniel also could’ve approached the situation better. What I’m struggling with is Issa’s continuous inability to communicate effectively.

ARH: I guess I just think even if you love blowjobs, even if you’re comfortable with them—a dude’s default cum spot shouldn’t be someone’s face and if it happens without consent, they should apologize. I think Daniel would’ve been more careful if Issa had communicated that, but I don’t think the onus is on her to make sure Daniel doesn’t act like a fuckboy. I think Issa wanted it to be casual and sexy, she doesn’t view Daniel as a primary partner. I also think Daniel was all in his feelings about Issa saying she was seeing other people last week and decided to treat her carelessly because of it. 

ED: That’s a great point. Daniel did seem upset about Issa seeing other people. It may have been motivated by that frustration. Again though, I think they both should’ve communicated better. There’s also a level of comfort for Daniel. He and Issa have been fucking since she was in college. It’s just a reminder to always gauge the comfort level of your partner, even if you’ve slept with them before. He just assumed she’d be up for it. Assumptions are no good when it comes to sex.

Did you think the sexual act was disrespectful?

ARH: I don’t think blowjobs are disrespectful. I don’t even think facials are inherently disrespectful, but it’s a sex act that still conjures up the very worst of female degradation in pornogaphy. Facials, whether they happen with consent or without, still disgust a lot of people and can be triggering––even for people who are into blowjobs. The fact that Daniel felt like he could cum on Issa’s face without apologizing was disrespectful. Issa was insecure about blowjobs because she thought men would see her as disposable or a slut if she did it; Daniel’s reaction proved she was right. He saw her as a girl he could do whatever he wanted with. I don’t think the episode ever claims blowjobs are a disrespectful sex act. I think the episode says men like Daniel, who view blowjobs as a right to do whatever with a woman’s body, still exist.

AD: I have to agree. We know that facials are portrayed in abundance in porn (especially torture porn), and because of that, there’s stigma and other attached meanings for some people. I don’t think facials are disrespectful as long as there is consent. And as AHR said, even when there is consent, sometimes it brings up emotions that the person hadn’t anticipated. That’s why aftercare is important.

ED: You both make excellent points here. I agree that blowjobs and facials aren’t inherently disrespectful, but it’s something that Daniel and Issa should’ve discussed beforehand. The only way to establish consent in that situation is to have a conversation about boundaries. Neither one of them did that. Issa thought going down on Daniel was sexy. It was. She also didn’t know where his penis should go when he was about to cum? That’s, again, awkward as hell to me.

Issa and Daniel on Insecure

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

ARH: Daniel’s hand is on the back of her head during the entire thing, which probably made it difficult for her to get out of the way. It looks like she tries to sit up and move, but he keeps her head down. His lack of remorse or an apology after makes it hard for me to see it as just an accident. He says she shouldn’t have gone down on him if she wasn’t down with it; Daniel seems to think a woman sucking his dick means he has the right to cum wherever he wants on her.

AD: At first I thought his hand was holding her down, too, but I watched the scene over and over, and it doesn’t look forceful. I think that would be a different conversation altogether. But to Evette’s point, the whole idea of the show is how awkward Issa is, so it makes so much sense to me that she wouldn’t understand where the cum would go or how to bob and weave out of the way. And it was also the weirdest television portrayal of cum. How is he laying back on a sofa and projectile launching cum?

ARH: Their prop guy literally did the most in that scene.

Could Issa have handled that situation better? What about Daniel?

ARH: Issa could’ve told Daniel about her inexperience and discomfort with blowjobs prior to the act, but she didn’t want to reveal that vulnerability. She wanted it to be sexy and exciting, which is fair. In the end, Daniel shouldn’t have blamed her for giving him a blowjob. He should’ve apologized, got her a towel instead of the dirty shirt on his couch and given her some proper aftercare to make her feel respected instead of used. It was clear that she was upset and he did nothing to make her feel better. If I do any sex act and my partner responds with that much anger, I’m asking questions––I’m not blaming or slut-shaming them.

ED: Yes ARH, all of this. Issa shouldn’t have performed oral sex on Daniel if she was uncomfortable doing it. No person should engage in any sex act that they’re not excited about doing. I also think she should’ve better communicated when he came on her face. Let him know that you think it’s disrespectful. Let him know that you have these hang ups about percerception. Let him know that you don’t want him cumming on your face. On the other hand, Daniel didn’t handle it well at all. He should’ve asked why she was upset and asked to cum on her face. He just assumed it was appropriate and she was cool with it. That was definitely a big misstep.

Issa and Daniel on Insecure

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

AD: Daniel did offer a towel, but Issa grabbed her shirt and immediately pushed him off of her when he reached out to help. And that’s why I said it all happened so quick. There really wasn’t enough time for any real communication, but he did let her walk out of that door without even budging. That’s another instance where I think he could have handled it better. As for Issa’s reaction, it didn’t seem out of line or unexpected after the conversation she had with Kelli, Tiffany, and Molly. I’ve heard the same types of stories from my own friends, with the same type of Daniel reaction coming from the guy in those situations. And I can’t fault her for trying to do something that previously freaked her out, because I’m the friend giving my friends pointers and telling them, “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.” I do agree that she should have communicated her disgust in a more productive way and that that doesn’t give Daniel a pass for trying to turn it around on her.

ARH: But Issa was excited to do it! She learned some new tips and was excited to try out these new skills. Being excited to give a blowjob doesn’t automatically mean you’re down to get a facial. I’d imagine most women aren’t down with facials. If Daniel hadn’t cum on her face and then blamed her for what happened, Issa wouldn’t have been upset. I think every guy should come from a place of “it’s disrespectful to cum on a girl’s face without permission” rather than women being forced to establish that boundary.

ED: I agree 100 percent. The boundaries of sex should be determined beforehand. Daniel was dead wrong for cumming on her face without her consent. Issa should’ve said that afterward. That, to me, would’ve been a more authentic exchange and really highlighted something that we rarely see on TV.

ARH: Completely agree, I wish we could’ve seen a more developed conversation after the facial. The moment was incredibly quick and on a first watch, it’s easy to say Issa overreacted and it was an accident. The moment definitely needed a more definitive context.

AD: That’s what I’m waiting to see on Sunday, and I’d be really surprised if Insecure doesn’t go there.

A lot of folks, including Angelica Bastien at Vulture, have called the conversation between Issa, Tiffany, Kelli, and Molly at Sexplosion “regressive.” Do you agree?

ARH: I don’t agree at all. Yes, this conversation is one that’s been around for a long time, but it’s hardly regressive. I graduated from college in 2013 and a lot of my black female friends had issues with blowjobs. These were girls from New York City, they weren’t out of touch. The show’s writers even said that a lot of people in the writers’ room felt the same way about the act. Yes, it’s 2017, but there are still Black women who aren’t into blowjobs and that’s valid. We shouldn’t be telling them that they’re regressive or out of touch, we should ask ourselves why this conversation still exists. If the show had used anal sex instead of blowjobs, people wouldn’t be calling it regressive, but the point is still the same: people still label sexually-liberated black women as disposable or sluts and Black women limit themselves sexually because they’re afraid of these labels.

ED: I definitely see your point, ARH. Black women do have different levels of comfort when it comes to sex. I still think that conversation on television in 2017 was pretty regressive. It seems like their reference points were so extreme and the dialogue itself was corny. “You mean Becky with the good ring? Why do you think black men are out here chasing after white women?” was just… too much. It didn’t further the conversation about Black women, sexuality, and liberation in any way. It also seemed really rooted in respectability. If Black women are perceived as hypersexual, let’s err on the side of caution and prudishness. That doesn’t progress the conversation or shine a light on how Black women are perceived sexually. It just led to a deluge of jokes about the scene—as it should have.

Tiffany, Issa, and Molly on Insecure

photo: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO

ARH: Okay, that “Becky with the good ring” line was awful. That is true. I also wish it hadn’t been centered around Black men chasing white women and just focused on how blowjobs make them feel as Black women. I’d say the scene was badly written and felt less natural than typical Insecure conversations. I think respectability politics definitely influence black female sexuality and the show was highlighting that rather than encouraging it. Tiffany is a character who comes the closest to a “model minority” and she talks about her love of blowjobs. So to me, talking about Issa’s problems with blowjobs was a way to showcase the methods Black women use to protect themselves from hypersexualization and how necessary that still is in 2017.

ED: Oooh, I love that theorizing at the end, ARH! It may be a form of protection.

AD: That’s a great point, AHR. That conversation was the first time I ever felt taken out of the show because it seemed so forced and unnatural that even the actors themselves seemed to not believe in what they were saying. And of course there have been so many awkward moments that it’s surprising that one small conversation that a lot of people have probably had turned into this cringe-worthy scene. The naturalness and relatableness of Insecure is what makes it a win, and that was just… weird.

Sans a few Becky lines, it could have been just like any other homerun on the show because, similar to AHR, I remember having these conversations with Black and Latinx women in college in Harlem just a few years ago, even in the context of Becky meaning head and the perception that white women do it more. So while I do think there was no need to throw in the “this is why Black men want white women” slant, it didn’t feel regressive to me personally. The scene definitely didn’t further the conversation, but maybe it did hit home for some people… who are being really quiet about it right now because of the response to the scene. While it would be lovely for Insecure to represent all issues at all times, and to have some deeper meaning, a lot of times it feels like everything is based off of someone’s personal experience, and that’s okay, too. That’s why I’m watching. I don’t always want to agree or receive a lesson. Sometimes I just want to be mad at or disagree with or side-eye the characters like I would my own friends.

This entire season is about Issa starting her “ho-tation” and really liberating herself. Is that refreshing for Black women to see?

ARH: I relate to that a lot. After getting out of a long-term relationship, I also had a “ho phase” and embraced my sexuality. It’s a terrifying process and Insecure is showing the ups and downs of being a sexually liberated black women. Even though Issa views her “ho-tation” as liberating, Daniel doesn’t see that nuance. It’s just sex for him. I think Issa realized in that moment how easy it is for a black woman’s sexual agency to be taken from them, despite their best efforts to be sex positive. I’ve had so many partners I thought I could trust with my kinks and desires, only to have fetishize or exploit me in the end. Exploring your sexuality or embracing your sluttiness doesn’t mean people get to do things to you without your consent. It doesn’t mean you have to be “down for whatever” like Daniel says.

ED: I absolutely love that Issa’s exploring her sexuality this season. I love the idea of a “ho-tation.” I love that we’re getting to see Black women characters having casual sex and empowering their friends to do the same. I think most women have that phase in life, but it’s not something Black women have been accustomed to seeing on TV. It’s a beautiful thing. I also think Issa is still on “ho-tation” training wheels. She hasn’t figured out every sexual relationship serves a different purpose. When she tried to fling it at Nico and showed up at Eddie’s house before calling, it was clear that she’s still figuring it out. The “figuring it out” part is what makes Insecure so special. Every character is on a journey to figuring out who they want to be. I think Daniel’s already figured it out: He wants to be in relationship with Issa in some way. He’s said that he doesn’t want to commit, but it’s clear that he wants something more than a casual sexual relationship. In that instance, I’m glad Issa stood her ground. If she doesn’t want to date Daniel, she doesn’t have to, and she made that very clear.

Dro and Molly on Insecure

photo: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO

ARH: Issa’s treatment of Nico made me more mad than her interaction with Daniel. Issa, YOU ALWAYS NEED A DINNER GUY IN YOUR HO-TATION. Get the free meal, girl! After those car repairs, things are going to be tight.

AD: I know! I screamed at my screen when Nico asked Issa if he should leave and she said, “Yeah.” But her treatment of him echoes how she views the problem with the way the principal treats the Latinx/Hispanic kids at the school she works at. Even as a joke that she knew she took too far, it was disappointing to hear that corny noise she made that was supposed to allude to “ariba!” That said, as a person who lived a ho lifestyle for awhile, and constantly felt I needed to justify and qualify that, it has been super refreshing to see her explore her sexuality no-holds-barred even though she’s not really sure what’s she doing. Every conversation she has with Molly about being a ho, having a ho-tation, and the like sounds exactly like a conversation I’ve had with friends, and that’s not something I see on television often, if ever.

Is Insecure handling Black women’s sexuality well? Have there been moments of frustration for you this season?

ARH: Yes and no. While I don’t think “Hella Blows” was regressive, I do think the show’s lack of queer Black female characters is regressive. As a poly person, I think the show is doing a great job of showcasing non-monogamous relationships. But, as a queer Black woman, I don’t see my sexuality represented on the show and that’s frustrating. When Molly broke up with a bisexual man last season, that was incredibly frustrating too. At least in “Hella Blows,” Issa challenges her hangup. No one is giving her credit for actually giving a blowjob and trying to change her notion that it’s a “white girl thing.” Molly didn’t even give the dude a chance after he opened up about his bisexuality, but I didn’t see anyone talking about how the whole “Black men on the down-low” conversation is regressive. (Except for me, I did, in my review and commenters were angry about it). In the end, Insecure can’t represent everything for everyone and it shouldn’t have to do that. In both Issa and Molly’s situations, the show presented a variety of views. With Molly, Kelli and Issa had no issue dating a bisexual man while Tiffany and Molly couldn’t do it. With Issa, Tiffany and Molly had no problem with blowjobs while Kelli and Issa weren’t down. When it comes to black female sexuality and sexual liberation, there are no overall hard rules or guidelines around what we’re comfortable with and I think the show does a great job of showcasing that.

ED: ARH, that’s such a great point about the lack of queer Black characters. I wonder how much of that has to do with the writer’s room. Are there queer Black writers working on the show? Are they given the agency to propose a character, outside of Jared, who’s queer and navigating relationships with other queer folks? That’s something I’d also love to see. It’s also a yes and no answer for me as well. In some respects, Insecure gets it right about sex, sexuality, and perception. I love the authenticity of the sex scenes. Sex isn’t pretty, and shouldn’t be portrayed as if it’s some romantic dance. There’s sweat involved, messy hair, squeaking beds, etc. and that’s often not portrayed. On the other hand, there are some aspects of the show that seem very childish to me. Kelli getting fingered at the table, for instance, and the obviousness of that is very childish. I’ve been in many public sexual situations in my day, and it’s never happened like that. Or, as you pointed out, ARH, Molly dumping Jared because he’s had one sexual encounter with another man. How ridiculous is that? I think Insecure succeeds by showing up a spectrum of Black female sexuality. I just wish the spectrum wasn’t so over-the-top and extreme.

ARH: Yeah, I think to a certain extent, the show has to sacrifice reality for comedy. It’s a comedy show and Kelli was hilarious in that scene, but I do wish there was a little more balance. It does seem like the writers pull a lot from their personal lives and the actors’ experiences. According to his post-show Wine Down interview, Sarunas J. Jackson (Dro) was in an open relationship similar to the one on the show and it seems as though they just pulled from his life for inspiration. In the interview, Jackson describes his own open relationship with nearly the exact same language Dro uses with Molly. I’d imagine Jackson’s actual experience with polyamory are why that storyline feels so realistic rather than like a joke. It also makes me wonder if there are any queer Black writers on the show who could push this conversation into new territory. Anyway, I’m still mad Jared’s fine ass was left out of this season.

Kellie on Insecure

photo: Justina Mintz/courtesy of HBO

AD: I loved Jared! I really thought the show was going to challenge the audience by having Molly get over that hiccup, and when she didn’t, I realized that there would be so many other moments like that on the show that are very realistic and based on someone’s personal experience. And I agree, as a bisexual woman, I wish there were more LGBTQ characters, so I hope we get to see that in coming seasons. And I hope we see Molly explore that territory—mainly because I love her and want to date her, but also because her sexuality and dating life is the one we really get to see fully fleshed out. I love that Issa is figuring it out, but I love it even more that Molly represents that awkward phase at the end of hoeration where you’re finally ready for a relationship, but don’t know how to get back into that headspace.

Insecure is the first show, I think ever, that I have identified with so closely. Even the really over-the-top sex scenes feel more realistic and relatable than anything else on television or in film generally, though I also don’t know of anyone getting fingered in front of a group of their friends, at a table with no tablecloth, in a very well-lit restaurant. Speaking of Kelli, I also want to see more of her dating life and sexuality. The fingering-under-the-table scene may have not been so shocking if we ever saw Kelli as sexual and worthy of affection before that. Her sex life has sort of been the joke of the show so far, or at least it has felt that way, perhaps because she’s the funny friend. But I’m tired of the funny fat friend trope. Kelli deserves love, too.

Ashley Ray-Harris
by Ashley Ray-Harris
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Ashley Ray-Harris is a Chicago-based pop culture expert and freelance writer whose work can be found on The A.V. Club, Autostraddle, and Inverse.

by Ashley Duchemin
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Ashley Duchemin was formerly the managing editor at Bitch Media.

by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.

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