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Cory Silverberg

Interrogating Sexual Intentions on Mad Men

By July 26, 2010

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**NB: this blog post contains plot from the first episode, don't read it if you haven't seen it!**

The season premiere of Mad Men ended less than an hour ago and after talking about it with the friend I watched it with (who also works in sex, and agreed that something was up with the sex worker answering that phone) I was curious about what others thought of the slap happy sex work, public sex, and the new agency which is built on at least two affairs (that we know of). So I did what one does at 11:30 at night when you want to hear what a random group of people who watch TV and are online think, I went to Twitter and searched for Mad Men and sex.

People seemed generally pleased with the amount and different kinds of sex, although many were "disappointed" that Don was paying for sex. Several people wondered why he "had to" pay for it, said he was too good looking for that, or that it made him seem less cool and powerful (and more than one offered to slap him for free). This isn't a surprise. Most people don't value sex work, and presume that those who pay for sex (always "others" despite the fact that we all know someone who has paid for sex, whether we know it or not) do it because they're pathetic, powerless, and unable to have sex with a non-professional. The truth is that lots of people who pay for sex have access to sex elsewhere. I'd hazard a guess that while some people pay for sex because they've tried but can't find a sexual partner who isn't a professional, most people who pay for sex don't do it because they have no other options.

I'm hoping that the writers will make the most of this plot line, and let Don's sexuality reveal parts of himself to both us and him, without relying on tired anti-sex work stereotypes. The relationship between paying for sex and power, that is to say who holds the power in the client-provider interaction, is complicated, as is the question of who has the power when someone is being paid and carefully constructing a scenario where they get slapped. So far I don't see a lot that's revealing about the sex Don's having. He has a highly contrived and controlled fantasy he plays out (bra must be on, woman on top, slapping in the face). It's just like the rest of his life. In this way at least the sex seems to fit with his character.

As a sex educator I'm always on the look out for how we treat sex differently, without giving much thought to whether we should or not. In some ways sex is just another thing we do; by ourselves and with others. But we often interrogate sexual acts and intentions in ways we don't wonder or worry about when it comes to other social interactions. When we do this in a way that opens up space for conflict and possibility, it's a great opportunity. When we ask questions that never get past our own experience, we're only scratching the surface. So, for example, let's think about the other things that Don pays professionals to do. We know he pays a woman to clean and cook, he probably pays someone to do his laundry. He doesn't pay someone to shine his shoes though, he does that himself. Why is that? Shoe shining and sex work have a few things in common. Both are jobs that get little respect and tend to be done by folks disproportionately marginalized (by race, class, gender....). Both offer opportunities where someone in a position of power is off their guard and visible to the person they are paying.

There are plenty of ways of making meaning out of Don's sex scene. More is expected of him and riding on him at work than ever before, and the carefully constructed fantasy world he created with Betty is gone. The sex scene let's us know that he's paid this woman before, and he already has a fully developed and carefully constructed scene with her (bra must be on, she's on top, progressively harder face slapping). Maybe it's his way of relinquishing control for a moment. Maybe it's only within a highly contrived and constructed situation that he allows himself/is able to feel something. Maybe he's a masochist, or playing with shame (if you're interested in creator Matthew Weiner's explanation check out his interview in the Daily Beast).

Whatever the season brings I plan to follow Don's lesson about sex to Peggy; "Sex doesn't sell. You are the product. You feeling something is what sells." Watching characters we know have sex, particularly the ones we think are hot, may be fun, but it's what the sex makes them feel, makes us feel, that's far more interesting.

Read more Twitter comments on Mad Men & Sex

The Daily Beast - Mad Men's Slap-Happy Return

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Comments
July 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm
(1) Joan Price says:

I’m glad you’re talking about this — the scene intrigued me. My take on it was that he doesn’t “feel” much in his life. His job is to convince clients to hire him and consumers to buy the clients’ products. He doesn’t connect with people emotionally in his professional or personal life, only says what he has to to produce a desired effect. It seemed to me that getting slapped was his way to feel something, anything. As for the shoe shining, only successful men of that time needed their shoes shined, and I think that was the way he told himself, “My wife left me but won’t move out of my home, my kids are miserable, I have no joy or purpose in my life, but damn it, I can keep my shoes shined.” Am I reading too much into this?

July 28, 2010 at 1:51 pm
(2) Cory says:

It’s art, I don’t think you can ever read too much into it! I like imagining what he’s saying to himself while he is shining his shoes, although most of the time when I imagine Don’s interior monologue there’s the sound of crickets.

July 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm
(3) athens escort agency says:

People only pay for sex when they are not satisfied with the situation,they pay not for sex but for satisfaction.its an open game where both the party need the help of each other, and its just the exchange of pleasure.

July 31, 2010 at 7:19 pm
(4) Molly says:

Cory- I appreciate the depth you brought to the scene and its context. Sex is complex, and many of the reactions to sex work, and I would offer kink, are reduced to judgment and disapproval. Peggy truly said it- it’s about what one can feel and exploring, even if it’s scary.

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