We live in a world saturated with sex, from advertising to film to online porn. And yet, even after 40 years of feminist activism, frank expressions of female desire still remain remarkably taboo.
Paris Hilton, of all people, struck at the paradox when she said “I'm sexy, not sexual” - that is, we like women to offer themselves up to the male gaze, to look available for (heterosexual) sex, but not to actually enjoy the act itself. We have a word for women who like sex too much, and it rhymes with butt.
So it is a pleasant surprise that the SBS On Demand series Raised By Wolves features frank and active expressions of desire from its female characters across multiple generations. Set in Wolverhampton, in England, Raised By Wolves is the story of Della, a single mother raising six children on her own, five of them daughters named for famous women.
It's a female-centric, feminist and hilarious take on working class life in the UK, written by bestselling author Caitlin Moran and her sister Caroline as a modern-day re-imagining of their childhood on a housing estate in the town.
While single mothers are more often the figures of right-wing hysteria, Della is fearsomely competent, as quick with a drill as a one-liner.
She has an intense attraction to Michael, with whom she trades double entendres - jerk chicken seasoning, parking a car, rotisserie chicken. DIY and fast food suddenly becomes fraught with sexual tension. “I'd give my left tit for a good spatch-cocking,” she says.
Meanwhile, teenage daughter Germaine is consumed by her desire. In the very first episode, Germaine caresses the house of Lee, the boy she is infatuated with, accidentally getting her hand stuck in the mail box she has been fondling. Germaine's desire for Lee is excessive and inappropriate, recalling the intensity of every obsessive teenage crush.
By the second season, though, Germaine is over Lee. “There's nothing less attractive than someone who doesn't fancy you,” she says.
Moving on, she does a “sexy librarian” dance in a library for another boy, Callum, licking a book entitled Chlamydia: No Laughing Matter, bewitching the gormless boy insensible.
“I've never witnessed the power of my own sexual magnetism,” she tells her sisters. But Germaine doesn't simply performs for the male gaze - it's a tool for her desire.
What is most interesting about Raised By Wolves is how much of Germaine's desire is auto-erotic. It's fascinating to see a teenage girl character talk openly about the practice. “I've discovered masturbation,” she says, “you guys really need to try it, it's brill.”
In another episode, Germaine tries to attract Callum as Marilyn Monroe apparently did, by rubbing her “lady juices” onto her wrist. The entire episode, though, Germaine constantly sniffs her wrist, more into herself than her erstwhile suitor.
Germaine's sister Aretha, though, has a more low-key and idealised form of desire. Her crush on Ruby, her economics lecturer at college, is all Billie Holiday soundtrack and soft lighting - and shared fangirling over economics writer Paul Mason
“She's the most intelligent person I've ever met,” Aretha says. “She's really pretty too,” her sister Yoko notes. “Isn't she,” the usually misanthropic Aretha swoons.
Though Ruby turns out to be in a heterosexual relationship, there are very few teenage queer girls on TV, and it's testimony to the diversity of female experience on Raised By Wolves that we see the intensity of queer crushes, too.
Indeed, it is rare to see women onscreen like the characters of Raised by Wolves, working class women who actively desire, actively want. While the show is a comedy, and sexual desire is played for laughs at times (especially Germaine's over-the-top expressions of lust for Lee), it takes seriously the idea that women can and do want all kinds of sex, and not just teenagers like Germaine, but mothers and grandmothers too.
Feminist Laurie Penny has written that “Western culture is still terrified of female desire. After all, if we stopped shaming women and girls for being hungry or horny, who knows what else they might start to want?”
Figuring out how to move from sexy to sexual, from passive to active, would be a good first step in the path to female liberation.
Series 1 and 2 of Raised by Wolves are available on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here: