Culture & Conversation Sexual Health

In the Wake of Frightening New STD Stats, the Missing Condoms on ‘Insecure’ Are Even More Striking

Katie Mitchell

“Portraying positive images around safe sex can change behavior if viewers identify with the characters and model their own behavior on what they see," one expert told Rewire.News.

This article contains spoilers for the latest episode of Insecure.

Sunday night’s episode of HBO’s Insecure had Twitter in an uproar when Issa Dee (Issa Rae) serendipitously ran into her ex-boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis) at a gas station outside of the Coachella music festival. But the unplanned and potentially awkward reunion wasn’t the only thing that made viewers gasp.

While on a bathroom break during the festival, Issa and her new love interest, Nathan (aka “Nanceford”), played by Kendrick Sampson, decide to take a ride on a Ferris wheel where they have sex for the first time. Though brief, the couple’s time had elements that make for a good sex scene: great actors, the right lighting, and evocative background music. The only thing that was missing was, apparently, a condom.

Part of Nathan’s allure for Issa is that he’s mysterious. We’re not even sure if Issa knows his last name, and they’ve never discussed sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or birth control on screen. It follows, then, that viewers could believe that Issa and Nathan are engaging in risky sex and potentially exposing themselves to diseases or an unwanted pregnancy. This omission, experts say, represents a missed opportunity to portray positive sexual health decisions on screen. And while no one expects the creators and writers of Insecure to turn the show into a public health campaign, the stakes for its target audience are especially high.

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This isn’t the first time Insecure has faced criticism for its lack of explicit condom usage. During season two, fans noticed that while many of the characters were having sex, there weren’t any scenes of them actually putting on condoms. In a since-removed tweet, Rae—also an executive producer and creator of the show—responded to the discussion: “We tend to place condoms in the backgrounds of scenes or imply them. But we hear you guys and will do better next season.”

Showrunner Prentice Penny responded at the time by stating that the show is “not a PSA, documentary, [or] non profit organization.” Though Penny’s observation is factual, Insecure and other television shows have proven to influence their audience beyond the ending credits. Many Twitter users, for example, posted about wanting to recreate the Ferris wheel scene.

Dr. Cabral Bigman-Galimore, an assistant professor in communication and health equity at the University of Illinois, told Rewire.News, “Portraying positive images around safe sex can change behavior if viewers identify with the characters and model their own behavior on what they see. People also talk about their favorite television shows and characters, so shows can help to spark conversations about topics like sex that might otherwise be considered too taboo or awkward.”

“Given the recent national trends, it is important for shows with and without majority Black audiences to engage with this topic in thoughtful and authentic ways that make sense for their characters and storylines,” Dr. Bigman-Galimore added.

Indeed, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), STI rates have skyrocketed: “Nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were diagnosed in the United States in 2017.” In 2016, the CDC noted that Black people accounted for 44 percent of HIV diagnoses, though they comprised only 12 percent of the U.S. population. The CDC also found in 2016 that “the rate of reported chlamydia cases among Black women was 5.1 times the rate among White women” and the “the rate of reported chlamydia cases among Black men was 6.6 times the rate among White men.” Black people were also diagnosed with gonorrhea and syphilis at dramatically higher rates than white people.

“We are sliding backward,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, in a press release about the 2017 data. “It is evident the systems that identify, treat, and ultimately prevent STDs are strained to near-breaking point.”

Lianne Young, a London-based sex and relationships counselor, echoes Dr. Bigman-Galimore’s sentiments: “As a sex expert I would like to see more condom use promoted. More scripts need to be written which include realistic sexual encounters and the discussions around taking precautions rather than keeping it taboo.”

There are notable television shows that have highlighted safer sex, including It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, Futurama, and Seinfeld. These storylines, however, don’t occur as often as characters are having sex and usually exist as the punchline to a joke or the subject of a dramatic STD-centric episode, rather than in the context of an actual sex scene. Navigating real-life sexual situations isn’t always as easy as firing off a few witty one-liners accompanied by a laugh track, but Alice Benjamin, a critical care and emergency room nurse, told Rewire.News that talking to a partner about safe sex isn’t inherently uncomfortable: “The conversation doesn’t have to be super formal or awkward. Allow it to bring you closer by allowing it to symbolize respect.”

“The best advice I offer about having these conversations is to frame them around protecting one’s health,” Anika Ampadu, a registered nurse, told Rewire.News. “Ask a potential partner the last time they’ve had a check-up, including the last time they’ve been tested for STIs.” As condoms are the only contraception that protect against sexually transmitted infections, Ampadu goes on to note that “women can have their own condoms too. That way if your partner reaches for theirs and they don’t have one, you’re both covered.”

In the first episode of Insecure’s third season, Molly (Yvonne Orji) encourages Issa to “know better [and] do better.” It’s time for Issa to apply that advice to her sex life.

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