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Let’s talk about sex in The Handmaid’s Tale

Photo: Hulu

This post discusses plot points of the Handmaid’s Tale episode “Faithful.”

Prior to this week, sex on Hulu’s dystopian series The Handmaid’s Tale had been confined to the sterile and upsetting Ceremony, in which Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) rapes his Handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), as part of a reproduction ritual. But “Faithful” introduces a range of sexual experiences to the narrative, including ones that showcase Offred’s (née June’s) pleasure. Here we discuss.

I have to say, I was taken aback by just how, well, sexy, I found the final moments of this episode. That isn’t to say I didn’t think the scene was well done or that it was somehow objectifying. Rather I was surprised by how eroticism centered on female pleasure had been introduced into a story that had been so focused on violence against women. Now, I knew, having read the book, that Offred was going to have an affair with Nick. But I still wasn’t sure how the series was going to handle that in a way that navigated, addressed, and respected the nuances of Offred’s life in Gilead.

Over the course of the episode we see Offred’s reception to sex in a variety of forms. In flashbacks we see her sweet but illicit courtship with her to-be husband, who is married when they meet. As we watch their hotel room tryst, we discover that she likes being on top, and this fact reiterates how Gilead’s policies rob her of agency. It makes the Commander touching her thigh during a ceremony all the more disturbing, his attempt to inject pleasure (for himself) into the sterile and abusive ritual another violation. When Nick and Offred are first together it’s under the watch of Serena Joy, who wants to increase her Handmaid’s chances at conceiving. Both Offred and Nick consent—inasmuch as they can—to the arrangement, but it’s procedural. Then, finally, they engage in a relationship on their own terms.

The scene itself reminded me a bit of Outlander, another show that has been interested in both the erotic and violent aspects of sex. (Coincidentally, Mike Barker, who directed the episode, was also employed on the Starz series.) It’s a release for both the characters, but for Offred it’s a moment where she is finally in control. This is sex that she chooses to have. She orchestrates the removal of clothing. The camera is trained on her face. It’s a reclamation. And, yeah, it’s hot in a way that made me uneasy knowing that terror could be just around the corner. The swelling score did not help alleviate the sensation of being unnerved.


When I was at the Hulu Upfronts last week, Samira Wiley told the audience of advertisers, “Don’t forget about the love stories.” I knew what she was talking about, but it still seemed like an inaccurate and potentially harmful way to frame The Handmaid’s Tale. I have a hunch that Bruce Miller knows better, but the last thing I want is for Offred and Nick ’shippers to come out of the woodwork. What are your thoughts?

[Esther Zuckerman]

I have been behind on The Handmaid’s Tale, so I had to binge-watch a bit to catch up with you all. I love it, but it’s pretty demoralizing, especially taken all at once. So I’m now at the point where I’m grateful for every even brief moment of a possible take-back of power by the women. The half-bananas laid on Offred’s bed in the Red Center. “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches.” The word “Mayday.” Ofsteven/Emily’s joyride, even though it is bound to end in her death. So Offred’s final act this episode came as a welcome relief, a moment of pleasure after four episodes of almost total pain.


I read the book so long ago, I am not minding the Nick character as much as some of you (honestly, I’m predisposed to like Max Minghella after his fun take as Richie Castellano on The Mindy Project). So I don’t blame Offred at all for her final act in the episode. Like you said, Esther, it’s finally a moment when she’s in charge, taking off his clothes as well as hers, positioning herself on top—which we know thanks to the flashback is her preference. It’s also interesting that the concept of “love” comes up this episode, like Samira Wiley hinted: Luke and June are an absolute love story, so the passion there is mixed with affection. When Offred tries to defend love to the Commander, he doesn’t understand her, because with his ice-cold wife, he’s never experienced it. I don’t think Offred in this interpretation is falling for Nick (yet, at least): I think she’s just desperate to feel in control, to feel good, to feel anything other than despair. It’s more about power than anything else. The love differentiation has already been established.


For me the key scene this episode is Offred and Serena Joy after the “incident.” Elisabeth Moss is so amazing throughout this series; we can tell that she’s changed just by the look on her face. She doesn’t give a shit any more. She’s seen the worst, and is no longer afraid. The gardening tools behind Serena Joy now offer her a valuable opportunity. Emily got to live more in her last moments than Offred has since she entered the Red Center. For Offred—who notes, “They didn’t get everything. There was something inside her they couldn’t take away”—that ends now. So I found the final sex scene the opposite of disturbing: Offred getting to feel “invincible” again, even for a moment.

[Gwen Ihnat]

I agree with you, Gwen. The episode’s final sex scene is a way for Offred (though she’s decidedly more June there, which is to say herself) to reclaim, albeit in a very private setting, some of her power and to display her agency. The sex is sexy for that very reason, and that both she and Nick are consenting participants. I also think of the sex as a means of survival. In her excellent new essayistic book 300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso writes, “There are two kinds of people: those who can’t perform the act when they’re sad and those who perform it only to escape sadness. I have a theory that the second kind of person lives longer.”


This episode, in general, also illustrates the power of the story’s structure (which I’d argue is even more potent here than in the book), in the way that it creates very telling parallels between the past and the present. We saw this in episode two, “Birth Day,” which centered around Janine giving birth in the present and Offred giving birth in the past. One of those parallels in this episode is created with the two sexual encounters in which June/Offred enjoys participating: the first being her hotel meeting with future husband Luke, the second the aforementioned late-night encounter with Nick. In both, she acts on a sexual preference, which would be powerful whether or not it’s her desire to be on top. What struck me more than that similarity was those scenes’ differences. With Luke, they were both a little shy at first but decidedly playful (e.g., his teasing response that her being on top just wouldn’t work for him); with Nick, they are both silent. There is no banter, only the doing it—perhaps the result of Gilead’s totalitarian regime. No more talking during sex.

What about you, Caity? What did you think of the episode’s portrayal of sex during wartime?


[Laura Adamczyk]

I was also struck by the powerful juxtaposition this episode makes of Offred’s sex with Nick and June’s sex with Luke. It’s impressive because it never lets up on the misery parade that is Offred’s monthly rape by the commander, nor does it let us forget that Offred has experienced real love and loving sex with Luke in the past. I understood her choice to have sex with Nick both as reclaiming her sexuality—perhaps partly spurred by Ofglen’s genital mutilation and rebellion—and fulfilling a craving for real physical contact, something she hasn’t had since the regime of Gilead began. I think Nick is also desperate to feel physically close to someone. Also, strangely, I think the commander longs for that, too. I have no sympathy for him, but I do have empathy in this respect. It’s a very subtle reminder that patriarchy hurts men, too, even the men who design it and benefit from it.


The most disturbing moment in this episode for me is when the commander tries to inject some pleasure into the rape, and when Offred confronts him about it later that night we are reminded that, despite the many Scrabble games and illegal beauty magazines, the commander is not on Offred’s side, nor is he interested in changing her position. He just wants to feel better about raping her. I respect the show for bringing up these difficult questions about desire and sex and empathy, and in a way I’m glad the commander isn’t depicted as pure evil—it’s always more complicated than that, but media and stories often ignore nuance and subtitles for clear-cut good vs. evil. The commander is undoubtedly bad, but we (and Offred) have to be reminded of that in this episode, because in spite of ourselves we’ve come to see him as someone who’s unhappy about the inflexible ways of Gilead. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale’s version of the Onion story “Area man considers self ally to women unless they threaten his status in literally any way.” A man saying he’s an ally to women doesn’t mean shit. The commander giving Offred magazines doesn’t mean shit. It’s how (and even if) men fight alongside women for a truly egalitarian society that matters. Offred fully understands that now, and I think, like Ofglen, that knowledge spurs her to rebel and find meaning under the authoritarianism.

[Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


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