January 19, 1998: a night that teenage dreams are made of. Buffy Summers lost her virginity to her then-lover, Angel, a vampire with a soul. It was mixed with all the saccharine anxiety that comes with your first time, plus a heavy dose of gothic aesthetics. After that momentous night, however, Angel lost his soul and turned into a blood-lusting killing machine, a frightening metaphor for how your first time can often be more traumatic than romantic. Angel eventually regained his soul, and he and Buffy shared many more intimate moments before the series's conclusion. It was all very sweet, but as an adult, 20 years after the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I find myself revisiting another night in Buffy's sexual history: November 20, 2001, when she and the soulless vampire Spike had sex so passionately it tore a house down.
Watching Buffy as a teenager, the conservative journey of Buffy's sexuality never seemed odd to me. But now, on the series's 20th anniversary, I wish that Buffy felt better about her sex life. Not to traffic in Sex and the City stereotypes, but in my life as a gay adult man in Los Angeles, I have partaken in many a brunch where I've had the opportunity to talk about my dating life with my friends. Women and gay men discussing their sex lives over mimosas might seem clichéd at this point, but in a society where it's not uncommon for women and gay men's sexuality to be shamed or criminalized, you take safe haven where you can find it. I often wish Buffy had felt more comfortable confiding in her friends, something she became less able to do as the series went on.
The oft-maligned sixth season of Buffy is much better than you remember. The first post-WB season (the last two of the series aired on UPN) is infamously the season in which Joss Whedon's role in the show was greatly diminished as he worked on the series's epic musical episode "Once More, With Feeling," while also developing the sci-fi show Firefly for Fox. But the series's explorations of depression, loss, and sexual desire are never better than they are in this season, even when they sometimes miss the mark. Buffy's relationship with Spike in particular manages to encompass the series at its very best, and it's this relationship that, even at its most troubling, has stuck with me long after Buffy's final episode aired.
Buffy and Spike's relationship starts off volatile; after all, before they developed feelings for each other, he was one of her greatest foes. When they first have sex in the episode "Smashed," their passion erupts in a drawn-out fight that tears down the very foundation of the abandoned house they're fighting in. But after, something odd happens: Buffy, struggling with the loss of her mother, newfound adult responsibilities, and a lingering depression from being brought back from the dead, somehow manages to laugh. The moments where she enjoys her relationship with Spike are truly sublime in an otherwise emotionally dreary season.
And, more than that, Buffy casts aside her teenage notions of love where she pined after Angel and her boring-as-hell college boyfriend and begins to explore her sexuality. Nowadays, it's not out of the norm to see female characters discussing their sex lives, how they get off, and what pleases them. Unfortunately, as feminist as Buffy was, it was still a show geared toward teenagers; it was hardly appropriate for Buffy to embrace her inner Belle de Jour. She could have sex with handcuffs, but she also had to hide her relationship with Spike and feel intense shame and wonder, Why do I let Spike do those things to me?
This particular moment of reflection comes after one of the most startling moments in the series. Buffy and Spike seemingly have anal sex in the balcony of a nightclub only several feet from her friends. The very act of this is shameful to Buffy, and writer Steven S. DeKnight's script describes her as "wracked with guilt." But would this have seemed out of place in Fifty Shades of Grey? On Sex and the City, Miranda was already enjoying the thrills of public sex, and George Michael was making tongue-in-cheek references to his "lewd behavior" arrest in his '98 single "Outside." As a teenager, I felt that shame right alongside Buffy, but as an adult, I can't lie that I find the moment exhilarating and wonder why it was even written if it only exists to shame our heroine.
But perhaps the most disappointing episode, as far as Buffy’s sexuality goes, is in the episode "Seeing Red." The writers seemingly punish Buffy for exploring her desires by having Spike attempt to rape her. Buffy was always a series about that blonde girl who is often killed in horror movies finally being able to defend herself. But it’s also about another horror trope: the woman punished for her sexuality. Whether it's the horny teenager who gets hacked to pieces in a slasher film, or Mia Farrow impregnated with the child of Satan in Rosemary's Baby, for a long time horror wasn't devoted to the joys of female pleasure. In that moment, the illusion of Buffy as an undefeatable heroine was lost for me. If vampires remained a metaphor for teenage woes and sexual desire, it was in this moment that Buffy's sexuality was turned against her.
As Buffy's legacy continues, I think about how the show taught me things about myself that I didn't realize I was learning at the time. Like how to cope with loss and grief, how to be a better friend, and how to channel my inner strength. Raised by a single mom, I've always had the influence of women in my life and I'm grateful for the things they've taught me. I remember listening to my mom's CDs as a kid — particularly my first hip-hop album, Lil' Kim's Hard Core, an ode to female sexuality featured a woman moaning, getting off, and putting men in her place while reigning as a rap queen. When I think of Buffy now, I hope she's slaying in the cemetery and in the bedroom.