‘The Sex Lives of College Girls’ Pursues an Awkward Education

Robert Hundley

The title of “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a new comedy that begins its first term Nov. 18 on HBO Max, is a work of clickbait-and-switch.

It is absolutely about college girls, and those girls do have sex lives. But anyone hoping for the scripted series version of “Girls Gone Wild” or Playboy’s “Women of the Ivy League” will have to look elsewhere. The show instead treats undergraduate intimacy with the friendly skepticism it deserves. There’s mortification, bewilderment, klutzy desire and sometimes, between rounds of beer pong, the stirrings of self-discovery.

Created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, the series stars Alyah Chanelle Scott as Whitney, a jock and a senator’s daughter; Renée Rapp as Leighton, a closeted Park Avenue princess; Amrit Kaur as Bela, a comedy nerd from a conservative background; and Pauline Chalamet (yes, she’s the sister of Timothée Chalamet) as Kimberly, a regular nerd and a scholarship student. Thrown together as suite-mates at a prestigious, Ivy-adjacent university, they confuse love with sex, sex with fun and rebellion with growth. For Boomer, Gen X and Millennial viewers who may assume that those self-assured Gen Z kids have it all figured out, “The Sex Lives of College Girls” passionately suggests otherwise.

“All four are coming of age, and so it’s a lot of navigating everything that comes with that,” Scott said. “Hormonally, sexually, everything.”

On a recent afternoon, the four stars of the show met on a video call for a discussion section about sex and self-knowledge. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The young women that you play, are they comfortable with themselves?

ALYAH CHANELLE SCOTT As comfortable as you can be at 18. You think you know more about yourself than you do. You learn lessons by experience, and they still haven’t had all the experiences to know all of the lessons.

RENÉE RAPP Who really knows who they are? I feel like we always are learning more and more about ourselves and each other.

AMRIT KAUR The universal fears of an 18-year-old are the same, really; their experiences are unique. With Bela, she thought she was going to be free just because she’s out of the house, and that’s not what reality is.

PAULINE CHALAMET None of them really know themselves. At that age, you start to learn about yourself through the mirrors that are held up by those around you and the reactions that others have to the way you’re acting.

Why is our culture so obsessed with the sex lives of young women?

CHALAMET Instead of older women who have had years of practice and years of figuring out what they want? It’s like, I want to know that! I want to talk to the 50-, 60-, 70-, 80-year-old women who are still having sex. But the answer is quite dark. There’s a fetishization — a Lolita fetish, but I don’t even really like that term, because the book is different than the movie. What’s really important are shows like this. We’re not following girls that are having crazy, amazing sex all the time. It’s awkward and weird, and it gets funky in certain situations. Those are the sex lives of college girls.

SCOTT I grew up with white women being centered in the idea of what is sexy, what is beautiful, and Black women being centered in the idea of what is hot and scandalous and voluptuous and hypersexualized. That is all from the male gaze. So I grew up not seeing Black women get to have awkward moments, normal sexual moments. Our show is cool in the sense that I get to be a Black girl who has awkward, messy sexual moments.

KAUR Black women get over sexualized; brown women have the exact opposite experience. We’re not sexualized at all — we’re virginal. So to now have a character that has sex and has all these ideas about sex, that’s all really important. She gets into a lot of dangerous situations as a result, but also learns a lot.

Where did the show feel truthful to young women’s experiences, and where did you feel it was maybe a little exaggerated?

CHALAMET I don’t know if girls go to that many parties. I was like, man, five parties in a week? What was I doing in college? Studying? I didn’t party that much in college. I certainly never dressed up for it. But I do think that there is something real in the way the girls are talking to each other.

SCOTT I went to the University of Michigan. I had a very quintessential state school experience: I went to football games. I went to parties. I was a theater major. So it all felt very familiar to me.

KAUR I went to York University [in Toronto]. I was so attracted to theater school because everybody was crazy, and I came from such a conservative place. I didn’t go to a lot of parties. I was the only girl that stayed at home. So I, too, am living vicariously through Bela. A lot of that stuff I just wasn’t culturally allowed to do.

CHALAMET I didn’t really have the best college experience. I relate to Kimberly because she struggles to fit in, in a private university, where people seem to have so much money. That was a big shock for me when I got to college. I worked throughout college at a farm-to-table restaurant. College feels like purgatory: You’re told that you’re an adult but no, you’re not. You’re an adult when you leave college and you have to figure out what taxes are.

Did you feel pressure to have a sexy time?

CHALAMET I definitely felt that pressure. People were talking so much about their sex lives and who was sleeping with who. I was in a relationship for most of college. And that was amazing because then it was just like, oh, I’m squared away.

KAUR I went to theater school. In the theater program, out of, like, 200 people, I was the only brown girl. My teachers were like, “Are you OK to do a kiss scene?” Because they’re seeing in the media that brown people are not sexual. So I wasn’t having those conversations at all.

What do you think is different about college for young women today as opposed to a generation ago?

CHALAMET In universities like the one depicted here, which tend to be quite liberal institutions, I think there is more and more of an emphasis on, like, safe spaces. It’s less taboo to talk about being burned out. It’s less taboo to express feelings, and express the need to find a community of people you feel safe and good around.

SCOTT There’s a lot less shame associated with sexuality, in general. Maybe it’s social media; maybe it’s the access to so much information. We’re more comfortable.

Most of your writers and directors are at least a generation older. Did you help them understand youth culture?

SCOTT Just certain words and things. I was like: “Listen, I would never say this. Like, maybe you said that 10 years ago, but I don’t think they say that anymore.”

On set, what were the conversations like around nudity? Did you have an intimacy coordinator to make everything comfortable?

CHALAMET Kelley [Flynn]. She was great.

SCOTT It was like, “We want everyone to feel their best, most comfortable, most confident.” For some people, they feel the most confident naked. For me personally, no. It’s not something that I can do. Because I’m still coming into my own body.

RAPP I remember a very specific day. I got to set. I was very, very hyperaware, hyperanxious, just on 10. I talked to Justin [Noble, the showrunner and co-creator]: I was like, “I don’t feel good about this.” And Justin was like, “We can just cut the scene.” That was huge because then with that little leeway, I was like: “Actually, I’m OK. Can we do it this way? Can we shoot these angles? I don’t want to see my nipple, but the side boob looks good.” I felt really, really comfortable.

KAUR We have this tendency of seeing what we think of as perfect women onscreen. We are all women who are beautiful but not model-looking. And different colors. And we’re having sex. And that’s what the world is.

RAPP And I think we look damn good doing it.

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