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Gay Sex In The Undying World of Torchwood: Miracle Day

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Updated February 03, 2014

Torchwood: Miracle Day (Ep 3) - Dead of Night

Fans of science fiction and BBC know Torchwood as the Doctor Who spin-off for adults. Its first British incarnation was known more for the rampant sexuality of its leading man - Captain Jack Harkness - than for most of its plots. It was also known for embracing a wide variety of sexual expression - heterosexual, homosexual and extrasexual. (What else would you call sex with aliens? Outresexual?)

Although there was a great deal of exploration of sexuality in the original Torchwood - an early episode even involved an alien killed during orgasm - I do not believe that the series explored some of the more prosaic consequences of sex until production moved to the United States. The first American episodes, which were produced as the miniseries Miracle Day, were released in summer 2011.

The premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day is that something has happened that has left the human race unable to die - no matter how grievous an injury a person suffers. However, one "person" has received an inverse miracle. Captain Jack Harkness, who was previously immortal, is now vulnerable to damage and disease.

Captain Jack's character has been established as something of a sexual omnivore, although he seems to prefer to have relationships with men. His romantic and sexual relationship with the now deceased Ianto Jones was, for many fans, the emotional heart of the series. (In fact, because of the previously queer-friendly nature of the show, some fans wondered whether an extended sequence of homophobic jokes in the second episode represented a "straightening up" of the series for American audiences. Given the content of the episode described in this article, that does not seem to be the case.)

In episode 3, Captain Jack decides to embrace his mortality and blow off some steam by going to a club. While there, he is approached by the bartender, and they eventually return to the man's apartment to have sex. That sexual encounter is the reason that I'm reviewing the episode, Dead of Night.

While the gay sex scene is intermixed with a heterosexual scene that takes place with no negotiation of safe sex, Captain Jack is excruciatingly aware of his own vulnerability. He initiates the following conversation before the two men do much more than kiss:

Jack: "Do you have protection?

Brad: "What for? Can't die now. Don't need nothing in between."

Jack: "That's not how it works anymore. Lifetime of regret just got even longer."

Brad: "Fine, you're calling the shots."

I loved the line about a "lifetime of regret getting longer" serving as motivation for people to discuss sexual health issues. It's such a relevant idea in today's world, particularly when you think about the ways that discussions of HIV risk have changed over the past 20 years. Just because HIV is becoming a chronic disease, rather than a fatal one, that doesn't mean it's an infection you want to court. Brad's attitude about risk reflects one that does exist in certain subcultures, and I think the attitude is something that needs to be discussed more often than it is. If the topic is brought up by the magnificently sexy John Barrowman - all the better. Maybe that will get it some notice.

One thing about the episode, however, did worry me. I'd like to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they had Jack discuss safe sex as a character choice designed to reflect his awareness of his mortality rather than because he is gay. But the way the show interposed images of the two men having casual sex with a heterosexual couple having equally casual sex mostly made it seem like straight people don't need to worry about consequences. This was particularly ironic given that a conversation on the urgent need for contraceptives to prevent a population explosion took place elsewhere in the episode.

What the episode got right

  • When you take death off the table, some people do become less worried about STD risk.
  • Protection is important for oral sex, which is what the episode implied was going to happen next in the two men's sexual encounter.
  • If someone wants to have casual sex with you right now, asking them to use protection probably won't make them change their mind.
What the episode got wrong
  • Safe sex isn't just for gay men. In fact, it's somewhat ironic that Rex, the male half of the heterosexual couple, is a black man living in Washington, D.C. Residents there (in particular, the African-American population) have some the highest HIV rates in the U.S.

Sources:

Magnus et al. (2009) " Risk factors driving the emergence of a generalized heterosexual HIV epidemic in Washington, District of Columbia networks at risk." AIDS. 23(10):1277-1284

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