Our Pop Culture Obsession with Apocalypse Sex

What is it about the end of the world that brings on the libido?

Gabriel Matula

Life after the apocalypse can be frustrating—the chemical clouds, the ravaging bands of cannibals, the zombies nibbling on your friends and neighbors. But what to do when you’re seemingly the only two people left on Earth—or at least within 100 miles of visibility? The answer is have sex, of course. And that sex may very well be the best sex of (the remaining hours of) your life.

Television has had a little obsession with apocalypse sex lately. In IO: Last on Earth, Netflix’s post-apocalyptic should-I-stay-or-should-I-go drama, everything stops for a kiss that could spin Earth off its rotational axis. Our lovers are idealistic scientist Sam (Margaret Qualley), who clings to saving the earth, and practical survivalist Micah (Anthony Mackie), who just wants to get the hell out of dodge.

Our sexpository scene: Micah, angry that they won’t be able to get off the ground if the wind doesn’t change, slams the door with the sexual frustration of someone whose wifi connection has been down for a few weeks.

“Trust me,” Sam says, caressing his shoulder. “It’ll change.”

She turns on Idil Biret’s “Nocturne No. 2 in E Flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2.” I mean, that’s sex music if we ever heard it. Their bodies gravitate toward one another slowly, like two primordial particles coalescing into a great Big Bang. But Micah’s body feels inertia. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s okay,” Sam says, kissing him tenderly and slowly. “I can’t,” he says. (Really? What else you got going on in the next twenty minutes, Micah?) “We have to,” she says. They are, after all, the last two pairs of gonads on earth.
Crisis heightens that sense that sex is the most pleasurable thing you could possibly be doing before you bite the dust, one last petite mort before le grand mort.
But procreation isn’t the name of this sex game. The show makes it clear: When apocalypse sex comes for us all, it won’t just be to repopulate the earth, or even to dole out a Kit-Kat break from the daily survival grind. It will be the way any surviving humans reestablish meaning in their lives in a world gone mad (or perhaps sane)—one where Whole Foods versus Trader Joe’s, Mercedes versus BMW, JimmyJane versus Lelo, is no longer a way of understanding who you are.

This intensive meaning-making is seen in Netflix’s Bird Box, where Tom (Trevante Rhodes) exhibits the ultimate altruistic life-saving behavior to benefit his beloved sex partner, Malorie (Sandra Bullock). Their love develops slowly, and sex happens as a means of expressing their love, rather than love developing as a result of sex. When it does happen, though, it’s as if everything selfless, reserved Tom ever wanted to say to tense, self-protective Malorie explodes in one look in his eyes. It’s obvious that Malorie needs Tom and yet doesn’t want to need him, and the vulnerability both exhibit in the sex scene is tantalizing in its hopes for a future both can trust in.

In Netflix’s post-apocalyptic Danish series The Rain, murdering and stealing in the name of survival has become routine, but sexy doomed lovers Rasmus (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen) and Beatrice (Angela Bundalovic) have sensitive sides that still seek a gentler touch. With the rest of their crew away on a food-gathering expedition, the day takes on a tinge of what young love would’ve been like before toxic rain washed away all romance.

For eternally-teenaged Rasmus, who remembers nothing of life before the virus-ridden rain ripped from humanity any possibility of wet, shirt-clinging The Notebook-style outdoor makeouts, the opposite sex is a cloaked curiosity. Over a long lingering afternoon of drawing Beatrice’s portrait and resisting her kiss in a golden field, Rasmus’ curiosity about this light-hearted, sprite-like woman gives way to flirtation, which gives way to affection, which gives way to dirty post-apocalypse clothes being removed. (Spoiler alert: Sex gives way to death, and the cycle continues.)
When apocalypse sex comes for us all, it won’t just be to repopulate the earth. It will be the way any surviving humans reestablish meaning in their lives.
But in those few moments of revelation before death, while the thunder threatens rain, a post-apocalyptic couple can reconnect via an almost-civilized society of two. Their bodies pressed against a few soiled cushions on some makeshift wooden crates, mischievous Beatrice deflowers sweet, virginal Rasmus. Temporarily, the old world intrudes into their bare-bones existence and time is relative again, something beyond the caveman-like hunt for food and shelter. The most elemental of human senses, touch, becomes a possibility that is not imbued with violence. Relationships presuppose a future, but the doomed nature of post-apocalyptic relationships is what makes the sex so hot—there is no future.

“Now it’s just you and me,” Rasmus says. But brutality threatens to set in again when Rasmus wakes up in the morning alone again, finding not only a wide-eyed, dead Beatrice spooned within the curve of his body, but the threat of The Strangers, a band set to destroy them, ever closer. Good thing he seized the day.

Brutality bookends sex when it comes to apocalypse, most noteworthily in HBO’s post-Rapture series The Leftovers, when a wild lion-inspired Tasmanian sex cult romps around imitating animal savagery that hardly needs reviving in an already-ferocious world. If you’re looking to get it in before you’re done in, a leopard-print orgy sounds worthwhile, but keep fantastic beasts and grand ideologies off the boat—since in this case, the lion devours the cult leader who claims to be the omnipotent God. What was once an Olympic decathlete is now a mere tasty morsel. Thankfully, the show leaves us with a few other sex scenes as mental stimulation, including Kevin and Nora’s climactic smash from the first season to assure us that if at first you both can’t succeed (or apocalypse’s many unanswered questions are just distracting you), try, try again. That’s one lesson of post-apocalyptic sex: It won’t always be perfect, but it’ll be urgent and desirable.

Urgent is the prevailing sentiment when you’ve got zombies at your back door, but somehow, television’s most famous post-apocalyptic show manages to be timeless during its tender sex scenes. In the nine sex-strewn seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead, the deed is shown to be simultaneously the most redeeming (Rick and Michonne), and most potentially brutalizing (The Governor and Andrea), of all connections. There may be walkers to pick off somewhere beyond the fences, and humans to fend off inside, but there’s always time for a little nookie.
Relationships presuppose a future, but the doomed nature of post-apocalyptic relationships is what makes the sex so hot—there is no future.
In fact, after a big kill is when characters like Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln), or Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Glenn (Steve Yeun), find that sparks fly. Though we may wonder what this says about our primeval natures, it seems realistic that in the scale of Maslow’s Hierarchy, preventing zombies from chomping our flesh comes before and in fact inspires a little face-sucking. Someone who can effectively prevent sloe-eyed threats to our bodies, and potentially our offspring, is the new version of a high-powered job in Silicon Valley or a great cook or masseuse (in which case, one can’t help but wonder, why can’t Darrell get a little more post-apocalyptic shagging on the cue cards?).

What’s both encouraging and disconcerting about the human race is that nothing—not brain-macerating zombies, not diseased rain that makes you go rabid like a raccoon, not unbreathable toxic air or suicide-inducing invisible creatures—prevents sex from going down. In fact, crisis heightens that sense that sex is the most pleasurable, and most worthwhile, thing you could possibly be doing before you bite the dust, one last petite mort before le grand mort.

So as our oceans tsunami toward our skyscrapers, and we all feel stuck in the Bird Box of our tiny apartments, we might as well prepare for the best apocalyptic sex we'll ever have—or at least, roleplay it. Some tips from our TV friends: Don’t bother with flashy cars or extensive grooming—like Rick, a beard, a sheriff’s hat, a pickup truck and some mints will do you just fine in the post-apocalyptic world. To get your adrenaline up, a competitive bout of laser tag, a tricky escape room, or a little first-person shooter action on Left 4 Dead can’t hurt. But don’t forget all semblance of civilization: consent, foreplay, science, intellect, sensitivity and romance are still sexy. So turn on that “Biret Nocturne” and read a few tattered lines of poetry from some pages that survived the book burnings, because penultimate apocalypse sex might just be better than all the times that came before.

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