Ryan O'Connell
Ryan Pfluger
June 17, 2022 3:41 PM EDT

“Why do I do this to myself?” is something I mutter every time I’m standing naked while a makeup artist paints over the zits on my butt. After writing and starring in my autobiographical Netflix show Special and now, Peacock’s reboot of Queer as Folk—two TV shows with plenty of sex—this happens more often than you’d think. Why am I so obsessed with gay sex? Why do I feel the need to get naked in front of a room full of strangers? Why have I written a sex scene where I get faux-penetrated by a literal model? These are the kind of questions that float through my brain while I’m filming a sex scene. And it’s not just the medium of television that’s being terrorized by my gay smut. My debut novel, Just by Looking at Him, opens up with the line, “My boyfriend Gus has a beautiful penis.” And then proceeds to describe said beautiful penis in graphic detail.

Here’s how I can make sense of it: I write things that will act as a balm for a younger version of me. When I wrote a scene in Season 2 of Special where my boyfriend defecates on me during intercourse (can I write that sentence in TIME?), I was writing that scene for 17-year-old me, who lost his virginity and actually did sh-t on his boyfriend in the process. (Oh no. TIME is trying to escort me off the premises.) Mortified, I tried to Google “anal sex accident” but it was 2004—the era of Ask Jeeves—and Jeeves could not or WOULD NOT go there. I remember thinking that something was wrong with me, that perhaps this had to do with my cerebral palsy and I wasn’t able to have sex like the rest of my able-bodied peers. There was no literature, no TV, or movies to turn to. I had to sit with that shame and fear. I ended up not having sex for a decade partially because I was scared of what would happen the next time. I now know that such accidents are common and it has nothing to do with your physical abilities. But I wish I’d known that sooner. If I did, maybe I wouldn’t have spent 10 years being celibate and now, at the age of 35, feel like I’m constantly playing catch-up.

Ryan O'Connell as Ryan Hayes and Max Jenkins as Tanner in
Ryan O'Connell as Ryan Hayes and Max Jenkins as Tanner in "Special."
Netflix

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Representation matters. Groundbreaking, I know. But especially with gay sex—an act that has either been heavily eroticized in TV and film or been removed entirely. Watching Call Me By Your Name in 2017, I felt a sense of betrayal when the camera panned away to a tree as Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet’s characters finally consummate their relationship. It was cowardly—the ultimate copout. The whole movie was founded on their queer desire. And now we’re not allowed to see that desire be acted on! But, oh, we can see Timothée have sex with a girl and a literal peach in the same movie? Homophobic. In a movie that’s supposed to be made for us, by a gay director. The call is coming from inside the house! Or, in this case, an Italian villa.

Read more: How Queer as Folk Became the Defining Gay TV Show of a Generation—Twice

I already knew I wanted to explore gay sex in Special but Call Me By Your Name lit a fire. There would be no panning away to a tree. You would see everything: The good, the bad, the poop. I was also determined to have a healthier relationship with my body. When you’re born disabled, society immediately castrates you. You are not seen as sexually viable. If you have wants, they will go unfulfilled. I have spent the bulk of my life trying to reattach my penis and feel sexually desirable. I wanted the sex scenes in Special to act as a guide for younger queer youth diving into the murky waters of gay sex, but it was also a way for me to tell the world: I will not be erased. You will have to look at my body. You will have to look at my scars. You will have to look at my normal stomach. And you will have to wonder why this is so revolutionary to see. Because it shouldn’t be. My body is not revolutionary. It’s just a body.

When we held early screenings for Special, audiences shared their discomfort and concern for my character, Ryan, as he prepares to lose his virginity. They thought something bad was going to happen to him, that some kind of humiliation was right around the corner. There wasn’t. It was an empowering and joyful experience for Ryan, but I found their fears to be fascinating and ultimately depressing. The fact that they couldn’t fathom a scene where a disabled person has agency is the reason why the sex scene needed to exist in the first place. It should not be groundbreaking for a disabled person to have a positive sexual experience.

And yet it is. Which is why, after Special ended, gay sex became a muse of mine and continues to be explored in the Queer as Folk reboot. In fact, my character, Julian, has sex with TWO guys in one night. (After eating beignets. Really tempting fate there.)

Devin Way as Brodie and Johnny Sibilly as Noah in
Devin Way as Brodie and Johnny Sibilly as Noah in "Queer as Folk."
Peacock

It still boggles my mind how puritanical people can be about sex. I’ve read some early reviews of my novel and so many of them include mentions of the “frank” depiction of gay sex. “Not for everyone!” people say. “Too graphic for me,” wrote one review. It’s sad that in this era of literal hell people are so scared of depictions of pleasure. Because gay sex or not, that’s really what I’m showing: People finding—and sometimes losing—themselves through the act of sex. People putting on masks and trying to take them off with their partners. They’re striving for intimacy. Connection. Happiness. Something we’re all starved for and can relate to. And that’s why I will keep coming back to sex in my work. It taps into the root of what makes storytelling so powerful: It’s personal and specific (“Am I going to have an accident with/on my partner?”) which makes it universal (“I hope this person can see and accept me for who I am”).

The whole point of making things, for me, is to make people feel less alone, less othered, less stigmatized. One thing I’m sure of: Sex is a great way to do that. And that’s why I’ll never stop getting naked and having fake sex on TV, even though having someone cover up the zits on your butt IS humiliating. Seriously. Would not recommend.

Ryan O’Connell is a two-time Emmy® Award-nominated writer, producer and actor. O’Connell’s debut novel Just by Looking at Him was published on June 7, 2022 by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. O’Connell presently stars in Peacock’s reimagining of Russell T. Davies groundbreaking original series Queer as Folk, where he also is a writer and executive producer. O’Connell is best known for his groundbreaking Netflix series, Special, which became a cultural phenomenon and received four Emmy® Award nominations and a WGA Award.

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