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The cost of free love: Dirty Lines rings true

Netflix's new Amsterdam-set drama addresses the potential tedium of over-familiarity with sex, as well as its liberatory capacities

Joy Delima as phone sex line worker Marly in Dirty Lines (Photo: Netflix)

I was stuck in an airport for a full day last week, arriving not my ordinary, neurotic four hours early, but a full six to account for strikes and delays. I
began to watch Dirty Lines, sitting crouched on the ground in an overcrowded lounge. OK, it’s a show about a sex phone line, I thought, but
by its nature a sex phone line is all sound and no physical fury – nobody
would glance over and see a freakish pervert hunched over a laptop playing
pornos, it would be my aural secret.

Soon, however, my good faith was undone, when Frank, the mastermind
behind the phone line, shows a television crew around his business premises and unveils an enthusiastically shagging couple, their noises being recorded for later use. The man looks up and winks. I snapped my laptop shut, unable to tolerate the risk that somebody would think I was watching for my own pleasure (instead of the very serious business of telly reviewing). Maybe I’m more repressed than I thought.

Repression is a major concern in Dirty Lines. Set in Amsterdam in the 1980s, it follows the fortunes of the sex line, Teledutch, and the lives of the entrepreneurial brothers Frank (Minne Koole) and Ramon (Chris Peters) who founded it. We are introduced to an extended cultural milieu who share a certain experimental bravado with Teledutch, people trying to make sense of a city that at that time was still grasping for a sense of identity.

This was before the famous decadence and seediness of Amsterdam had been successfully branded as its own kind of tourist attraction. It’s a strong setting: pre-Berlin Wall coming down, the future uncertain and up for grabs,
ecstasy and house music reconfiguring the social lives of a generation. And then there is the matter of sex.

Our heroine is Marly (Joy Delima), a student and self-confessed prude who has nevertheless ended up working for Teledutch. She and her friend Janna
study psychology and have begun to take a keen interest in sexology, and in
particular a handsome young professor who says all sorts of intriguing things while looking out from under his fringe with horny puppy-dog eyes. Janna is liberated, and Marly is not.

When Janna encourages Marly to record a tape for Teledutch to make some extra cash, she is such a monotonous and sauceless reader that they consign it to the unusable pile. Despite her failure, a television crew capture footage of her reading that is aired on national television, bringing such shame on her mother that she is thrown out. Now, she has no choice but to forge ahead on a new path of sexual freedom, and immerse herself in the frantic, real Amsterdam beyond the suburbs.


Meanwhile, Frank and Ramon grapple with their own issues of repression and denial. Ramon, married with a child, is concealing an ever more uncontrollable attraction to men, while Frank is bored senseless by his wife, Anouka, who chatters about domestic matters ceaselessly.

What’s interesting about the show’s treatment of repression and sexual freedom is that it manages to be fairly ambivalent on the merits and drawbacks of both. Frank appears to suffer from no repression or shame at
all. And yet this lack of self-consciousness and embarrassment doesn’t seem to bestow him with any particular joie de vivre. Rather it is purely a gateway to making money, and it’s financial freedom, rather than sexual, that creates meaning in his life.

On the surface, Marly’s quest for sexual liberation seems straightforward. But it is more complex than it may seem. Although she does gain confidence, she must also grapple with the struggles implied by sexual freedom. An affair with her dishy sexology teacher is not a simple, defiant act of sensuality, but comes with its own set of inhibiting restrictions, him treating her sexuality in turn as either something to be patronised and played down or as an unconditional tap he may turn on and off at will.

This is not to say Dirty Lines is reactionary or sex-negative, but that it wisely chooses to look at sexual freedom as a matter of inherent ambivalence, not necessarily empowering by virtue of its own existence. I often think of a Rilke quote in which he describes irony, but which I think can apply to sex, too: “Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn’t be ashamed of it; but if you
feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing
familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless.”

Dirty Lines is a fun, exhilarating watch, but also addresses the potential tedium of over-familiarity with sex, as well as its liberatory capacities.

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