When Buffy makes off-putting and aggressive sexual comments to Tara about her relationship with Willow in a Season 4 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, titled “Who Are You?”, Tara immediately senses something is amiss. It may be the first time she’s meeting Buffy, but Tara is a badass witch who figures out that Buffy isn’t really home, so to speak.
After leaving the awkward encounter with not-Buffy, Tara tells Willow that she’ll need to travel to the Nether Realm to figure out what’s wrong with her friend. The spell will require a sort of astral projection, during which Willow will need Tara to serve as an anchor. It’s the most intense spell the two have cast together and Tara warns her of that fact. Willow says, “I trust you.”
Tara anoints Willow’s head, mouth, and heart sensually. The music rises as the two begin drawing semi-circles around themselves with the tips of their fingers, whisper-chanting the spell. They begin to breath heavier, in sync, their chests rising and falling in unison. Sweat gathers on Tara’s brow as she looks at Willow. They lock eyes, and an equally sweaty Willow falls backward onto a pillow where she arches her back and moans.
The breathy chanting, the important role of fingers, the rising music, the magical circle, the sweat, Willow’s ecstatic moans and Tara’s lingering gaze — it all amounts to a pretty steamy sex scene if you ignore the fact that there is no actual touching of bodies, nor any onscreen acknowledgment of the two women’s romantic relationship up to that point.
The frustrating, yet unsurprising part, is that while Willow and Tara’s sex is relegated to the world of innuendo, Faith-as-Buffy and Riley have a complicated and fraught sexual encounter, not just in the same episode but at the same exact time that Willow and Tara get busy with their horny… chant.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a deeply sexual show that doesn’t always nail complicated sexual discourse but does allow young women to have sexual agency to greater or lesser degrees.
Beginning in Season 2, Buffy is shown having sex with many of her paramours, from Angel to Riley to Spike and beyond. Anya and Xander have a deeply sexual relationship, particularly at the beginning. Faith’s sexuality is both celebrated and maligned by the series that sometimes treats her as the cautionary counterexample to Buffy. (And given the body-switching above, one can understand why many are ambivalent about the dark Slayer on the path to redemption.)
Part of the reason for the difference in the treatment of queer and straight characters is censorship. Diehard fans are probably already familiar with the rationale and neophytes can probably guess. Noting the shift in representation between Seasons 5 and 6, it becomes clear that queer censorship played a major role in how sexual encounters between the two women are portrayed in the series. (Creator Joss Whedon acknowledged that “The network [WB] obviously has issues” with the queer storyline.) Only when the series was eventually picked up by UPN did Willow and Tara’s sexual relationship actually appear onscreen.
Before the series moved networks, Willow and Tara’s sexual connection was explored through witchcraft and spells. While it is fair to say that there might be no easier or more effective way to sidestep censorship, the impact of transforming their perfectly healthy sexuality into magic is mixed. On the one hand, showing two queer women in love through the metaphor of powerful witches whose intimacy reaches far beyond what mere mortals can aspire to is a pretty cool testament to their strength and the strength of all queer women. On the other, relegating their sexuality to something less sexual and more emotional plays into harmful misrepresentations of queer women (and women in general) and their sexual drives and appetites.
Despite the clear discrepancy in how queer and straight characters and their sexualities are treated, Buffy remains an important series, both for when it aired and for its long-reaching impact on LGBTQ+ communities and feminist TV. Look no further than Wynonna Earp to see that genre representations of women-loving-women have come a far way and owe a good deal to Willow and Tara.
When Buffy’s mother Joyce dies in Season 5’s “The Body,” the Scoobies are understandably shaken up. It’s the first time someone dear to them has died — and they all want to be supportive, but in many ways, they have also lost their mom. (Joyce is the only parent who has been present and involved in their lives, both within the narrative and onscreen.)
After hearing the news of Joyce’s death, Willow tries to pick an outfit to meet Buffy at the morgue and she begins to breakdown. She suddenly hates all her clothing, discounting each item for being too childish or too, of all things, royal. “Tara,” she moans. “I can’t do this.”
Tara pulls her girlfriend into herself and soothes her, kissing first her forehead and then her lips several times. “We can do this,” Tara says.
The moment is significant not just because it shows Tara and Willow becoming more deeply interdependent and even more healthily in love, but also because it is the first time Willow and Tara, who have been in a relationship for over a year at this point, are shown kissing onscreen. It is also one of the few times that the physical nature of their relationship is not portrayed magically.
However, in a harrowing episode, Willow and Tara’s relationship and the physical nature of their love takes a backseat. This kiss, rendered through the lens of grief and mourning, provides an interesting counterexample to the erotic nature of their spell-casting. Where they were very sexual — albeit metaphorically — while casting spells, this moment, though more explicitly physical, is devoid of erotic charge.
In the end — literally in the second to last episode of the final season — it is only after Tara’s death that two women are shown having sex onscreen. Willow is hesitant, both because she still misses Tara and because she’s afraid of what will happen if she loses control. Kennedy, a potential Slayer, assures her that she will be OK because Kennedy will be there with her, like a kite string. It’s a tender moment that is important both for how it shows Willow’s growth in the aftermath of Tara’s tragic death and for the fact that it was the first women-loving-women sex scene on TV.
While Buffy certainly deserves a nod for its loving and tender representation of Willow and Tara’s evolution as a couple — outside of the censorship and occurrence of Bury Your Gays — it’s also frustrating as all get out that we never see the two have sex onscreen. There are many moments where it is implied (see: Season 6’s “Once More with Feeling” for a very sensual song about cunnilingus) or where the two are laying in bed together after clearly just having had sex, but the best, most sexual moments between Willow and Tara remain those during which they cast spells. It might feel like a consolation prize, but you can’t say you don’t get turned on watching them make magic.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.