What does Sex Education tell us about Sex Education?

by Joanna Pidcock

How did you learn to make out with someone? I’m not talking about the kind of kissing that comes from experience, when you know what feels good – I’m talking about the split second before you made out with someone for the first time. How did you know what to do? As a general rule, it’s not something you see your parents or friends do, and it’s not something that you regularly observe in public. Chances are, you knew how (more or less) to make out with someone because you’d seen it on television and in films.

The idea of learning about sex and intimacy outside of the channels of “the talk” that your parents gave you, and RSE (Relationship and Sex Education) lessons at school, is not new. In fact, the way in which conversations about sex are often presented to young people as illicit information means that the temptation to seek out more knowledge is impossible to resist – I remember whispers on the playground at primary school, someone speaking with great authority in hushed and solemn tones about the fact that you could get an orgasm from riding a bicycle.

There has been much moral consternation around school-based sexual education. The vitriolic press assassination in Australia of Safe Schools, a programme designed to support LGBTQ+ children in schools, mainly perpetrated by conservative broadsheet The Australian, is a chilling example of a contemporary, well-researched RSE programme being used as a political Molotov cocktail[1]. In the UK, a new curriculum will be compulsorily in place from September 2020, and includes a mandate to teach “permission-seeking and giving” in relation to all physical contact from primary school onwards (a cynical reader would note the reluctance to use the term “consent”). The new programme makes the teaching of LGBTQ+ matters compulsory, and fully integrated into all teaching rather than treated as a separate entity. Discussions about sexting and the interactions between sex, intimacy and technology are now part of the curriculum. It’s long overdue, and there are positive changes, but the State’s intentions in mandating the teaching of sexual education have long been about public health – facts not feelings. The new curriculum repeatedly says that lessons have to make reference to “facts” and “the law”. There seems to be very little room to learn about pleasure and enthusiastic consent, to learn how to ask your partner/s what feels good, and to tell them what feels good for you. To learn that there are as many different ways to have sex as there are people having it, and that it’s fundamentally joyful, silly, often a bit embarrassing, and entirely up to them.

Where do young people go to fill in the gaps? To find out what it means to be sexually intimate beyond their knowledge of how to prevent chlamydia? Kate Wyver is a researcher who has travelled throughout Africa and India researching RSE and programmes in various countries that empower young people and teach them about sex and consent. She has said that humans are fundamentally curious, and we learn from everywhere. Young people want this information, and will seek it out independently, but access to it is often unequally distributed. The spread of the internet and the availability of cheap mobile phones and data across the world has improved access, and schemes such as “Ask Without Shame”, an app developed in Uganda to give people in East Africa discreet access to advice from sexual health professionals, are removing some of the cultural and societal barriers to learning about safe and joyful sex. That being said, the ability to seek out copious amounts of information about sex, as a young person, privately and without shame or judgement, is unfortunately still a privilege.

I remember reading the sex scene in the library in Ian McEwan’s Atonement at the tender age of 13 and coming to the shocking revelation that people could have sex standing up. Young people are often eager to consume material like this in a private way – information that was confined to books and bootleg DVDs of Skins when I was a teenager is now readily available to be independently and discreetly consumed on a device. Pornography is an obvious source of information, and often a risky one, especially given the prevalence of pornography showing violent and degrading behaviour towards woman, and sex that does not include consent. There are also, of course, mainstream television shows and films. Shows like Pose on FX and Euphoria on HBO show young people navigating sex and relationships – in the case of Pose, the focus is on young queer people of colour, and Euphoria looks at the intersection of sex and the internet.

There is also Netflix’s Sex Education. Premiering in 2019, the second season has just been released. The show follows Otis, a teenager and the son of sex therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson, in the role she was born to play). Otis, somewhat unwillingly, starts giving out sex therapy and advice at his high school to his peers, whilst also navigating his own anxieties around masturbation and sex. This format allows the show to ‘Trojan horse’ a lot of information about sex as a fundamental part of the plot. The advice that Otis gives is as varied as how to overcome body image in a sexual relationship, managing expectations around being openly queer in high school, and the importance of masturbation in discovering what you respond to best in partnered sex. A lot of the issues on which Otis advises his peers allow the show to ‘mythbust’ and reduce fear mongering around common questions and problems that young people have when it comes to sex, particularly issues that don’t come under the ‘public health’ mandate of school-based sexual education. The show is funny and out-there, and made with boldness and panache. There’s absolutely not an ounce of shame to it.

The second season of the show focuses more closely on the appalling state of sex education in high schools, implicitly criticising the set of circumstances that forced Otis to be giving sex advice to his peers in the first place. This narrative arc, whereby Otis’ mother Jean installs herself at the school as an RSE consultant, allows for even more actual education to slip in under the dramaturgical radar – lessons include anal douching, how to reduce hysteria around chlamydia, what it means to be pansexual, and how to finger someone with a clitoris. 

Whilst it has a predominantly British cast, and is filmed in Wales, the show uses the aesthetic and narrative structure of an American high school movie (think: High School Musical, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club) to distance itself from verisimilitude, and construct a world in which all of the characters and all of their problems can collide all at the same time. It seems to exist outside of a defined time period, or within a nostalgic present. Everyone uses smartphones, but the cars are all from the 1980s, and the décor from the 1970s. Everything is slightly too bright, the colours a bit too complimentary – the world of the show is a fanciful shade away from our own, far enough to relax into it without questioning how it operates.  A show that actually dealt with the sex lives of young people in contemporary rural Wales would be very different from what is seen on Sex Education. The cultural shorthand of an American high school drama allows the show to establish characters almost instantaneously – the star athlete, the geeky teacher, the principal, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks – and then invest its narrative energy into dismantling assumptions about these people and their lives. This kind of narrative efficiency allows for a lot more information to be packed into the show without necessarily sacrificing our engagement with the characters. We know who they present themselves as, because we’ve seen them before. What is interesting is how they deviate from our expectations.

The other thing that Sex Education has done behind the scenes is pioneer the use of intimacy coordinators. Ita O’Brien, who founded Intimacy on Set and developed the best-practice guidelines for intimacy directing and nudity on stage and screen, worked on Sex Education and led the direction of all the sex and intimacy. She has been a longterm advocate for the use of intimacy coordinators, who are able to direct sex and nudity in a way that ensures safety and dignity for actors and crew. It is heartening, because it’s so rare, to see a multinational conglomerate company like Netflix take something like this so seriously.  

Sex Education is one of Netflix’s most popular shows – and one of the only shows for which they have released viewership figures, with 40 million people streaming the first season within the first month of its release. What is the ethical responsibility of a show like this? How far can a show with such a large viewership, that is clearly providing information as well as entertainment, be held responsible for educating people? Perhaps a more pertinent concern is about who the 40 million viewers actually are – whilst ostensibly pitched as a high school drama, it’s hard to know whether the audience matches the demographic of the show. Netflix has rated the show 18+, meaning that the demographic who would benefit from this the most, those who are on the cusp of adolescence and currently being underserved by RSE programmes in their schools, are technically not allowed to watch it.

Isabelle Pidcock runs Sexpression, an organisation that facilitates sexual education at the University of Melbourne, by running forums with sexual health professionals, sex workers, and educators.[2] She is aiming to fill in the gaps from school-based RSE, and encourage open and frank conversations around and about sex, reducing stigma and shame. She sees shows like Sex Education as a “jumping-off point” for conversations, but stresses that whilst the show can start the discussions, “school-based sex ed must jump in and provide diagrams, forums, question time and comprehensive information about contraception and consent to fill in any gaps and make sure that this media representation is backed by medical advice, and the support of parents and teachers”.   

I was educated at an all-girls Catholic school. It hardly needs to be said that the sex education I received there was fairly dismal – I remember learning a lot about STIs, although never about how to go and get tested. There was plenty of chat about pregnancy, but no mention of what to do if we did happen to fall pregnant; where to go, who to talk to. Any talk of consent was about self-defence in the face of obvious male sexual aggression, but nothing about the wavering boundaries of comfort and consent that take place within a sexual experience, even with someone you love and trust. We were never taught to prioritise our own pleasure, and female orgasms were never discussed – the only orgasms we heard about were male, and in the service of reproduction.

What now shocks and appals me is that there was no discussion of vaginismus or vulvodynia, conditions that affect up to 1 in 4 women. In Sex Education, a character named Lily spends most of the first season trying to find a sexual partner. When she finally finds someone and sets up her ideal experience, with sets and costumes and a sci-fi soundtrack, she finds that she is unable to have penetrative sex – as she says, “it’s like my vagina has lockjaw”. Otis does some research, and suggests that she might have vaginismus, a condition which involves the involuntary tightening of the vaginal muscles just before, or during penetration. It makes any kind of penetration extremely painful, and often impossible.

I have had vaginismus all my life, but I only heard the word mentioned, only made the discovery of what it was, when I was in my twenties and already sexually active and looking for an answer as to what was wrong with me. The power and relief of having knowledge about something that had up until that point alienated me from myself, causing an enormous amount of anxiety and physical pain, is hard to express. The episode of Sex Education about vaginismus was the first time that I have ever heard the condition mentioned in any sort of mainstream format, and in the second season, Lily just gets on with her life, managing the condition as she would manage any other challenge. What an extraordinary thing it would have been for me to be able to watch that as a teenager coming to terms with my body and trying to love and respect it despite its flaws.

Sex education needs to be taught in schools, and it needs to be taught a lot better. Within the vagaries of capitalism and neoliberalism, the age of ‘disruptors’ and big tech, we can’t rely on private, profit-driven organisations like Netflix to provide comprehensive sex education to young people. It’s too important to get wrong. That being said, it’s heartening that shows like Sex Education exist, and that they are made by people with big hearts and sound morals, and that someone (of any age) trying to explain some things about their body might be able to watch, and laugh, and learn something that makes them feel a bit less out of place.   

[1] For more on this, read Benjamin Law’s exceptional Quarterly Essay, Moral Panic 101https://www.quarterlyessay.com.au/essay/2017/09/moral-panic-101

[2] More information about Sexpression can be found here, https://umsu.unimelb.edu.au/clubs/sexpression/, and also here, https://www.instagram.com/sexpressionmu/

This was a guest contribution from Joanna Pidcock. Joanna is a London-based theatre director and dramaturg. She likes to write about performance art, intimacy and the gaze. She can be found on Twitter @joannapid.