A hand opening a pencil case meant to look like a vulva.

How to Do It: Sex Education and the “Sex Life”

In 1696, in Somerset county in southwest England, a schoolboy named John Cannon and his friends took their lunchtime break on the banks of a river near their schoolhouse. Unlike other uneventful riverside lunches, though, this day was memorable enough for Cannon to record in his memoirs. An older boy who was “about 17” years old, Cannon writes,

took an occasion to show the rest, what he would do if he had a female in place, and withal took his privy member in his hand, rubbing it up & down until it was erected & in short followed emission. The same was he said in copulation & withal advised more of the boys to do the same, telling them that although the first act would be attended with pain yet by frequent use they would find a deal of pleasure, on which several attempted and found it as he said. Indeed, courteous friend, I cannot excuse myself for being one of his pupills at the same time.1

A group of teenage boys standing in a circle by a river, learning to masturbate during their school lunch break: this might well have been a scene in Laurie Nunn’s new Netflix show, Sex Education. Sex Education follows the lives of a group of students at Moredale Secondary School, a fictional high school (as we would say in the United States) set somewhere in the countryside of England. The show’s protagonist, Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), is the sexually-anxious son of a sex therapist, Jean (Gillian Anderson).

Despite his own sexual hang-ups, Otis has soaked up enough of his mother’s thoughtfulness about the complexity of sex to be able to help his peers work through their own sexual difficulties, a skill that his friend Maeve (Emma Mackey) turns into a business. In their clandestine sex advice clinic, Maeve collects the clients, and Otis talks through their sexual problems with them. There are, as it turns out, lots of clients with lots of problems.

Sex “Education”

Given its emphasis on the relationship between Otis and his clients, the show might well have been called Sex Therapy, rather than Sex Education. Indeed, at least in the public education system in the United States, “sex education” generally entails little more than a discussion of various sexually transmitted infections.

In many states, sex ed courses are perfunctory, and sometimes even taught by community volunteers who are not trained educators. “Education” is a generous word for what goes on in those classrooms. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 37 states “require that information on abstinence be provided,” with 27 of those states — including my current state of Michigan — requiring that “abstinence be stressed.”

Typed page. Heading: "High Schools and Sex Education." Stamp of the Treasury Department at the bottom of the page.
As you’d expect, a 1922 edition of recommendations for sex education in high schools… from the US Treasury Department. (Archive.org)

My home state of Alabama is one of 7 states that stipulate that homosexuality cannot be discussed positively in sex education courses. Alabama Title 16. Education § 16-40A-2 (c) (8) mandates that sex ed courses include “an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” Never mind the fact that the US Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision declared unconstitutional the sodomy law referenced in the statute, and never mind that the damage — both emotionally and physically — this statute does to queer youth clearly runs counter to the “public health perspective” it claims to support.

Similar homophobic statutes (so-called “no promo homo” laws) exist in Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Such “education” seems like the furthest thing from the honest and open communication about the emotional and physical difficulties of sex that Sex Education stresses.

The show does give us, though, a small glimpse of this sterile form of clinical education in the first episode when Otis and Maeve are tasked with labeling the various parts of the vulva and placing a condom on a dildo. But what makes Sex Education so brilliant, in my opinion, is that it portrays this clinical sex ed as not enough. The students of Moredale can label diagrams of the vulva all day long; they still need someone to talk through with them how to give blowjobs, how to listen to their partners, and how to figure out what it is they find pleasurable.

In a mere eight episodes, Sex Education manages to carefully cover a huge range of sexual issues that might not normally fall under the guise of “sex ed”: desire, including queer desire; performance anxiety; unwanted pregnancy; abortion; gender expression, and the dangers faced by transfeminine/gender nonconforming people; communication in relationships; anxieties about being a virgin; sexual reputation and rumor; divorce; adultery; parenting; (cyber)bullying; immigration; and addiction.

Cartoon of a woman's reproductive system... but really a disembodied uterus, fallopian tube, and vagina.
A still from a (wholly inadequate) 1960s American “sex ed” video. (Archive.org)

What the show understands is that people have sex lives — sex lives that aren’t just accumulations of scientific knowledge about reproduction or quantifications of how much sex one is or isn’t having, but complex and ever-changing relations to sex. And it understands that the sexual knowledge that undergirds those sex lives is not primarily transmitted from teacher to pupil, but from peer to peer. After all, John Cannon — the man from my opening anecdote — didn’t learn to masturbate from his school teacher, but from a boy in the class above him.

Sex is a Tragicomedy

As a historian of sexuality, I was so struck by Sex Education because it, like Cannon’s anecdote, treats sex as a learned skill. In my scholarly work, which examines how English women and men learned how to have sex in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I approach sex in much the same way as the show does: not only as a learned skill, but as a learned skill that is both logistical (how do you figure out how to make your body fit with, on, or in someone else’s body?) and emotional (how do you figure out what you feel, and why you feel it, and how other people feel about you, and why?).

The social organization of sexuality has changed drastically over the past 400 years — to give just one example: sexual identity categories like “straight” and “gay” and “bisexual” simply didn’t exist in the seventeenth century. But the daily work of crafting a sex life — the anxieties and the pleasures, the anticipation and the rumination, the fumbling and the stumbling and even, as the show dramatizes in the second episode, the vomiting — has largely remained the same.

Taking up both the logistical and the emotional challenges posed by sex, Sex Education deftly captures the fact that sex is a tragicomedy. The show is so sympathetic to its characters that it allows us to see the comedy of sex and to feel how very serious the anxieties surrounding sex can be. We are supposed to laugh when one of the school’s gay boys, Anwar (Chaneil Kular), confesses to Otis that he is “freaked out by bumholes” and when another boy worries that he might be “addicted to wanking.”

We are supposed to laugh, but we aren’t supposed to laugh at. Lily’s (Tanya Reynolds) alien-laden sexual fantasies, for instance, are funny not because the show makes fun of her, but because sex is weird and funny and, well, kind of alien! (While the ensemble cast of the show is wonderful across the board — I mean, come on, it’s Gillian Anderson! — Reynolds’s performance stands out as truly spectacular).

The show even manages to create sympathy for Adam (Connor Swindells), the headmaster’s son and school bully. In the first episode, bothered by his recent inability to ejaculate, Adam takes three pills of Viagra and becomes distressingly erect. The show wants us to laugh — “it’s like a third leg!” Maeve quips — but then immediately shifts from the comic to the tragic.

When Maeve reveals that she knows about Adam’s sexual problems with his girlfriend, the music stops, and the camera rests close to Adam’s downtrodden face as he takes a beat. “Too much pressure,” he says. “I just can’t stop thinking about stuff when I’m shagging: what if I’m not good at this? Maybe I’m doing it wrong? Maybe she knows I’m doing it wrong!” These aren’t the sorts of questions that are answered by the school-sanctioned worksheets and condom demonstrations.

Among the many brilliant choices this show makes is the extension of its narrative arc past the obligatory school dance episode. Where less thoughtful writers might well have ended the show with the high drama of the dance, Sex Education understands that sex has emotional afterlives — that it can continue to reverberate after any particular act, and that understanding sex holistically requires resting in both the pleasure and the discomfort that remain when the traditional narrative climax has passed.

As a viewer, you feel like the show takes care of you, even in its smallest details. It’s no accident, for instance, that the play the students are discussing in their English class is Shakespeare’s As You Like It — a play in which a woman pretends to be a man in order to teach the man she loves how to woo women. As You Like It is, in many ways, Shakespeare’s “sex ed” play.

There are, in fact, many early modern precedents for the holistic approach to sex that Sex Education takes. In addition to John Cannon and Shakespeare, consider just one final example: a mid-seventeenth century text called The School of Venus. This text is composed of fictional dialogues between a young, soon-to-be married woman named Katy and her older, married friend Frank. Katy, a virgin, comes to Frank to air her anxieties about her impending first sexual encounter, and to ask her advice about what she should do. “Pray tell me what your Husband doth to you when he lyes with you,” she asks Frank, “for I would not willingly altogether appear a Novice, when I shall arrive to that great happiness.”2

Katy says, in effect, “it’s my first time and I’m nervous”: a sentiment as readily legible in the seventeenth century as it is today. It’s not hard to imagine Otis sitting in the stall next to Katy, taking a breath and replying: “Ok, before we get to the ins-and-outs, tell me a little bit about your relationship ….”

Notes

  1. Cannon, John, The Chronicles of John Cannon, Excise Officer and Writing Master, Part I: 1684-1733 (Somerset, Oxfordshire, Berkshire), ed. John Money (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 26. Return to text.
  2. Mudge, Bradford K., ed. When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature (Oxford University Press, 2004), 17. Return to text.

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