The Reality of Sex Education
By Edwardo Pérez
For most of us, sex education didn’t happen in the school classroom, where embarrassed teachers showed us “educational” films and demonstrated certain things with clinical visual aids (if a condom-laced cucumber counts as clinical). Nor did we learn anything from our parents, who tried their best to explain the birds and the bees but who (because it’s just so weird to talk about) didn’t really convey the ins and outs, so to speak.
If any sex education occurred normally (if it wasn’t forced upon us), then it happened through a series of trial-and-error failings (and occasional successes) where we simply had to gain our sexual knowledge (and our Billy Dee Williams smoothness, baby) from experience (individually and with a partner every now and then).
Of course, sex isn’t really something that can be captured in a textbook, the Kama Sutra, a “talk,” or a training video (or websites like Pornhub), because the intimacy that occurs between sexual partners happens along a vast spectrum that isn’t just physical, requiring more than just knowing what goes where (or having a repertoire of positions, techniques, and toys to make your partner’s head spin).
Indeed, as Netflix’s Sex Education reveals, sex (and its education) requires a blend of psychology, emotional maturity, and philosophy – not just to get it right (or do it right) but to understand that sex isn’t really about sex (about the act itself) nor is it really about procreation. Rather, it’s about understanding ourselves and the people we share ourselves with.
Yes, some pheromones and hormones help (attraction, whether chemical or visual, certainly heightens the experience and it keeps us coming back for more). But it also helps if we’re ready for sex, if we know what we want from sex, and if we care enough about our sexual partners to meet their needs. If only we all had someone like Asa Butterfield’s Otis (Sex Education’s millennial version of Dr. Ruth, if Dr. Ruth were a repressed, inexperienced, sexually traumatized teenage boy) to help us out.
If you’ve seen Netflix’s Sex Education, you might’ve noticed something interesting about its overall narrative – something beyond the simple prurient appeal (because, yes, it’s explicit – visually and verbally, like an updated version of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, if Ridgemont High was an academy in Wales). At root, all the people Otis helps in his hilarious role as a high-school sex therapist don’t need help with the physical act, they need help understanding the mental side.
For the show, this allows for some significant character development that goes beyond the initial Breakfast Club stereotypes (Otis = Geek; Maeve = Basket Case; Ruby and Aimee = princesses; Jackson = athlete; Adam = bad boy; Mr. Groff = detention guy) or the gay best friend stereotype (Eric). And, while each character’s dilemma presents a unique problem for Otis to solve, which causes Otis to consult sources (his mother, books, the internet – which includes watching videos on certain lesbian techniques for research), what underlies each problem is something metaphysical and culturally relevant with regard to the current attitudes of our global society.
Generally, metaphysics seeks to understand what is real or what counts as real – and many philosophers have offered various explanations for our reality (or non-reality) and the nature of things in our existence and the world(s) we perceive. So, what does reality have to do with sex education? Or, what is the reality of sex?
When it comes to sex, society (our secular laws, religious doctrines, and the morals of any given culture) typically dictates what counts (or what can be defined) as real sex, whether we agree or not. Often, society has deemed heterosexual intercourse as acceptable, defining it as real, actual sex, while regarding non-heterosexual unions as deviant forms of real sex (fake sex?).
For example, consider that fourteen states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books as recently as 2003 (and it took a Supreme Court decision to invalidate them). And, as of January 2019, only two states (Delaware and New Jersey) prohibit child marriage – because while sodomy between two consenting adults is a sin worth prohibiting by law, marrying a child (though technically rape and sexual enslavement) is blessed by God.
The debate over how to define marriage is similarly metaphysical, with so-called “traditional” marriage being privileged over same-sex marriages (even the rhetoric, such as “civil union” and “traditional” becomes a metaphysical argument).
So, the distinction between hetero and non-hetero (LGBTQIAUC2SPH+) is significant because it creates a type of sex that is acceptable (justified? sanctioned?) and a type of sex that isn’t, such as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, questioning, intersex, asexual, unsure, curious, two-spirit, pansexual, HIV-affected, and plus (which includes other designations such as third gender, ally, and other).
In a study, Bespoke Surgical found that “75% of people said their sex ed class didn’t discuss same-sex relationships or intercourse,” adding that “this isn’t surprising when you consider that only 12 states require discussion of sexual identity” – and according to the Guttmacher Institute, as of January 2019, nine of those states “require that the discussion of sexual orientation be inclusive,” while the other three states “require only negative information on sexual orientation,” yet “39 states require that abstinence be included” in the content of sexual education courses.
Kate Hudson might be an advocate of “genderless parenting” (letting her daughter decide how she wants to identify herself) and the character of Jackson on Sex Education might have two mothers (one white, one black), but the Guttmacher Institute’s statistics reveal a harsh reality when it comes to defining sexual identities.
Accordingly, for some teens, everything other than heterosexual intercourse (such as anal, oral, and fondling) doesn’t really count as sex – like the anti-abortion activist Otis meets outside the abortion clinic in the third episode, who claims her boyfriend cheated on her. He didn’t cheat (he’s been monogamous in their relationship), he simply had intercourse with someone prior to the relationship. When Otis asks her about her own sexual history, she rattles off a list of acts she’s performed (including oral and anal sex), claiming that they don’t count as real sex (and implying that she’s a virgin because she hasn’t had vaginal intercourse).
So, what counts as sex? Are you a virgin until you have vaginal intercourse? (Does that definition only count for girls? Or is there a metaphysical difference in what is being penetrated?) Or, do you lose your sexual innocence the moment you learn that such a thing as sex exists (or you engage in masturbation, like Aimee does, like Eric does, and like Otis eventually, and very hilariously, does)? And, what about arousal? Does that count? What about daydreaming and looking at certain images and videos? Where does innocence end and awareness begin? And what about broken hymens and wet dreams?
So, metaphysically, sex is difficult to define. While Otis never offers a philosophical definition on the show, the perspective he proceeds from and the advice he gives to his peers (from helping Adam with the size of his penis to helping Ruby appreciate her vagina to helping Aimee understand that she needs to learn how to respect herself) suggests that he views all forms of sexuality as part of the reality of sex (regardless of what secular or religious laws dictate).
Otis doesn’t care what his peers fancy, nor does he judge them. He simply wants to help them feel comfortable with who they are and with what they want – even if it means revealing to them brutally honest truths they might not want to hear (or being willing to dress up like Hedwig for Eric’s birthday and get him tickets to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch, because that’s what non-judgmental friends do).
Indeed, sex, in Otis’s conception, shouldn’t be a lie. For Otis, sex isn’t just metaphysical, it’s ethical, too (because even though he inflicts emotional damage on Eric and Maeve, Otis eventually does the right thing and patches things up by the season finale).
Certainly, Otis’s perspective is shaped by his parents and his reaction to his parents, which gives us a glimpse of another aspect of sexual reality: that whatever our nature might be, nurture plays a big part in how comfortable we are with our sexual identity and sexual expression.
Otis’s parents are sex therapists (perfectly played by Gillian Anderson and James Purefoy) who co-authored a book (Pillow Talk). At a young age, Otis happened to catch his father having sex with a female patient. This event scarred Otis – not just seeing his father cheat, but seeing how his mother reacted to it, calmly explaining to Otis that sex is dangerous, which caused Otis to develop an inability to masturbate (which makes the final scene of the first season’s final episode so funny and so gratifying) and an inability to have sex in any way (his frequent and embarrassing erections and his interactions with Lily, Maeve, and Ola are excellent examples of how Otis is ironically unable to diagnose and treat himself).
Of course, Otis’s parents didn’t just scar him as a boy. His mom, Jean, walks around the house like a female Hugh Hefner, often in her robe, bedding her clients (many of them sleep over and awkwardly enter Otis’s bedroom thinking it’s the loo), and dispensing frank advice as often as it occurs to her (which includes questioning Otis about his inability to masturbate, which no mother should ever do).
So, Otis’ sexual reality is quite unique. In fact, as Sex Education makes clear, every character’s sexual reality is distinct – not just in a subjective, relativistic way, but in a way that suggests that defining sex depends on one’s attitude rather than on society’s norms. What makes Sex Education so enjoyable, then, isn’t just the humor and pitch perfect casting (and the oh-my-god-they-didn’t-just-say/do-that narrative). It’s the positive message of sexuality the show earnestly conveys – it’s all real, it’s all awkward and funny, and it’s all valid and important.
Eventually, every one of us loses our innocence, but how we cope with it (and how those we care about cope with it) is all that really matters. In the case of Otis, he finally lets himself be a sixteen-year-old heterosexual boy. For Eric, it’s about feeling comfortable being gay (and for his father, it’s about accepting Eric and seeing him as brave rather than weak). For Maeve and Aimee (and most of the female characters), it’s about realizing that they don’t need to have sex (or perform fellatio or talk dirty or act like a porn star) to be loved.
Indeed, that seems to be Sex Education’s final lesson on the reality of sex. To paraphrase the Beatles: all we need is to love ourselves enough to be able to love (and let ourselves be loved by) someone else.
Edwardo Pérez is an Associate Professor of English at Tarrant County College in Hurst, Texas. He also manages his philosophical website lightsabertoss.com.
“Sex Education.” Netflix.com