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Sex Education - Getting Down with Sex Positivity

The third season of Sex Education wades into the debate about whether “sex positivity” still makes sense in our contemporary world—and ultimately it doubles down on why we need to fight for our right to talk about sex. After the sexual liberation movement of the 60s and 70s came to be co-opted by toxic parts of the media, today it can feel like rhetoric of “liberation” is just a cynical form of exploitation that doesn’t work for everyone. But Sex Education is updating what sex positivity means in today’s terms, and its main takeaway is not that everyone needs to be having loads of casual sex, but that they need to feel free to communicate about sex and relationships openly, honestly and without shame.

TRANSCRIPT

What does “sex positivity” really mean in our contemporary world?

According to the third season of Sex Education, it comes down to celebrating our right to talk about sex, and how sex connects to our feelings. The students rise up to defend their identity as the “sex school” after headmistress Hope Haddon makes it her mission to stop these conversations. And as heightened and comic as the plot feels, the battle for the students’ right to be sex-positive and communicate openly about sex is an interesting reflection on a loaded debate that’s actually happening right now.

After the sexual liberation movement of the 60’s and 70’s came to be co-opted by toxic parts of the media and porn industry, today it can feel like rhetoric of “liberation” is just a cynical straight-male-centric form of exploitation that doesn’t work for everyone. But Sex Education is updating what sex positivity means in today’s terms, and its’ main takeaway is not that everyone needs to be having loads of casual sex, but that they need to feel free to communicate about sex and relationships openly, honestly and without shame.

So here’s our Take on why public opinions about sex are so hypocritical, and how to be sex positive in the 21st century.

Unlocking your Feelings

When students come to Otis for advice about sex, they often leave with advice and insight about their feelings — and not just those feelings we necessarily associate with love or attraction. Time and again, the students’ sexual problems turn out to be signifiers of broader issues relating to their own identities, psychologies and needs.

Olivia’s problems with her boyfriend come from anxiety and a lack of trust. Ruby’s conquests are an emotional pick-me-up. When Aimee doesn’t like being touched by her boyfriend anymore, this is really about how she’s living within the trauma of her sexual assault. Even when Lily deals with a concretely physical condition called vaginismus, it involves intense pain that is psychosomatic.

In Sex Education, we see many of the students having frequent casual sex, but actually still wanting intimacy and connection most of all.

Otis Milburn: “Do you think I’m a ‘casual relationships’ kind of guy?”

Jean Milburn: “I think you’re the sort of person who wants meaningful connection.” - Sex Education

When Lily tries to have sex with Otis in a business-like transaction to lose both of their virginities, he has a panic attack. He feels uncomfortable in the casual hook-up phase of his relationship with Ruby and takes steps to talk to her and know her better. In response to this kind of connection, Ruby falls in love, suggesting that perhaps her earlier invulnerable attitude was (to a degree) a defense mechanism.

In some cases, a blockage or obstacle in one’s relationship to their sexuality does more than just signify current feelings, and becomes a more major influence coloring all of a person’s life. When we meet Adam Groff, so much of his behavior and personality is shaped by his shame. He initially expresses and hides his attraction to Eric through bullying — rather than loving Eric, he tries to harm him. Later, even after Adam comes out to the whole school and gets together with his crush, he continues to not be able to fully love Eric the way he wants to, resisting coming out to his mom or going out to public clubs.

His shame goes beyond just Adam’s relationships, penetrating the rest of his life and making him full of self-loathing. For a long time, Adam doesn’t try to help himself, doesn’t cultivate hobbies or skills, and doesn’t strive to improve his own life. Another consequence of Adam’s shame is that it makes him avoid looking at himself too closely, since seeing himself might cause more self-loathing — as a result, Adam doesn’t really know or understand himself. Adam’s arc reminds us that, when a person’s sexual identity is squashed or punished or shamed, whether due to external or internal repression, it can not just harm their chances of love, but even stifle their entirety.

Adam’s shame is a learned behavior. In the third season, we also learn that Adam’s authoritarian father — Mr. Groff, the school’s previous headmaster and antagonist of the first two seasons — has problems with sex that stem from repressing emotions. When Michael Groff finally seeks advice, he realizes (with Jean’s help) that he has been shut off from his feelings for a long time. The link between shut off feelings and shut off sensuality also surfaces when Adam defines his family’s style of communication.

Adam Groff: “I didn’t grow up in a naked family.”

Otis Milburn: “What’s a naked family?”

Adam Groff: “You know, those families where everyone walks around naked, talking about how they feel.” - Sex Education

Michael’s refusal to feel his sexuality and emotions not only destroys his marriage, but also extends to an inability to feel any pleasure, of any kind. And in the end, it’s learning to experience pleasure through a new hobby of cooking that starts him waking up to himself, which eventually rekindles feelings between him and Adam’s mother, his estranged wife, Maureen. His newly forming sensitivity makes him more aware of toxic habits that have influenced him — like how his brother learned bullying from their father.

And the series explores this impulse to disconnect from our own feelings as a wider societal tradition that’s passed down for generations. Like his father, Adam starts to find himself and overcome his shame through exploring a non-sexual interest that gives him pleasure and makes him feel good about himself.

So Sex Education shows us that sex reflects our psychological state, and our psychological state affects sex. Thus the key to understanding both oneself and one’s sex life is focusing on what we’re really feeling. With all this in mind, the show’s title takes on a new meaning. It’s not just an education about sex, it’s about sex being the education itself — how it helps us recognize our feelings, and grow into our personalities.

Sex Positivity Redefined

Researchers in the Sexual and Relationship Therapy journal define sex positivity as “The belief that all consensual expressions of sexuality are valid,” and the BBC writes that it “evolved in response to pervasive sex negativity – ... attitudes that attach shame and judgment to people’s varying experiences and feelings about sexuality.”

The movement’s roots reach back to the early 20th century and Freud’s psychosexual theories. In the mid 1900’s psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich coined the term sex-positivity. And in the 60’s and 70’s, the free love movement celebrated love and sex as the opposite of violence; John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a “bed-in” to protest the Vietnam war. At the same time, the invention of the pill meant women had to worry less about pregnancy, a huge win for women and feminism. Meanwhile, though, some feminists saw sexual liberation as a route to the exploitation of women, and the pornography industry (which was swiftly becoming mainstream in this time period) as violence towards women.

Where the youth of previous eras campaigned for liberation, today, according to some reports, millennials and Gen-Zers are moving away from sex-positivity. Some believe that the sex positivity movement has been hijacked, in a way, by the ethos of internet porn and hookup culture — As one Buzzfeed interviewee said: “Sex positivity now feels like a cross between a male conspiracy and a cynical marketing ploy.”

There are a lot of ways in which the legacy of the sexual liberation movement isn’t really working for young people today. One concern is the impact of growing up in a digital world full of pornography.

If porn is a person’s first introduction to sex, sex can easily become about what it looks like, not what it feels like — a problem that Sex Education dramatizes through Aimee, a popular and sexually active girl who gradually learns to focus less on performing what she thinks guys want and tries to unlock what she wants.

Aimee’s plot also discusses the way that sex in extreme and airbrushed formats like porn can lead to anxiety about one’s body. Thanks to Jean’s influence, Aimee makes it her mission — and draws on her emerging baking talents — to help other women understand that all vulvas are different and beautiful.

In season three, Kyle — operating under the name Sex King — tries to replace Otis as the school’s unofficial sex consultant. But his advice, which echoes the narratives of porn, only ends up causing more problems for his schoolmates by making them feel more insecure and disconnected from their real desires and selves. It eventually turns out that the self-appointed Sex King has anxieties that began with watching porn, and what ends up helping both Kyle and the guy he gave bad advice to, Dex, are simple, honest and empathetic discussions with Otis and Maeve.

Otis Milburn: “It’s not wonky, it’s unique.”

Kyle: “Thanks Milburn, that means a lot.” - Sex Education

While the supposed point of the sexual liberation movement was to make sex not shameful anymore, slut-shaming is still a problem, especially for women. And today’s onlineness has even enabled new, even worse forms of shaming — we see this in Sex Education when Ruby becomes a victim of “revenge porn” after a picture of her is sent to everyone in school.

As the American Psychological Association reports, hook-up culture now dominates a longer period of life than ever before, since in the U.S. “The age when people first marry and reproduce has been pushed back dramatically, while at the same time the age of puberty has dropped.” At the same time, hookup culture isn’t appealing and enjoyable to everyone.

One study found that upwards of 70 percent of both genders have “a history of experiencing regret” after casual encounters. In this new context, Sex Education helps reframe what sex positivity is or really should be — showing us that it’s not (as some of the media might suggest) about advocating that everyone needs to be having casual or adventurous sex, having more sex or having it earlier. Instead, true sex positivity is about why talking openly about sex is important.

Jean Milburn is determined to talk to her son about sex, in detail, and a lot. As a result, Otis’ entire home life is basically a never ending “talk”. A product of the 70’s, her mindset of total openness can go too far, representing how the ideals of sexual liberation can become invasive if taken to the extreme that doesn’t respect others’ comfort level. But on the whole, Otis does internalize and subscribe to the key tenets of his mother’s outlook. And if Jean represents an older generation of sex-positivity, Otis embodies what it can look like for today.

Through him, the show also develops its unique viewpoint and language about sex. The series avoids the clinical framing of Masters of Sex, the depressing edginess of shows like Skins and Euphoria, and the commercialized, glossy feel of sexy music videos. Instead, Sex Education casts speaking and thinking honestly, without shame, about sex, as the key to having agency over your own sexuality and understanding what you want.

Communication isn’t just the key to get rid of anxieties about sex and love, it’s also the key to having good sex. When Maeve and Isaac become romantic, Isaac tells her he only has sensation from the chest up due to his spinal cord injury — yet theirs is one of the most erotic scenes in the entire third season due to their ability to tell each other what they want and what they feel.

Sex positivity can also include not wanting to have sex — like when we see a character finding the peace of understanding that she’s asexual, thanks to Jean’s sex-positive outlook.

How to fight for sexual freedom and against hypocritical ideology

Season three affirms why Jean’s central missions of ending shame around sex and connecting with our feelings are so crucial, through a new villain … headmistress Hope Haddon. Whereas Headmaster Groff was pretty obvious in his repression, Hope presents herself as a sleek feminist progressive.

The AV Club calls this “Anti-Jean” the “the walking definition of the viral phrase ‘gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.’” She’s savvy about modern buzzwords and tools — as evidenced in her hyper-attention to media coverage — and she understands both how to speak to students to make them think she’s on their side, and how to appease parents and investors through switching to the language of conservatism.

But Hope focuses purely on the school’s public image while becoming increasingly abusive toward the students with an approach that begins to resemble older and more oppressive, regressive models of government.

She adds lines in the hallway to make students walk single file, echoing Michel Foucault’s observations about how the “disciplines” of the prison can also be employed in other institutions intent on fostering obedience like the military — or schools. Also out of this playbook (with a dash of The Scarlet Letter) she strategically uses public punishment — shaming individuals in an over-the-top spotlight, literally onstage, to make others fear being caught dissenting. She institutes uniforms to eliminate a means of self-expression, which is very important to many of the students.

Because Hope is cloaked in this illusion of modernity while actually bringing fear-based regressive values, there’s a sense that she’s bringing out something dangerously restrictive or puritanical in today’s attitudes that’s lurking slightly beneath the surface. For Hope, the most important thing is how things look. She keeps everyone in line with promises of potential rewards and punishments that zero in on their individual motivations — she preys on Viv’s ambitions for a “bright future,” convinces the teachers they need her to save their jobs, and gets Maeve to obey by dangling a scholarship in front of her.

So Hope reminds us that though it’s easy to look back at Michael Groff and his childhood and see now why his or his father’s parenting were problematic, it can be much more difficult to identify toxic societal forces of repression in their time, especially when they don’t present in a straightforward way.

But as Hope’s regime is brought down, we come to understand that Hope is not just a sociopathic individual — to an extent, she’s responding to a wider climate where behind-the-scenes funders want a fundamentally more conservative, sexually repressed image for the school. And on the personal level, Hope is plagued by a sense of powerlessness due to her struggles with fertility.

Like everyone else on the show, she feels a significant relief when she finally acknowledges these deeper feelings that she’s been shoving aside.

Parallel to Hope’s ineffectual reign of terror, the students are also hounded by a hypocritical media that acts concerned and judgmental, but is clearly enjoying this tidbit that is sure to entertain their audiences.

While the idea that the press is so concerned with the goings-on of this high school is part of the show’s overall absurdist comedy, it captures how the media discourse around sex (especially when it comes to young people) has long been a self-contradictory mix of shaming and lasciviousness. In the early 2000’s audiences enjoyed Britney Spears’s sexy schoolgirl persona but also somehow were extremely concerned with her virginity.

And society remains way too invested in watching and judging other people’s sex lives. In a certain way Hope is revealed to be right, at least about how much public image matters — after the students’ rebellion gets rid of her, they learn that they’ve lost their investors and don’t have a school anymore. So there’s a sense that we’re living in an age where our attitudes on many of these issues are backwards — where shame is still a guiding force, and no one is that interested in what’s truly best for the youth, but rather in either holding them to impossible standards or getting a kick out of hearing about how “messed up” they are.

As the students band together to resist both Hope’s tactics and the media invasion, they express in clear terms the sex positive ethos of the show in an eruption of ecstatic creativity.

Freud believed that all creative energy comes from the libido, the sexual drive. And at Moordale, the students are so creative when touching on the topic of sex publicly.

Conclusion

The World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health states that “fundamental to this concept are the right to sexual information and the right to pleasure.”

The WHO goes on to describe sexual health as something “enriching”, that “enhance[s] personality, communication and love.”

Maeve: “You make sex sound terrifying but it doesn’t have to be.”- Sex Education

Moordale may be a fantasy space, made of teen high-school tropes, mixing American and English imagery, past and present — and it might be tempting to view the explosive openness and radical warmth with which the students address topics of sexuality to be just more over-the-top comedic exaggeration. But Sex Education is serious about how schools need safe spaces for students to get a real sex education, how when sex is used to shame people it can hurt them forever, and why it’s time to move beyond the idea that shame, in any form, should be wielded as a weapon, especially not against young people figuring out who they are.