SPECS Panther is back and better than ever, this time honing in on a column about pop culture. Media portrayal of sex, sexuality and sexual health for teenagers is essential to normalize what can sometimes be embarrassing or seemingly silly conversations. An emphasis on visibility of sex-positivity and queer experiences further destigmatizes realities that many individuals face. In fact, SPECS held a screening on Nov. 8th of the Netflix hit series “Sex Education.” The purpose of the screening was to highlight how college students benefit from watching relatable and underrepresented experiences. The show illustrates the ubiquity of sex and its innate awkwardness, intimacy and eroticism. But, as viewers ourselves, SPECS peer educators noticed key missed opportunities for further discussion as well as many complimentary moments.
This show serves to portray a shameless, authentic world of sex, presented through the eyes of high schoolers. It realistically captures many of the awkward moments that sex and sex education can involve, including when the shy protagonist, Otis, repeatedly encounters his mother’s various sexual escapades. Another relatable scene is when Otis’s mother catches him masturbating, a worry many high schoolers share.
Jean — Otis’ mother and well-renowned sex and relationship therapist — is the show’s beacon of sex positivity, as she continually gives constructive advice and helps individuals and couples resolve their sexual qualms. In Season 2, Jean opens a sex clinic at her son’s high school after learning about the students’ questions and concerns regarding their sex lives. Analyzing this through the lens of SPECS, the show fulfills its promise by normalizing the idea of seeking help, as many characters find refuge in having an educated, nonjudgmental sex therapist on campus. Students seek out Jean with questions about both barrier and non-barrier birth control methods, STIs, sexual performance and other sexual health concerns. These interactions shine a spotlight on the abundance of anxieties that teenagers have about sex during a time when their hormones are drastically changing.
Additionally, the series provides an intimate view of complicated experiences and feelings surrounding sex and coercion. In Season 3, Cal (they/them) reflects on their struggles with gender dysphoria and feeling disconnected from their sex assigned at birth. Worries about bathrooms, genitalia and gender non-inclusive language unfold. These are issues that adolescents, teenagers and adults are experiencing on a worldwide scale. The show offers direct insight into the lives of queer individuals who are trying — and often struggling — to understand their sexuality and gender-identity. Cal grapples with their own potentially stigmatized feelings around sexuality and gender-presentation, leading to realistic and uncomfortable conflicts. However, the show emphasizes clear moments of unabashed queer joy, portraying a nuanced balance between the harsh realities that queer folks endure and the moments and experiences of unadulterated euphoria that come with free expression and honesty.
While the show does a great job of highlighting realistic, embarrassing, pleasurable and even humorous sexual experiences, our SPECS lens requires careful critiques of some of the content. For example, Otis’ relationship with sex changes dramatically throughout the course of the show. The shy protagonist opens the series by announcing his hesitancy toward sex and discomfort in his own sexuality. In fact, it was briefly suggested that Otis thought that he may be asexual. Asexuality is oftentimes depicted as a “stage” in someone’s sexual trajectory, and while this can be true for some, it is critical to understand asexuality as its own prevalent sexual identity.
Though Otis declares that he feels intense pressure to engage in sex while grappling with his complicated feelings about his sexual disinterest, much of his bildungsroman, or coming of age story, revolves around his own sexual efforts, which are plagued by heightened societal expectations, to “lose his virginity.” In Season 2, Episode 7, Otis wakes up in a hungover state after a night of drinking and partying, a phenomenon not uncommon at Middlebury. To his surprise, Ruby discloses that they had sex the night before, an encounter Otis does not remember. Yet, while it is important that the series sheds light on realistic experiences of sex and alcohol, the framing should be adjusted to further highlight the violation of Otis’ consent. In fact, this scene explicitly violates the FRIES model of consent that SPECS utilizes, which outlines that consent must be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. The show portrays this breach of consent in an overly nonchalant manner that perpetuates the societally constructed idea that male-presenting individuals cannot be victims of sexual assault. These problematic depictions fail to acknowledge the deeply nuanced, hyper-personal and emotional aspects of consent violations. For a series such as “Sex Education” that aims to promote sex positivity, healthier and more serious discussions are warranted.
Although seeking peer or professional help can be important, it is equally important to remember that you have the final say in your own unique sexual journey. Otis frequently offers advice to many of his peers, with enthusiastic responses.The advice you receive — whether from the show or in your personal life — may be unbiased, but that does not mean you have to follow it, especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable. It is crucial to remember that what works for one person might not work for you, and that is perfectly normal! You have to trust your own instincts, and no one else should ever have the power to decide what you should or should not do with your own body. Your comfort and consent must always be of the highest importance in your sexual journey.
Sex therapists themselves also face stereotypes. Ultimately, society often views sex therapists as obsessively interested in sex and overly sexual people. However, “Sex Education” demonstrates that being a sex therapist is more about education, mentality and support rather than one’s personal quantity of sexual experiences. Jean’s sex-positive attitude aids in fostering healthy and open conversations about sex. The show's representation of sex therapists challenges these common misconceptions about sex and highlights the significance of a sex-positive approach — consistent with the mission of SPECS as a peer-educator organization.
Honest, nonjudgmental communication is the pinnacle of the safe, inclusive space to talk about sex that SPECS strives to establish on campus. Fundamentally, SPECS hopes that “Sex Education” — along with our additional lens of analysis — will further empower Midd kids to make personal sexual-health decisions on their own terms without the burden of societal expectations and clichés.