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‘Sex Education’ Normalizes Our Sexual Hang-Ups — But It Also Makes Them Overly Cute

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Netflix series

(Warning: There will be SPOILERS for Season One of Sex Education.)

“You’re 16 — you’re not supposed to know the answers to anything.”

Those are the reassuring words Jean Thompson (Gillian Anderson), an author and sex therapist, says to her awkward virgin son Otis (Asa Butterfield) as he struggles with messy hormones and his feelings of inadequacy. Otis is the focus of Sex Education, the new Netflix series about what happens when this sweet, nerdy teen discovers that living with his divorced mother has an unexpected benefit: He’s heard about sex so often that he can be a guru for his clueless classmates. Otis may have never had a girlfriend — and he’s not too keen on masturbating — but he has a wealth of secondhand experience, and so he starts offering counseling to his peers. And what he and his “patients” discover is that, hey, we’re all kinda screwed-up when it comes to sex. Nobody has the answers.

Created by Laurie Nunn and indebted to the John Hughes comedies of the 1980s, Sex Education has a sweet, warm likability to it, offering plenty of gentle cringe-worthy comedy as plots revolve around unruly boners, sexual incapability, performance anxiety and other things that people of any age have a hard time discussing. The show is a no-judgment zone that embraces its characters’ sexual idiosyncrasies and is candid about teenage relationships in ways that, say, Pretty in Pink, couldn’t be.

But while there’s much to admire in this series, I nonetheless found myself frustrated that Sex Education wasn’t quite as bold as its title. A sex-positive show is worth celebrating, but there’s still something overly precious about how Nunn goes about exploring her characters’ romantic issues. It’s good to know as a young person that sex is complicated for everyone, but did Sex Education have to be so cutesy to prove its point?

Each episode is loosely structured around one of Otis’ patient’s problems, which he’ll help them solve, often by getting to the root of what’s really bothering them. (For instance, when the handsome dim-bulb Adam, played by Connor Swindells, is having trouble maintaining erections, a series of conversations help him realize that the problem isn’t with his penis but, rather, his worries about not living up to his demanding father’s expectations.) At school, Otis is a meek kid, but he’s a good listener — and his compassionate demeanor, ironically, proves to be perfect for coaching classmates who need to get in touch with their desires instead of freaking out about their sexual inexperience.

Therapy of all kinds is often about talking through problems to unearth what keeps the individual blocked, and Sex Education’s “we’ve all been there before” approach to sexual dysfunction is meant to be comforting, especially to younger viewers. Nunn has said as much, mentioning in the show’s press notes, “The show has been made with teenagers in mind, but also acknowledges that everybody was 16 once.” But while Sex Education is more open about sex than most series, it can be just as unrealistic in its depiction of how sex works in people’s lives.

For one thing, the show tends toward simplistic portrayals of our sexual hang-ups. The supposed class slut, Maeve (Emma MacKey), who is Otis’ business partner, unsurprisingly turns out to be far more nuanced than her reputation around school would suggest. Adam is a bully and a homophobe — so, of course, he ends up making out with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis’ out-and-proud best friend. There’s the requisite crop of mean girls, who are predictably just a bundle of insecurities. Even Jean, the show’s seeming sex expert, is a disaster, preferring meaningless hookups so she doesn’t have to emotionally invest in a real relationship — which, wouldn’t you know, comes her way regardless in the form of a hunky plumber. We may all have our sexual peccadillos, but Sex Education tends to see its characters as convenient teen-drama stereotypes.

Sex Education Season 1

That embrace of cliché, no matter how knowing, blunts Sex Education’s meaningful commentary on the need to accept our kinks. It’s a show about being brave that tends to be pretty conventional when it comes to its storytelling. Geeky Otis and super-cool Maeve have little in common, but the series sets up its first season for them to fall for one another. (It’s to Butterfield and MacKey’s credit that their chemistry helps sell the contrivance.) The other character arcs are just as straightforward: Eric’s at odds with his conservative dad; while Maeve’s superstar-swimmer boyfriend Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) feels smothered by one of his mothers, who expects athletic excellence out of him. There’s genuine feeling in the performances, but it’s all awfully familiar.

You could argue that the conventionality is part of the point — a way of making somewhat “risky” subject matter more palatable to a mainstream audience. But I think it diminishes the sex. There’s practically no problem Otis comes across that he can’t solve in a 50-minute episode. Generally speaking, everybody ends up okay — no one’s left scarred or struggling from his or her sexual experience. Sex Education posits that we need to be more honest with each other about our hang-ups, but its pat resolutions and easy happy endings contradict what real life is like. In its own way, Sex Education is a safe fantasy that’s just as disconnected from the nuance of sex as the old John Hughes movies were.

There’s one exception, though, and it’s easily Sex Education’s best moment. In the third episode, Maeve has to get an abortion, and director Ben Taylor and writer Sophie Goodhart really dig into the mixed emotions that her decision stirs in her. There’s nothing contrived or cutesy about the episode because the plotline is too serious to allow much flippancy. Instead of being reassuring, Sex Education is mostly just timid, treating sex like a delightful personality quirk. But that episode manages to be both moving and funny, showing how an abortion is a grave undertaking with long-term effects. (Sex Education is determinedly pro-choice, but it’s cognizant of the emotional toll it can have on women, whether because of shame or guilt.)

When I was Otis’ age, I would have loved to have had someone like Jean in my life — a kind, nurturing sexpert who would let me know that everything was okay. Sex Education tries to be that show for viewers, especially its presumably teenage audience, but in some ways, it’s a bad therapist. It largely patronizes you rather than making you feel heard. Sex is scary and weird and hard, but too often Sex Education just thinks it’s adorable. Sex (and our sexual hang-ups) can be a lot of things — but it’s not that.

Here are three other takeaways from Sex Education. (Not surprisingly, they’re all sex things.)

#1. Are there men who can’t masturbate?

Early in the first episode, it’s established that Otis doesn’t like masturbating. And by that I mean, he dutifully tries but quickly stops. It’s not that he can’t get erections: As he tells his friend Eric, “I wait for them to go away. I don’t like how it feels.” But throughout Season One, he wrestles with the fact that he can’t wank, which led me to wonder if this is a common condition.

Probably not surprisingly, you’re far more likely to find “Can you masturbate too much?” articles than “Guys who have trouble masturbating” pieces while doing a Google search. But as best as I can tell, it’s not something talked about a lot, which doesn’t mean it’s not something that affects men.

In 2013, a 17-year-old Australian reader (who’s a virgin) asked BISH’s Justin Hancock about being “unable to orgasm when I masturbate … I asked my doctor and she told me to try watching pornography when I masturbate and try to take my time but it [didn’t] work.” BISH offered lots of suggestions, but boiled it down to easing up on any anxieties of doing it wrong. “See an orgasm not as a goal, but a side effect of having really enjoyable solo sex,” Hancock writes. “Remember also to enjoy it! Don’t give yourself any expectations about what you should or shouldn’t be able to do. Think of it as an exciting adventure of self-discovery.”

Sometimes it’s not a physical obstacle, though. A Heathline piece from 2018 asks, “What’s the Connection Between Masturbation and Depression?” The answer is: nothing, really. However, men can feel depression and guilt around masturbation “because religious and cultural traditions sometimes associate self-pleasure and masturbation with feelings such as shame and sin.” For Otis, masturbation — and sex in general — is connected to the shock of seeing his father have sex with one of his patients, which led to his parents splitting up. There’s a deep-seated trauma there that, eventually, he overcomes.

Sex Education Season 1

I wouldn’t be surprised if Sex Education inspires people to talk more about not being able to masturbate. With all of guys’ fears around erectile dysfunction, masturbation always seemed like the one sexual act they could still rely on. But that may be less true than we assume.

#2. Are stoners more prone to erectile dysfunction?

Jean, who often sticks her nose where it doesn’t belong, informs Adam that smoking too much pot “has been linked to early-onset impotence,” which freaks the kid out because he has boner problems already.

MEL’s own Miles Klee wrote about the phenomenon of “stoner boner” for Mic back in 2017, discussing how the phrase has two meanings: For some tokers, smoking pot gives them an instant erection, while others can experience a reduced sex drive. So which outcome will happen to you? It’s hard to know, but Klee explained the science between sex and sticky icky:

What we know for certain is that sexual function is partly influenced by the endocannabinoid system, a group of receptors throughout the human brain and nervous system that helps regulate everything from sleep to appetite to immune response. When we consume marijuana, cannabinoids like THC — the principal psychoactive ingredient — bind to and stimulate these receptors, acting like triggers. Because the endocannabinoid system in a larger sense maintains homeostasis, or a stable equilibrium in the body, marijuana shifts that overall balance, with wide-ranging physiological results.

In addition, THC has a particular binding affinity for CB1 receptors, one of two known cannabinoid receptors. CB1 receptors have been found in the paraventricular nucleus, a part of the brain’s hypothalamus that controls penile erection. Cannabinoid receptors are likewise found in the smooth muscle of the penis itself. It stands to reason, then, even in the absence of further research, that marijuana may directly affect the mechanisms of male arousal.

I’m not a doctor, but perhaps the biggest cause of impotence would be reading those last two paragraphs. Whether pot affects your junk or not, just the thought that it might may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words: Jean, maybe you shouldn’t be warning teenage boys about stoner boners. You don’t want to even put the idea in their heads.

#3. Is there anything a guy can do to help with vaginismus?

In a recent interview to promote Sex Education, Asa Butterfield was asked if there was anything about sex he learned while making the show. His answer: that there’s such a thing as vaginismus, which affects Lily (Tanya Reynolds), Otis’ nerdy classmate who’s dying to lose her virginity but discovers that her potential suitor’s penis won’t go in her vagina. Otis diagnoses her, explaining that vaginismus “is the body’s automatic reaction to a fear of vaginal penetration.” For Lily, it’s not so much that she’s afraid of having sex — she’s raring to go — but, rather, that she’s afraid of being out-of-control.

I wasn’t familiar with vaginismus, so I decided to do more looking, which meant going to WebMD first. The site notes, “When a woman has vaginismus, her vagina’s muscles squeeze or spasm when something is entering it, like a tampon or a penis. It can be mildly uncomfortable, or it can be painful.” And if your wife or girlfriend is experiencing this pain, well, medical science is kind of at a loss to explain why it’s happening. “Doctors don’t know exactly why vaginismus happens,” the site says. “It’s usually linked to anxiety and fear of having sex. But it’s unclear which came first, the vaginismus or the anxiety.”

So, much like men’s erection problems, vaginismus can sometimes be mental as much as it is physical. NetDoctor points out that the condition can occur in some women because of a “traumatic or painful sexual experience” — menopause or a difficult birth could also contribute — but watch out for garden-variety hang-ups as well. As writer Sarah Berry explains, “Low self-esteem, body shaming, trust issues or bad relationships can lead to someone fearing vulnerability with a sexual partner and lead to vaginismus. As can difficult beliefs around sex or relationships, for example if someone has been [brought] up to believe that sex is dirty or if they fear becoming pregnant. Even if they are feeling relaxed and aroused, their vagina muscles could still clench to ‘protect’ them.”

With all this in mind, I was wondering: How can men be a good partner in such a situation? Bustle ran a great piece in 2016 in which writer Meg Zulch laid out “9 Ways to Be More Supportive to a Partner Who Has Vaginismus.” The chief takeaway is that it’s important for men to be patient, empathetic and supportive of their partner — and that they shouldn’t take their significant other’s vaginismus personally. “[A] person’s inability to be penetrated is no indicator of their feelings for you,” Zulch writes. “It’s simply an uncontrollable body response that you and your partner can easily work around.”

While reading Zulch’s piece, I started thinking that a lot of these suggestions are good advice for any couple, especially when working through sex issues. If you’re with someone long enough, it’s inevitable that you’ll hit a few roadblocks, but the trick is talking with your partner, staying open and not letting defensiveness and insecurity get in the way.

On the whole, I’m pretty mixed on Sex Education, but I have to acknowledge that this is perhaps the show’s ultimate value: normalizing our sexual hang-ups and dysfunctions and illustrating that, the more we bring them to light, the less scary (and more commonplace) they become.

That’s not nothing — even if I still wish the show was better.