Where Sex Positivity Falls Short

Television wants to help us get better at talking about sex, but some of its recent offerings miss a crucial point.

Stills from 'Sex Education,' 'Sex: Unzipped,' and 'Sex, Love, and Goop'
Netflix; The Atlantic

Since its debut in 2019, Sex Education, Netflix’s charming and filthy comedy about teenagers at a bucolic British high school, has been a jewel in a very mixed bag of streaming content. I’ve loved and appreciated its sweetness, its sex positivity, and its absurd dramatization of school as a place where everyone is willingly and creatively getting it on, no matter the real-world evidence to the contrary. In the show’s conceit, Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), the awkward, virginal son of a sex therapist (the regal Gillian Anderson), finds self-worth and—in the end—satisfaction by giving sex advice to his cluelessly horny peers, despite having no practical experience of his own to draw on. All sex problems, the show posits, are really just communication problems. Talking openly about things (the shape of vulvas, douching, intergalactic alien erotica) diminishes shame, which means no more dysfunction. Right?

In so many ways, Sex Education is a fantasy. It’s an oddly nostalgic, Frankensteinian fusion of ’80s American movieland and British humor, all wooded landscapes and mid-century furniture and regional slang. Of late, though, I’ve started to wonder whether the show’s cheerful raunch is obscuring something crucial. Midway through the recent third season, Olivia (Simone Ashley) reluctantly agrees to have sex with her boyfriend without a condom. (“You know it feels soooo much better. Please,” he whines.) Later, panicked that she might be pregnant, she visits a sexual-health clinic in town, where a nurse gently asks if her boyfriend is pressuring her to have unprotected sex, and how that makes her feel. “Like I can’t enjoy the sex, because I’m just scared of getting pregnant,” she replies. Soon we see Olivia walking out and telling her best friend, who’s waiting for her, that she knows her boyfriend’s a “dickhead” but she still loves him. To me, it felt like an oddly neat and evasive conclusion to a story line that had raised more questions than it answered. The intimation that people frequently cajole other people into doing things that they’re not comfortable with seems to jibe awkwardly with the show’s generally breezy approach to sexuality. Rather than trying to meaningfully define the nebulous edges of consent, Sex Education changes the subject.

The scene reminded me that the fantastical nature of the series extends beyond its verdant, anachronistic setting. The catch of a faultlessly sex-positive universe in which everyone’s up for everything is that there isn’t much space to explore what happens when they’re not. The show doesn’t just put forth an unhelpfully idealized portrayal of what sex is like for teenagers. (In a recent study of male university students in the United Kingdom, more than 10 percent admitted to committing acts of sexual assault, rape, or coercion in the past two years.) In light of series such as I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s intricate, confrontational consideration of assault and consent, a show like Sex Education also feels more limited and confining.

Still, it’s only one in a spate of recent Netflix shows hoping to—if you’ll pardon the double entendre—fill the gaps in our sexual savoir faire. The streamer just released Sex: Unzipped, an hour-long special hosted by the rapper Saweetie that’s a kind of comical revue of modern sexual mores, loosely pegged to what the host dubs a post-pandemic “sex drought.” (“Without sex, Netflix and chill would just be watching a whole-ass movie with someone and not getting it in. Ewwww.”) Its premise, which might feel familiar by now, is that sex of all stripes is great, shaming is bad, and subjects such as coercion, consent, and even plain old discomfort aren’t up for debate at this time. The closest Sex: Unzipped comes to engaging with unequal power dynamics in bed is when the drag queen Trixie Mattel asks a puppet version of the sex educator Dr. Ruth how to make sure she’s treating sex workers ethically and Puppet Dr. Ruth quips back, “Pay double.”

Because of sex positivity’s well-intended focus on embracing openness and negating shame, it can exclude nuance, and sidestep the murkier questions of power and intimacy and trust and trauma that people inevitably bring with them into any sexualized situation. It’s easier for popular culture to present sex as a comedic smorgasbord of erotic experiences, outlandish and heartburn-inducing, than it is to wade into the realm of the unpleasant or regrettable. (That is, unless TV is presenting graphic scenes of sexual violence for arbitrary or titillating reasons.) For six seasons on Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw and her friends prattled about anal sex and porn addiction and depressed vaginas, but rarely did they talk about consent, or how to safely remove yourself from a situation that isn’t what you thought it would be. In embracing openness but not complication, Sex Education and Sex: Unzipped follow the same model.

We don’t, at this point in time, need TV shows to do PR for sex. We do need them to challenge and enrich how we think about it. Sweeping in to the rescue, oddly, comes the person I least expected to be helpful—a woman whose history of selling vagina-scented candles and jade eggs belies the fact that she’s made one of the most counterintuitive and empathetic analyses of sex on TV.

I started watching Sex, Love & Goop limbered up for new feats of eye-rolling. And at first, I got what I was prepared for: Gwyneth Paltrow in a sleeveless gray turtleneck made (one imagines) out of Tibetan-antelope hair; the introduction of “somatic sexologists,” who take a hands-on approach to sexual dysfunction; a wok cleaner repurposed as a sex toy; the breathy teasing of cutting-edge techniques that can “optimize our lives.” But somewhere amid a discussion of the “erotic blueprints” that define how individual people relate to sex, I realized I was riveted. The series wasn’t just examining the kinds of sex lives rarely considered in mainstream culture: lesbian couples, parents, people in their 60s. In acknowledging what a fundamental force expressions of desire can be in people’s lives (a means of “self-realization,” “a pathway for healing,” and everything in between), Sex, Love & Goop seems intent on redefining what people think of as sex altogether. But being a true cheerleader for pleasure also means acknowledging and confronting all the things that might be getting in the way of it.

Over six episodes, the show places five couples whose sexual and romantic lives have plateaued with different therapists who help them try to work out their issues. Some critics have objected to the fact that the series includes only people in long-term, monogamous relationships, but I found this decision revealing—if people can’t communicate openly with their most intimate partner, how are they supposed to do it with strangers? As the couples worked with their therapist, nuggets of information began to emerge: Erika, in a relationship with Damon, struggles to achieve orgasm; Shandra and Camille contend with entrenched shame and guilt about their sexuality and their bodies; Felicitas, the mother of two children with Rama, can’t get past thinking about sex as one more obligation in a day loaded with them. “Once you have a child to take care of, your capacity and willingness to take care of someone else who’s an adult diminishes,” she says. “I’m giving so much of myself, of my body. I do not need any more neediness from anybody.”

What becomes clear as the show continues, though, is how little the people participating know about themselves, and how conditioned they’ve been to avoid intimacy rather than be truly vulnerable. “Your intimate relationship is a meditation in everything that’s wrong with you,” Paltrow quotes one of her past therapists saying in the first episode, not in judgment but to say that our sex lives are usually a symptom or an expression of other parts of our psyches. Damon has understood his whole life that sex is a particular physical act, but when he works with a therapist to explore other kinds of touch, the sensation is so profound that he weeps. Erika realizes in one scene that she’s unwittingly prepared herself for pain before sex, which blocks her from fully experiencing pleasure. “I just realized I’ve been bracing for a long time,” she says, also in tears. “That’s a lot to think about.”

In the fifth episode, Sera and Dash, a couple whose problems aren’t sexual so much as emotional (both have a history of fleeing from relationships), undergo a treatment called family-constellation therapy to dig into their hang-ups. The scene is perhaps the most quintessentially Goopy of the series: A group of constellation-therapy practitioners meets outside, wrapped in folksy blankets, and absorbs the “energy” of the couple in order to channel and perform as their ancestors. “We get an imprint from how we were first loved. Then you are either going to rebel against that or want that,” a relationship expert explains to Paltrow. “In family-constellation work, you get to see it.” The moment wasn’t entirely convincing for me—some of the practitioners were more consciously performing than others—but the revelations about family members who’d deterred themselves from loving others as a kind of self-preservation felt almost universally applicable all the same. To be alive is to be exposed to hurt. But with sex, love, and intimacy, the series argues, invulnerability can be its own kind of psychic wound.

One of the strongest scenes in Sex Education comes midway through the third season, when Maeve (Emma Mackey) kisses Isaac (George Robinson), a neighbor of hers who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury. The moment is extraordinarily tender, as the pair continually discuss what they’re doing and negotiate ways to give each other pleasure. “I can’t feel anything below my level of injury,” Isaac tells Maeve. “If you put your hand on my chest, I’ll show you.” They briefly discuss the mechanics of intercourse, but Isaac is clear that they shouldn’t try yet—the intimation being that there’s a level of trust involved that they haven’t quite reached. “When I get touched in the places that I can feel,” he tells her, “it can get a little intense.” She complies, kissing his eyebrows and stroking his face. The chemistry between the two actors is seismic.

It’s maybe the most truly sex-positive scene I can think of on television—an example of two people who are sexually attracted to each other communicating what they want, what they don’t want, what they can do, and what they don’t want to do, yet. It made me wonder why a scene like this exists only for a character with a disability, while virtually everyone else in the series seems to see sex as a kind of eroticized trampoline park, bouncing around cheerfully with no sense of the deeper kinds of connection they might be missing. The unfettered positivity of works such as Sex Education and Sex: Unzipped can also start to feel a little like shaming for anyone whose experiences of sex might have been minimal, or disappointing, or scary. “Our culture teaches us it’s not okay to not know about sex, or to not know exactly what to do,” a therapist says in Sex, Love & Goop. The most striking truth the show reveals is that no one knows anything at all, unless they ask.