Have you ever stopped to think that the shows that you watch are more than entertainment and can actually teach you something? Something beyond life lessons, something more tangible? In the plethora of entertainment we can consume in mainstream media, sex is woven into the plots in many different ways. Hell, there are several reality TVs which solemnly focus on the sexual dynamics between the participants. Other shows have more nuanced approaches where the relationships are at the centre of the plot and sex is a subplot. Some have a more direct reference to it, whether more educational like in “Sex Education”, more explorational like in “Sexify'', or more ironic like in “Big Mouth''. These shows can all be just as educational as a sexual education class at school. As societal attitudes toward sex continuously change, TV shows and movies not only have the chance to adapt to these changes but also actively influence and contribute to the ongoing conversation about sex culture as a whole. While entertainment can play a positive role in sexual education, there are potential dangers and criticisms. So, yes, as said by Salt-n-Pepa, let’s talk about sex baby – because unfortunately, we don’t talk about it enough.
I know it’s been a while since the show came out, but I only recently watched it. After years of hearing friends tell me I would love it, I finally sat down and binged the two seasons of Fleabag. Even though I initially thought Fleabag was just an insane woman, I fell in love with this insanely human individual. It just so happened that a week before I had also finished the latest season of “Sex Education” and immediately the two shows became so clearly connected to me. Even with completely different approaches to the portrayal of sex, I believe that both plots have equal educational value.
Let's first talk about Sex Education. It is in the name of the show itself, but does it have the educational value it hints at? Otis is the son of a sex therapist, Dr. Jean, who attends a school with a somewhat repressive teaching environment. As Otis and Maeve, a fellow student, witness another student going through some sexual difficulties, they decide to start a new business model: sex therapy for students. With that, Otis takes what he learned from his mom and begins to advise and teach fellow students. As it goes with teenagers who attend a school that does not provide enough education or guidance on the topic, Otis gets a lot of clients, or should I say, patients.
Throughout the progression of the series, Otis, while extending assistance to his friends, undergoes transformative experiences that prompt his personal growth and the quest for guidance. A notable parallel is observed between Otis's developmental journey and that of his mother, who, despite providing support and advice to others, grapples with her own challenges. The journey of growth is not confined solely to the mother-son duo; rather, it extends across all characters, weaving a central theme of personal development. The show strategically caters to a youthful demographic, anchoring its narrative in the relatable struggles of high school teenagers. The storyline transcends into adult plotlines, with characters such as Jean, other parents, and teachers contributing to the overarching narrative.
I believe that the educational aspect of the show is especially successful because of the existing contrast between the ‘knowledgeable’, i.e. the sex therapists, and the ‘unaware’, i.e. their patients. Within this dichotomy, it becomes evident that even Otis and his mother, possessing knowledge, confront challenges in their personal journeys. This dynamic contributes to the overarching message that self-development is a universal struggle, and it is OKAY and inherently human to undergo such a process. There is inherent value in teaching sexual education through the lens of a lifelong process of self-discovery. As a diverse array of sex-related topics is introduced throughout the four seasons, the didactic force of the show's format is further intensified. These encompass discussions on sexual health, safe sex practices, autonomy, and self-satisfaction in sex, self-pleasure and understanding of one's anatomy, struggles with sexuality, consent, heteronormativity, stereotypical expectations in sex, coping with trauma, emotional responsibility in relationships, and exploration of sexual fantasies
To further exemplify the educational value the show carries, I will offer examples from the characters’ journeys. Maeve and Aimee, for instance, exhibit distinct experiences and approaches to their sexuality, both portraying characters striving for empowerment in their sexual choices. While Maeve navigates the scars left by her upbringing and societal judgement, Aimee explores her anatomy, and her own pleasure, and copes with the trauma resulting from a sexual assault. One of her most iconic moments occurs when Aimee bakes vulva cupcakes to raise awareness and normalise the differences in female anatomy. In doing so, she overtly shares lessons learned, simultaneously educating the audience.
Source: Instagram Gillian Anderson
Beyond character development serving as a teaching moment, there are episodes where specific conditions are discussed in detail, thus providing valuable lessons to the audience. In the initial episode, a rumour circulates about an outbreak of chlamydia, causing mass hysteria among students who are poorly educated on the topic and unaware of how the STD is spread. This moment serves as a clear instance of information dissemination about sexual health, which is imperative for society.
Another notable instance is when Lily encounters difficulties engaging in sexual intercourse with her partner and is unable to understand why. Through counselling provided by Otis, she discovers that she is afflicted with a condition known as 'vaginismus,' characterised as “the body's automatic reaction to the fear of some or all types of vaginal penetration”. Lily's treatment journey revolves around asserting her agency, fostering empowerment, and enhancing her awareness of female anatomy. The introduction of this plotline assumes particular significance given that vaginismus represents an under-researched and underdiagnosed condition among women.
Hence, these narrative arcs collectively contribute to dismantling societal taboos, fostering an enlightened perspective on the 'sex' discourse, and behavioural practices related to sex among individuals spanning various age groups, encompassing both teenagers and adults. It highlights the importance of open conversations and guidance to navigate this complex aspect of human experience.
In contrast, "Fleabag" addresses the topic of sex with an emphasis on its role in shaping interpersonal relationships. The series delves into the individual significance that each character attaches to sex within the broader context of their lives. Fleabag is a heavily flawed person, she is deeply human and honest with the audience, even though she may not be so honest with the people around her. With the audience, she visibly breaks the fourth wall to communicate her true feelings, whereas to the people in her life, she either lies or stays fully silent. This is a visual illustration of her self-awareness of her humanity. Just as her flaws are part of her humanity, so is her sex life. There is a “matter-of-fact” tone that makes everything she experiences raw and her vulnerability is clear to the audience. Through that mechanism, the ‘human’ nature of sex in relationships is highlighted.
The character Fleabag, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, has a relationship with her own sex life as a driving point in her plotline. It impacts how she perceives herself, how she grieves the loss of her best friend Boo, how she relates with her sister, the conflict with her sister’s husband, her relationship with her dad, her relationship with her godmother, and lastly, her relationship with the Priest. Even background characters, such as a date she brings to dinner, the man working at the bank when she needs to ask for a loan, and one of her sister’s coworkers with whom she has a drink are involved with her storyline through some form of sexual dynamic. Not only Fleabag’s relationships with other characters but also, all the relationships of the other characters with each other are sexual in nature.
Fleabag explores her sexuality with a strong sense of agency. Her sexual encounters are often initiated on her terms and reflect her desires. The show portrays a woman who takes control of her own sexual experiences and does not conform to traditional gender norms. Her relationships, while complex and messy, highlight the importance of female agency in sexual relationships. It also highlights a few of her issues when it comes to using sex as a coping mechanism for the trauma she has experienced in life, be it the one she inherited from her mother’s death or her best friend’s death. Her relationship with her sister evolved as Fleabag attempted to advise her sister in bettering her sex life as well as in getting rid of her husband. When the husband makes a move on Fleabag, she tells her sister, straining their relationship. Amidst their argument, her sister refuses to believe the story and when explaining the reason why, she throws a painful accusation at Fleabag. The sister mentions Fleabag having had sex with her best friend's boyfriend, an incident that tragically resulted in the death of the best friend. Fleabag’s response to the discussion is to abstain from all sexual interactions until she meets the Priest.
Source: BBC One
In "Fleabag," the encounter between the titular character and the Priest unfolds as a narrative of unexpected depth. Initially appearing atypical of his priestly role, the Priest reveals a profound faith and devotion to God. Their connection develops as he invites Fleabag into his church, marked by conversations that oscillate between covert and overt sexual connotations. Despite the absence of a direct focus on sexual education, their relationship explores significant themes, including commitment — his to God, hers to partners — and the complexities of desire, both for each other and for others in a broader sense. The dynamics between them prompt reflections on self-perception and belief systems. As their sexual desires intertwine, they become a catalyst for self-exploration, challenging their individual convictions.
Following the loss of her best friend, Fleabag confides in the Priest, marking a pivotal moment where she unveils her innermost feelings to someone other than the audience. During a confession scene, she truly exposes her feelings in the most raw way to which the Priest responds with: ‘kneel’. He then reciprocates by kneeling and kissing her, giving in to the sexual desire. The one person with whom she can be honest, whom she desires the most, is the one person she cannot have. Ultimately, the characters admit their love for each other, but the Priest prioritises his commitment to God and reassures Fleabag that she will be okay. Part of what entails being sexually educated is understanding the responsibility to the other with whom you engage in sexual acts, and the real raw and vulnerable relationship between Fleabag and the Priest delves exactly into that.
The vulnerabilities that the characters have in both shows make them two different pieces of work that follow a similar discourse on the innate character of sex in our lives and its intricacies within relationships as well as our own personal developments as people. These characters feel real, so we can relate to them, understand them better and hence, understand sex in our lives.
Different countries have varying approaches to sexual education in schools, ranging from comprehensive programs that cover diverse aspects of sexuality to more conservative and limited ones. This lack of comprehensive sexual education creates a gap that entertainment, such as TV shows and movies, can potentially fill. Entertainment has the power to address cultural sensitivities and taboos surrounding sex, providing a platform for discussions that may be challenging within the confines of formal education. Therefore contributing to breaking down barriers, challenging stereotypes, and fostering a more inclusive understanding of diverse sexual experiences. Well-crafted portrayals of sex in entertainment can, therefore, have a profound impact on attitudes and behaviours, especially among younger audiences.
Furthermore, entertainment has the advantage of being widely accessible, reaching audiences that may not have access to comprehensive sexual education. It provides an alternative source of information and influences societal perceptions by presenting nuanced and relatable characters navigating the complexities of relationships and sexuality. Also, by simply being produced and distributed, entertainment sparks conversations. Content that delves into the intricacies of sex encourages viewers to engage in discussions about relationships, consent, and personal boundaries. This dialogue can be particularly impactful within contexts where such conversations are not encouraged or are considered taboo.
While some portrayals in entertainment may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or contribute to unrealistic expectations, productions like 'Sex Education' and 'Fleabag' take a more thoughtful approach by exploring human vulnerabilities related to sex. These shows offer a unique perspective on sexual education and should be considered valuable contributors when striving for a more effective and comprehensive approach to sexual education.