Better Than Sex EdPop Culture Is Teaching Teens About Sex

Asa Butterfield, left, as Otis Milburn, and Gillian Anderson as Jean Milburn in Sex Education (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Netflix)

In the opening episode of Netflix’s Big Mouth (2017), main characters Andrew (John Mulaney) and Nick (Nick Kroll) are sitting in their health class watching a video about female reproductive organs when Andrew’s hormone monster pops out of his desk. Big Mouth has been praised for having women writers and talking honestly about sexuality, puberty, and desire for all genders. While it’s not perfect—its definitions of queer sexualities have fallen into binaries and white actor Jenny Slate was cast as Missy, a mixed-race character, for three seasons—the show’s animated format allows it to discuss topics like hormones in an entertaining way. This creates conversations that might not be possible in a live action TV show. Big Mouth allows for the exploration of sexuality and desire as teenagers change with their bodies before, during, and after puberty. The show isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s hard to deny that it’s using humor to give adults new ways to discuss  sex education with each other and with the children in our lives. 

Kids have always been looking for answers about sex ed; they just didn’t always have the best or most accessible resources. When conducting research for her 2016 book, Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein found that it was common for girls to watch pornography to figure out how “things fit together” in an anatomical sense. While various small businesses are attempting to make porn an industry that pays well and respects its performers, there’s also an understanding in society that porn can, and in some cases does, teach young men to abuse women and young women to accept that violence. Though our critiques of porn miss the positive benefits, joys, and pleasure it can provide, no one should have to turn to porn, an industry designed more to entertain than inform, to find answers. Caren Spruch, the senior director of arts and entertainment at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Bitch that “many people, especially young people, learn about sexual and reproductive health issues from entertainment media,” so none of us are alone.

In 2014, Bitch led a Twitter campaign called #popsexed where we asked followers where they learned about sex in popular culture. Answers ranged from fanfiction and music videos to romance novels, but very few people cited traditional sex education classes. Seeing the same results, Planned Parenthood launched a question bot named Roo whose target audience is teens. After answering a few preliminary questions about their age, race, and gender identity (if they choose to provide the latter two), Roo attempts to answer any general question about sex, relationships, and our bodies. Before launching, Planned Parenthood ran more than 7,000 test conversations to teach the chatbot to recognize language and answer appropriately, and found that the most asked question was “What’s the right age to have sex for the first time?” Roo answers millions of questions, and, in the first nine months, over ¾ of its users were people of color, once again illustrating that a free, medically accurate, and judgement-free place to find information about sex education is needed. The chatbot has been taught to provide other resources and leave the user with choices so that they feel empowered by their decision making. Despite all its success, it’s still a bot, and it can’t tell you exactly what’s right for you. Nor can it perfectly answer a specific question or work with a complex one like “What is sex education?”

Abstinence-only, abstinence-plus, and comprehensive sex educations have been the dominate types of education in recent years. Planned Parenthood defines abstinence-only education as a program that teaches that mutual monogamous sex within the confines of marriage is the only “correct way” to have sex and that other ways may be psychologically damaging. According to Orenstein, between 1982 and 2016, the U.S. federal government spent $1.7 billion on abstinence-only sex ed. Abstinence-plus education allows for the fact that the average age for a first sexual encounter is 18 years old. These programs teach that abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid pregnancy and STDs, but it also attempts to teach students about safe sex. Comprehensive sex education includes medically accurate information about anatomy, birth control, and, sometimes, abortion. However, even a comprehensive education has been known to leave out any talk of female pleasure, general desire, and the location or knowledge of the clitoris. Furthermore, education around gender and sexuality is still hard pressed to move beyond strictures of heterosexuality toward inclusion of LGBTQ folks. 

We can argue until we’re blue in the face that parents should pick up the slack surrounding sex education, but the truth of the matter is that parents in the United States don’t talk to their kids about sex. Orenstein found that it’s not because their kids don’t want them to. In fact, she says not talking to kids about sex leaves them “unsupported and vulnerable.” In 2011, Amy Schalet published Not Under My Roof, a book that investigates the differences between the United States and the Netherlands when it comes to sex ed. She found that “teen sex has been dramatized” in the U.S. to the point of crisis, whereas in the Netherlands many teenagers in romantic relationships have sleepovers at their parents’ houses. In other words, when parents and teachers talk about sex with their kids in the United States, they tend to focus on all of the “bad” things that can happen. Instead, parents and teachers in the Netherlands focus on support, consent, and pleasure, and reports of teen pregnancy and more satisfying sexual relationships increase. Regardless of nationality, teenagers are having sex, so how are they informing themselves?

Paul Mescal, left, as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne in Normal People (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Shows like Netflix’s Sex Education, which premiered in 2019, demonstrate the ways that teenagers can be misinformed about topics related to sex despite having sex education on their transcript. The protagonist of Sex Education, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), starts an illicit business giving his classmates advice about sex in the abandoned bathroom at school. Though he has a fraught personal relationship with sex, Otis has learned a lot from his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), and he shares these facts about masturbation, fetishes, pleasure, and more while he embarks on his own journey toward sexual freedom. Sex Education has been praised for its accurate portrayal of teen sex lives as well as for providing medically accurate and body positive information surrounding sex. The show makes obvious what we already know: Structured sex education has been failing kids for generations by not providing content about pleasure and even misinforming students about anatomy. Like most education standards, sex ed is not regulated at the federal level in the United States. Each individual state decides what kind of sex ed is provided, if any at all, but that leaves room for lessons that aren’t scientifically accurate. 

Sex education is extremely important, especially if we acknowledge the fact that the U.S. education system has failed to provide parents and grandparents and great-grandparents with comprehensive sex ed. The failure of sex education leaves our society vulnerable to a lack of open conversations between generations, therefore continuing the cycle of parents and children having awkward conversations at best and no conversations at worst. We know that teens who receive comprehensive sex ed are less likely to experience teen pregnancy. In other words, we know that sex education works to alleviate the crises that parents worry about, the same crises that provide excuses for not having sex education or sex talks. Sex educator Charis Denison told Orenstein that kids “abstain with more information because they have options, because they have knowledge” which requires a medically accurate and complete sex education. For some, this means a feminist sex education that talks about queer sexualities and women’s pleasure, but those are not quick-acting solutions. Teenagers want knowledge about their bodies and sex sooner rather than later, and they’re turning toward the ever expanding world of media answering their calls. Shows like Big Mouth and Sex Education, among many others, make sex “something normal and relatable that everyone has to learn to deal with,” as Anna Silman writes in her 2019 article for The Cut. These shows are more than entertaining. By airing on streaming services, these shows forgo the need to be advertiser-approved and can appeal to more niche audiences instead of a general broadcasting audience. This allows them to talk more openly and explicitly about the sex and sexuality of teenagers and young adults.

Media isn’t just teaching us the fundamental topics of sex such as anatomy and pleasure. TV shows and movies are depicting the reality of what it is like to be a sexually active young person in a society that (still) views any sexual activity outside of marriage as subversive. Hulu’s Plan B (2021) tells the story of teenager Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) who has meaningless and unsatisfying sex with her classmate Kyle (Mason Cook). She plans to mostly forget the whole encounter until the condom falls out of her while she’s going to the bathroom the next morning. Now Sunny and her best friend, Lupe (Victoria Moroles), must buy the Plan B pill; the only problem is the local pharmacist refuses to sell it to her and the closest Planned Parenthood is a three hour drive. When Sunny and Lupe finally reach a Planned Parenthood, only to find the doors boarded thanks to a lack of funding, reality hits viewers hard. This movie makes it clear that not only are teens misinformed, uninformed, or only partially informed at best, their resources are also being slowly taken away. Without the help of her mother (Jolly Abraham), who Sunny was trying to avoid bringing into the situation, it’s likely Sunny wouldn’t have been able to obtain the pill at all.

Planned Parenthood has utilized the wide reaching hands of the internet to spread their message as well. In Season 2 of Big Mouth, Planned Parenthood teamed up with show creators to tackle the myth of their organization as an “abortion factory” in the episode “The Planned Parenthood Show.” This episode emphasizes the value of sex ed and the ways that Planned Parenthood is trying to combat a general lack of information about birth control among teenagers. Between Planned Parenthood’s work and Kroll’s attempt to provide both parents and children with sex ed vocabulary through Big Mouth, maybe there is hope for the future of sex ed, but it certainly includes pop culture. Spruch knows that “concepts like managing a birth control method, accessing abortion care, or communicating with a partner about STIs or sexual history, consent, violence and reproductive coercion” are often introduced to kids in media. By working with Big Mouth, Planned Parenthood helped to ensure the producers that they have accurate information and that kids can obtain that information “without shame or judgement.” In fact, Spruch suggested that TV shows “can provide numerous teachable moments for parents to talk with their teens about what they’re seeing on screen,” both positive and negative. Therefore, TV like Big Mouth and Sex Education are indeed helpful for changing national taboos.

Having outlets that provide basic knowledge allows media to address other glossed over topics related to sex—most prominently sexual consent—through shows like Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People. Normal People depicts the lives of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) as they move through their on-again-off-again relationship. Almost every time Marianne and Connell enter one another’s lives, they have sex, and those sex scenes are graphic. However, they are also realistic. Connell constantly asks Marianne if she wants to continue. Marianne is given the space to explore the type of sex she wants to have outside of her relationship with Connell, and she is able to acknowledge her own trauma in the process. The protagonists grow together and apart to form a narrative actively defining consensual relationships. Normal People reiterates that we have to continuously grow and learn about our bodies, sex, and sexuality, and that fact makes YouTube channels like Sexplanations popular.

These shows make obvious what we already know: Structured sex education has been failing kids for generations by not providing content about pleasure and even misinforming students about anatomy.

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On her YouTube channel, Lindsey Doe, a clinical sexologist with a doctorate in sexuality, enthusiastically talks about everything from fetishes and mammograms to UTIs. She is open about her intentions in her introductory video to Sexplanations, but over the last eight years her outward enthusiasm for her work has increased greatly. Not only are her videos often sponsored by sex toys, not unlike Bitch, she has used and done most of the things she promotes, or as she says, she walks the talk. Doe has a professional career doing essentially the same thing that her free YouTube videos do, so why have a YouTube channel? Because sex education fails to provide accurate and/or complete information, and kids don’t have money to pay for it. They’re on the internet anyway, so Doe becomes a resource that navigates people away from misinformation and towards a free and fun way to learn. What she reinforces is that our language about sex is constantly changing, helped in part by books like The Ethical Slut and popular discourse, and that we are allowed to change with it. 

Our desires, knowledge, and experiences about sex can and do change, which leaves a market open beyond sex ed to answer questions like this one that Jaclyn Friedman heard after the publication of her 2008 book Yes Means Yes: “How did you figure out what you wanna say yes or no to?” By providing a place to find answers for this question, Doe promotes positive relationships with our bodies, sex, and sexualities, something sex education may never do in the United States. Sex education disproportionately fails to provide women, women of color, and queer folks with the information we need to have consensual, informed, and safe sexual experiences. While conversations around sex in and out of the classroom are often shut down with double standards based on gender and race, it is the duty of sex education and those who provide it to equally inform students about their bodies. Friedman told Bitch in 2019, “if you are not teaching sex ed, you are just not teaching consent or boundaries at all,” and she insists that what we need as a country is “comprehensive, K through 12, pleasure-affirming, shame-free sex education” to combat this ignorance. With this kind of sex education, there’s reason to believe that teen pregnancy rates, already on the decline, will remain par for the course and, most importantly, future generations will be educated about their bodies. Until then, until a comprehensive, feminist, pleasure-affirming, medically accurate sex ed is federally mandated and federally funded, a small slice of the internet seeks to be all of these things for kids and young adults alike.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a misspelling of Caren Spruch’s name. (09/01/2021, 06:06 p.m. PST)

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Addissyn House is a college senior studying English and Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Kalamazoo College (MI) but is from Los Angeles. She loves poetry (Ross Gay, Maggie Nelson), reading contemporary romance novels (Kevin Kwan, Emily Henry), and watching TV shows that star female characters (WandaVision, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).