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‘Sex Education’ and you

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Illustration by Jordan Sellergren/Little Village; still from Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’; Esther Perel at SXSW 2018

“I’ve been wanking all night. I ate four packets of crumpets, and I think my clit might drop off.” —Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), Sex Education

My new favorite show is Sex Education on Netflix. The series follows the insanely adorable and awkward Otis, who teams up with his brilliant, badass classmate Maeve to start a super secret sex therapy clinic. Otis uses knowledge picked up from his mother’s sex therapy business to guide his classmates through their sexual insecurities and quandaries.

One of my favorite characters is Aimee. The first episode opens on her naked, riding her boyfriend Adam while asking him if he likes her tits and wants to come on them. Cut to episode six and you’ll see a similar scene: Aimee on top of her new boyfriend Steve, asking, “Do you want to come on my face?”

“Not really,” he replies. Steve is skeptical whether Aimee really wants him to do this, or if she’s simply performing. When Steve asks her what she actually enjoys doing sexually, Aimee is dumbfounded. She seeks help from Otis, saying, “I don’t know what I want. No one’s ever asked me that before.” He suggests she try masturbating, which she initially yucks. But what follows is an epically hysterical masturbation montage that shows Aimee taking ownership of her sexuality and pleasure — all over her bedroom.

The simple question Steve poses — “What do you like?” — sends Aimee into a panic. It’s not uncommon to be ignorant of one’s own sexual preferences or even be unaware of what’s available on the menu of erotic possibilities. Many of us are conditioned to focus on fulfilling our partner’s wants or some notion of pleasure we picked up from novels, HBO or porn. And even if we know what we’d like, we may be shy about expressing it to our partner(s).

I love that Aimee is willing to ask for help and give the prescription, masturbation, a shot. I found myself wishing I had a show like this when I was a teenager to share the infinite possibilities available to give and receive pleasure.

Sex Education has sparked so many excellent conversations with my friends and family about sexual health, and it has prompted some of my fellow parents of elementary-aged kids to consider the uncomfortable conversations in their future. Several have asked me where they can get more information about how to navigate “the talk(s)” with their kids about sex. (I’ve started talks with my own son, starting with explaining that touching yourself is fine, so long as it’s done out of the public eye.) It’s a hell of a responsibility to help shape a budding sexuality, especially when many of us are works in progress ourselves.

I recently reread Emily Nagoski’s amazing book, Come As You Are, in which she and friend Robin Milhausen (a Canadian sex researcher) discuss the mixed messages our culture and families plant in our beliefs about sex.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who tell themselves they are “bad” because they chose to have premarital sex or even masturbate. Raised Catholic, it’s a shame I’m familiar with — one many of us were conditioned to feel as kids, whether or not we put stock in religious doctrine. But learning how to give ourselves pleasure and connect with our bodies from a young age is important in developing a healthy sexual identity.

“We’re raising women to be sexually dysfunctional, with all the ‘no’ messages we’re giving them about diseases and shame and fear,” Milhausen says. “And then as soon as they’re 18, they’re supposed to be sexual rockstars, multi-orgasmic and totally uninhibited. It doesn’t make any sense. None of the things we do in our society prepares women for that.”

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren, still from Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’

Nagoski adds that while our existing sexual context might be harmful or negative, we can unlearn and replace these ideas with healthier patterns that build confidence, satisfaction and joy.

My favorite relationship guru/sex therapist is Esther Perel. Her podcast, Where Should We Begin?, invites listeners to sit in on one-time-only sex therapy sessions. With creativity, ease and incredible insight, she facilitates conversations about trauma, sex addiction, infidelity and sexlessness. But she emphasizes that sexual health doesn’t only have to focus on sex-related disorders and dangers.

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“We need a model of sexual health so we know what we are working towards, not only what we’re trying to eradicate,” Perel said on the podcast Speaking of Sex. “Like in all other health. It’s one thing to know what not to eat, it’s another thing to know what to eat!”

Perel recommends seeking out a sexual role model, someone with a strong sense of what they like and how to relate to their partner(s). She also recommends challenging our cultural preconceptions of what’s considered desirable. After a little guidance (and self-exploration), Aimee found she derived more pleasure from having her boyfriend blow on her ear than ejaculate on her chest.

Sexual health should be seen as part of overall health and happiness, she says, and should be nurtured. Perel encourages one to ponder after sex, “Did you learn to experience pleasure or not? Was pleasure celebrated, suspiciously tolerated or simply dismissed?”

Somatic sex educator Charlie Glickman recommends pleasure mapping as a way to collect information on what feels good to your body. His method involves starting solo before testing out your interests with a partner or partners.

After setting aside an hour or so of alone time, the first step in pleasure mapping is to be creative and explore a range of erotic and educational materials (ideally, ethically made and body positive). I recommend OMGyes.com, featuring a wealth of science-backed information on women’s sexual pleasure; the CrashPad Series, queer porn with a broad range of gender identities, sexual orientations, sizes, shapes, abilities and more; any edition of Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica Series; and Jaiya’s Red Hot Touch handbook, with tips on exploring erotic touch, massage and anal play.

The second step is to understand how sexual arousal changes how we experience different sensations in the body. Glickman recommends getting aroused a bit before starting.

The third step is to try a technique you learn from a movie, erotica or something you are curious about and rate it on a 1-10 scale. One could be “whatevs” and 10 could be “for the love of God, never stop doing that.” Practicing with a partner, you can also nonverbally communicate a thumbs up for “yep” or “nope.”

The fourth step is receiving feedback. Test techniques out in a consensual, communicative encounter, assess your own feelings and accept your partner’s evaluations. It’s very important to understand, Glickman says, that “your partner is rating the technique, not your skill as a lover.” He recommends reminding each other not to get lost in a shame or ego spiral — it’s practice, not personal. Actively involve all participants and remind one another you are collecting “data.” He also suggests thanking each other.

Finally, Glickman suggests focusing on the techniques that were rated a six or above. (For more tips, visit www.makesexeasy.com)

Otis demonstrates via his underground sex therapy clinic that initially awkward conversations about sex, love and intimacy can lead to meaningful connections and personal transformations. Giving ourselves permission to experience pleasure, like Aimee did, is not only fun when it’s a party of one, but makes it better for everyone involved when we share what we’ve learned.

Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 258.


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