The state of sex education in the UK is something that, to appropriate the Family Guy phrase: really grinds my gears. Sometimes it makes me mad, mostly it just makes me really, really sad. My personal suspicion is that a great no. of young people are entering this experience either totally naive or completely misinformed, and the worst cases are where the former meet the latter: those with gaps in their knowledge learn from those who gained their only knowledge from unreliable – and sometimes downright scary – sources. Such opinions of mine, however, could be splayed out for quite a while, so I’ll dedicate a ‘Philosophy’ to that, another time. Right now, I’d like to turn to one of my ‘Inspirations’, who truly fits that title: Michaela Coel.
I think Michaela Coel is a hero for so many reasons beyond the scope of this post. I’m absolutely in love with her Channel 4 series, Chewing Gum, not only for its sheer hilarity, acutely expressed opinions, or commitment to diversity and representation, but I consider the star and writer an idol: a unique, confident, perceptive woman with a superpower-talent for relating her perspective to others. I could go into a technical analysis of the show’s comic and social-critical brilliance, or rave on its themes, though, truthfully I don’t feel fully qualified and am certain I can’t empathise with all of the issues Chewing Gum explores – particularly those about race and class (some great sources I’ve been trying to educate myself with, though, are Coel’s article, ‘Go home to Ghana. Well, why not?’ , interview with Reggie Yates, ‘I never saw my life represented on TV.’ , and ‘Ways to Change the World’ podcast.)
Just one thing I’ll talk about today, then, is the show’s fab exhibition of what a decent sex education should consist in. Coel’s character, Tracey, is emphatically naive, inexperienced, and unaware, pairing a curious sexuality with a Christian upbringing, which is the crux of many of the show’s best jokes. Beneath the cringe-inducingly funny moments this leads to, though, are some simple, wonderful messages I wish my sixteen-year-old-self had had access to. Without further adieu, I think these enlist as follows:
Did you know cunnilingus is censored more than a) rape scenes and b) blowjobs? Well, not in Chewing Gum. Coel seamlessly normalises female sexuality and prioritises women’s pleasure – which is tragically rare. Tracey’s boyfriend, Connor, is invested in her pleasure and acts I’ve never previously seen on screen, which put her first, abound. The first sexual encounter in the entire programme is Tracey receiving oral sex.
The show’s female stars openly discuss what they enjoy and speak freely and casually on all manner of acts, from masturbation to the use of sex toys to what they get up to with partners (however multiple). A couple of quotes explore and normalise homo and bi sexuality (mostly from Candice – Tracey’s best friend – ‘s nan, the lady to the left, above), and enlightenment is shed on typical sexism in the bedroom. Other simple inclusions make, for me, a huge difference: no mystery surrounds the female orgasm, which is always described as obtainable and expected (rather than impossible/surplus), and basic female anatomy isn’t a confusing secret: words that should be standard and comfortable like ‘vulva’ and ‘clitoris’ crop up all the time.
A theme that prevails throughout both seasons is Tracey feeling pressured (culturally and by peers) to do things she doesn’t really enjoy: she frequently gets told by more experienced and confident friends that she should be: sending photos she isn’t comfortable with, performing acts she’s not into, and pretending to be less ‘innocent’ and more promiscuous than she is. Luckily, Connor reacts in the opposite way and repeatedly assures her that they won’t do anything she’s not ready for. I’m sure this seems like a basic (come-patronising) thing to discuss but it never fails to shock me how prevalent stories like this pressuring are, and, sadly, not everyone appears to have got the message that Connor’s attitude is the right one.
On the flip-side, her more confident, kinky friends like Candice clear up any grey-areas; she’s into more hardcore stuff that could be concerning/problematic but, as she simply states: it’s what she likes and it’s with her informed consent, so there’s no problem.
Following on from the pressuring point, this show gets a gold star in myth-busting. Tracey is a great example of how someone who’s had no sex education/been sheltered by purity and abstinence notions can typically end up viewing the world: without correct information, she’s constantly misled by popular myths shared by her friends, online, and in wider society, and it makes her vulnerable in some seriously unpleasant situations.
How the narratives usually play out: Tracey is confused by a bunch of false and damaging narratives she’s been fed by her friends (from ‘all men want a threesome’, to: ‘if he tries to do xyz, just breathe through it, or he will dump you’)) she follows their advice, and finds it fails. A fave part of mine is when a woman she invites for a threesome – thinking it’ll impress Connor – advises against her obsession with losing her virginity, and specifically: breaking her hymen. She endorses a less hetero-normative, more inclusive definition of sex and Tracey takes her advice and has her first orgasm.
It’s also just wonderful to watch some realistic representations of sex, particularly for when you’re young and inexperienced. Since ‘Chewing Gum’ is a comedy, the sex scenes never play-out like Hollywood fantasies; things go wrong from Connor banging Tracey’s head on a lightbulb to Tracey not realising taking her trousers off would be conducive. Coel also makes such realistic noises and facial expressions from confusion to dissatisfaction to pain but, mostly importantly: genuine pleasure – it’s not a pornstar act where she retains a flawless, slightly aroused look, she contorts and makes open, full-fledged facial expressions at the camera. The best thing about this? It doesn’t make the sex scenes any less lovely – there’s often still a romantic sound track and some genuinely sweet and adorable moments, like the first time Connor tells Tracey she’s beautiful and they share a moment of mutual thrill.
The characters are also consistently mature and honest with each other – there’s no faking orgasms or pretending to be into something they’re not. Rather than Tracey ever actually committing to ‘breathing through it’ or pretending to be enjoying it, for Connor’s sake, she always upfront tells him when things are working and what she really likes, and vice versa.
There’s also a glorious entire episode dedicated to Tracey’s fears that she’s pregnant (from giving Connor a hand-job) and as her misadventures unfold she makes a perfect case for just how badly we need better info on this. As someone who’s never been allowed to explore contraceptive advice, she ends up more at risk (and out of pocket after purchasing a ‘cream’ to replace the morning after pill).
I think this show tackles porn in a really awesome way: it doesn’t condemn anyone for watching it, and it normalises young female curiosity (rare, since porn can be stereotyped as a male thing). There’s no attack on Tracey or her younger sister for being interested and there’s a cool message going out, here, about masturbation and self-exploration. It is such a grey-area, though, and the show acknowledges that: it mocks porn for how comparatively unrealistic it is and it also has a couple of quite dark and scary moments portraying the true dangers – Tracey’s younger sister, Cynthia, gets tangled up in a very dodgy live-cam mistake.
Whilst a lot of the show’s sex-focused message is: don’t feel pressured to be any kinkier or more exploratory than you’re ready for – and there’s nothing wrong with being inexperienced – it also tackles the other end of the spectrum by avoiding to kink or slut shame anyone, either. The women, such as Candice, who are more confident in their sexuality and enjoy particular roleplay or taboo acts are shown making very reasoned cases for why there’s nothing wrong with this, and they shouldn’t be judged for what they do in their own personal, private, and consensual endeavours. Tracey’s naivety occasionally leads to unfair judgement of others: she tells Candice that the things she’s into ‘aren’t normal’ and calls Connor a ‘monster’ for having a sexual history. Candice sets her straight on both accounts.
This show is also brilliant for smashing a whole-range of stereotypes which, of course, come into sex. Candice’s boyfriend – a young, tall and muscular, Black man – is immensely sensitive, cries frequently, and enjoys romantic, loving sex, whilst other men in the show expose insecurities and performance anxieties. Connor frequently suffers erectile dysfunction plus a great deal of shame when it happens, whilst Tracey’s male cousin openly talks about never orgasming. In these instances, the women (mostly) react positively – erectile dysfunction is shrugged off as a normal, no-big-deal thing, rather than mortifying problem, and the woman Tracey’s cousin opens up to simply asks, ‘how can I help you relax?’. I think it’s important to recognise the impact traditional gender bedroom roles have on men: the honus shouldn’t be on them to ‘perform’ and normally fluctuating functioning bodies shouldn’t be any source of shame.
Another simple checklist tick is the body-positive box, which I think the show achieves beautifully. Although, of course, the star and many of its main characters are quite stereo-typically beautiful (it’s generally a slim cast, and the men are mostly quite built), there is diversity on multiple axes, including race and dis/ability. The people seen enjoying sex and feeling attracted to each other are also atypical to standard mainstream ideas: Candice’s grandmother has an active sex-life, as do the pregnant women and mothers. Tracey busts another myth in an episode about her breast shape – where she’s told, by some friends, that they ‘droop’ – it’s the friends, and not Tracey, who are mocked here for perpetuating rubbish, and the ultimate result is that Tracey ends the episode feeling beautiful. Period positivity also sneaks its way in – with swift normalisation.
There are, however, some much sadder elements to this show, exploring harsh realities and inequalities. It is for these particularly dark moments that I think the show truly stands out as a case for why we need better sex ed (amongst so many other reforms). Although Connor may be a patient, kind, and understanding partner who loves Tracey for who she is, her experiences outside of their relationship are far less pleasant. She is sexually harassed on multiple occasions, usually as a result of her naivety and blind trust in others (at one point, she ‘models’ for a photographer who gradually asks her to remove clothing). She also goes through multiple instances of racism and fetishisation from both white men and women, who frequently take advantage of her when she is in dire situations (one man only allows her to stay with him, whilst she is homeless, if she wears an offensive costume for his entertainment). Tracey also has a few hook-ups with other men who, though not especially dangerous, don’t especially care for her pleasure/happiness and put themselves first.
All in all: an instructive and entertaining work of art. I didn’t nearly do it justice with this post, though, so go check it out!