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Televised: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
Travel with me to Moordale Secondary School.

Sex Education Audio - Eric
I'm worried about you, man. Everybody's thinking about shagging, about to shag or actually shagging.

Anita Rao
It is the fictional setting for the Netflix show Sex Education. The premise: an awkward, British, 16-year-old virgin whose mom is a sex therapist starts a business on campus with a friend. It's a makeshift sex clinic, where he gives out advice to his peers.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
I think that you need to own your narrative, not let it control you. Yes, you have a large appendage. And yes, you're very visible in the school to use your father's position, but neither is likely to change your outlook. Does that make sense? It shouldn't matter what anyone in the school thinks. You are who you are. Don't let anyone take that away from you. Be proud of your penis and your heritage because neither are going anywhere. If you work with what you've got.

Anita Rao
I am a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and a peek into high school life that I can enjoy but not relive. So the premise pulled me in, but I stayed because the show speaks to both young me and adult me at the same time. It gave me some sex-ed I needed decades ago. Reminded me that I have got to put in the work to explore and then communicate about my own pleasure. And it made me hopeful that we can keep building toward a universe in which we all feel a bit more free in our bodies.

This is Embodied — our show about sex, relationships, and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

Quick warning before we continue, today's episode contains discussion of sexual assault. Please pause now if you need to.

Sex Education the show gave to me what it gave to many of y'all — lessons you wish you'd learned at least a decade earlier.

Audrey Smith
One of my favorite aspects of the show is how normal teen sexuality is portrayed to be. I grew up in a context that I would describe as purity culture adjacent. Teen sexuality was only ever talked about to me in the context of some kind of tragedy. I never really knew that there was a healthy way to explore my sexuality as a teenager because all of those narratives were about pregnancy and about STIs, and not really about how sexuality is a normal part of human experience, regardless of your age.

Kendall Umetsu
I went to high school in the late 2000s, as far as it goes. And I think my sex education was very much what was considered, quote unquote, the normal sex-ed, where it's just between a man and a woman. There was no other discussion about any other type of sex, anything else that could come up in those frames. Especially the conversations you watch these characters have about the awkwardness of having sex, either for the first time or trying something different and new, and being open to it, is a really accurate portrayal of what it's like to be, I mean for myself as a millennial — it's a representation of something that is so real that we've never seen on a TV show before.

Chris Watkins
One of the things I love most is that it is so effortlessly diverse in terms of sexual orientation and identification. Extremely diverse — race and ethnicity, extremely diverse. That is one of the best things about this show. They normalize everyone, and they make it possible to root for everyone.

Anita Rao
You just heard from our show producer Audrey Smith and listeners Kendall Umetsu and Chris Watkins. For writer and filmmaker Drew Gregory, one of the real life sex takeaways from the show was that it taught her how to masturbate. She said as much in a review she wrote for the digital publication Autostraddle. We loved her takes on the show so much, we wanted to hear more.

Drew Gregory
I think it does a really great job at being a teen show and getting into the ways that teenagers need to learn about sex — need to learn about their own sexualities. But also, that's a lifelong journey, especially for those of us who didn't get the sex education we needed as teenagers. And I think most of us have had to have an experience of checking in and thinking about our own pleasure, and thinking about the ways in which we're performing to a certain extent, instead of being present when it comes to sex. I think things like queerness, transness, just compound on top of that, but it's such a powerful idea that we all deserve to be present in our sex lives.

Anita Rao
Before Drew became a superfan, she was a tad skeptical about yet another coming-of-age story focusing on a straight, white, cisgender boy. But once she started watching Sex Education, the parallels between this show and her own life began to surprise her.

Drew Gregory
It sort of struck me that when I was a teenager, I didn't know that I was trans. And so my experience in this skewed sort of way had a lot in common with Otis, and especially this character, who is a cis, straight, white boy, but is also very sensitive and very tender and a great listener. And I was like: Oh, this is getting very close to home.

Anita Rao
You were also a peer counselor in high school. So you were kind of providing advice for students who didn't feel comfortable opening up to adults about their questions. So how were the parallels between how you connected to your peers and how you see Otis tried to connect to his through the sex clinic?

Drew Gregory
It's interesting because the peer counseling program at my school was something that a lot of people did just to put it on their resume for college applications. But I took it so seriously. I really felt like I understood the purpose of it, and the health of the school was like, on my shoulders, which, I think, in part, was me sort of avoiding confronting my own queerness — my own other problems. And so I really talked to a lot of people and a lot of people who didn't even go through the proper peer counseling channels, but knew that I was a peer counselor, and would sort of be like: Hey, can I talk to you? I had this sense of responsibility, that I think, again, was coming from a place of maybe a little bit of avoidance of self.

Anita Rao
Well, that brings me to the point that — he's still a teenager. So while he's filling this gap he sees his peers need more sex-ed than they're getting in school. He doesn't always know how to give the best advice and sometimes makes errors and faults. And this also resonated with you about wanting to support your peers, but also feeling like sometimes you didn't know where to go. Talk to me about that, and kind of what the show opens up about this need that young people have for a space to process openly.

Drew Gregory
I feel for both myself, and for my peers, I just felt this real lack in how sex was being talked about, how relationships were being talked about, how our feelings were being talked about. And I think Otis acknowledges that and sees that too. But he's still a teenager. I was still a teenager. Teenagers are kids, and even adults don't always know the right things to say or the right ways to feel. And so when you're a kid, especially, there's just so much uncertainty. And there are limits. There are limits to what a teen can say to another teen or can acknowledge about themselves. And I think it's both really important that we grant teenagers their full personhood, and really listen to their desires. But there could be a support system there from adults that I just don't think exists in most high schools around the world.

Anita Rao
If you caught our episode last week, you met some teens who were trying to connect their peers to supportive resources, but that's certainly not available in most high schools. While Otis and his makeshift sex clinic at Moordale sometimes fails in giving the best advice, his mom is a real licensed sex therapist, and through her, we see what it can look like to get support around some of our most traumatic and vulnerable sexual experiences. Here's a peek inside a session between Jean Milburn and Otis' peer Aimee. Aimee was riding a bus to school when she noticed a man behind her masturbating. He had ejaculated on her pants, and in the moment she brushes it off, but it has some big and lasting ramifications. And eventually, she seeks support.

Sex Education Audio - Jean
Do you feel comfortable telling me a little bit about why you're here?

Sex Education Audio - Aimee
Last term, I was sexually assaulted. And I thought that I was getting over it. But I don't think I am. I used to like my body. And I used to like having sex. But ever since it happened, I don't like the way my body feels. I don't like looking at it. And I don't like my boyfriend touching it anymore.

Sex Education Audio - Jean
That must be difficult for you Aimee. Do you think you could tell me a little bit more about the assault?

Sex Education Audio - Aimee
I was going to school. And everything felt normal. And then I got on the bus. And there was this man. Sorry, I just find it hard to talk about it sometimes.

Sex Education Audio - Jean
That's okay. We don't have to talk about anything you don't want to.

Sex Education Audio - Aimee
I just want to be the old me again.

Sex Education Audio - Jean
Well, you may never be the old you, Aimee. But that's okay. Now as human beings, we are constantly changing and developing. And by processing this trauma, you may gain clarity on the event itself. And we can move you towards healing the relationship with your body again. Would you like that?

Sex Education Audio - Aimee
Yeah, I'd like that.

Drew Gregory
I really appreciated the nuance that was brought to this storyline. And I think we have this collective mental image of sexual assault on screen that doesn't necessarily align with a lot of the experiences of sexual assault in real life. And I think it's such a sharp choice of like, what this experience is for Aimee, this idea that like she's on a bus surrounded by a lot of other people, her clothes remain on, you know, we don't have to go to the most extreme portrayal of sexual assault to show that this character is deeply affected by this experience. It's not to say that the way that sexual assault is often shown on screen that, you know, instances like that don't happen as well, obviously. But I think even when that is shown, the psychological toll isn't often shown. So to have this encounter, and to see how much it affects Aimee, I think is really powerful.

Anita Rao
Yeah, they do a really nice job kind of weaving it back. So it's not just an arc that kind of evolves over the course of one to two episodes, but it keeps showing up for her in various ways: when she tries to get intimate with her partner, her relationships with her friends. And I think that kind of holistic representation felt very unique to me. But there was also a moment where several of the characters, including Aimee are in detention together. And they're tasked with figuring out the one thing that they all have in common. And that was a moment where you felt like the way the storyline was portrayed missed the mark and you felt let down by it. So take me into that.

Drew Gregory
Yeah, so that happens in season two, and the collective answer they come up with is quote unquote, male genitalia. And Lily is actually the character who says that. And Lily's so far been shown to be a character who's not just queer, but also just like, very sexually open and so to hear her especially make that connection felt disappointing, especially when the show is so sharp when it comes to sex and gender usually. I had an experience on the subway where a man like put his penis on me and like, peed down my back and I'm like, you know, it wasn't his penis. it was the man right. And by acting like it is a certain genitalia not only does a disservice to trans women, but also gives an excuse to people who are predatory. It gives them like a biological out that I don't think they deserve. So I wrote about that and wrote about like, you know, the ways in which season two was such an exceptional season of television and at the same time, feeling like, am I not like a part of this world of, you know, sexual openness and conversation.

Anita Rao
No show hits the mark all the time. Drew has friends who have TV shows and has spent time on sets herself and knows just how hard it is to make a show like this, with a big ensemble cast, multiple seasons and so many moving parts. For a TV show to win her over, she doesn't ask for perfection, but openness to critique and continued expansion. And that she thinks the show has nailed, especially in the third season.

Drew Gregory
As the episodes go along, as the seasons go along, you just get such a wider portrait of different identities. And yeah, in season three, Cal's introduced, who is nonbinary and outside of film and TV shows that are specifically focused on trans people, specifically written and directed by trans people, this was one of the best storylines I've ever seen from just, like, an ensemble show being made largely, you know, by cis people.

And it's not just the casting, because I think that's something that has become sort of more of a rule, that, like, trans parts should be cast with trans actors. But deeper than that, like the fact that there are two nonbinary characters who are introduced, and we see the different ways that they deal with the oppression they face. And also Cal feels like a person. And the ways that people interact with Cal show their transphobia, but we're always on Cal's side. We're always like from Cal's point of view. And if audiences want to learn through the show, they can, but the show isn't catering to their perspective, it's catering to Cal's perspective. And I think the show always does such a good job with that, of both providing teaching opportunities, but centering the humanity of the characters first and foremost.

Anita Rao
I couldn't have said it better myself. That in a sentence is one of many things that is just so good about this show. As a viewer, you learn and are exposed to diverse people and identities, but you never feel like any character is tokenized. The show takes representation really seriously. The creator Laurie Nunn has brought intimacy coordinators on set to help with sex scenes and made sure to continue to diversify and expand her writers room. But one place where that representation is exaggerated, for effect, is the depiction of the life of a sex therapist.

Rosara Torrisi
I think one of the biggest differences in our offices is that most sex therapists will not have their offices decked out in penises and vulvas and bodies. And part of that is to help it be a really accessible, neutral space.

Anita Rao
Rosara Torrisi is a sex therapist and the founding director at the Long Island Institute of Sex Therapy. She loves how this show gets at the humanity of her job, how you could have so much going on in your personal life, but still really show up for your clients. The way Jean navigates privacy and confidentiality, on the other hand, is certainly overstepping in ways that she wouldn't. But there are many scenes that have her vigorously nodding her head in recognition, like this one.

Sex Education Audio - Tanya
This is good. It's really helpful being in the water, isn't it? It's just buoying us up and we're really figuring out how our bodies can intertwine. It's working well for me. Is it working for you?

Sex Education Audio - Ruthie
No.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
Well, like I said before, I am a sex and relationship therapist.

Sex Education Audio - Ruthie
You are a teenager with an inflated sense of self-importance.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
Well, I have a hunch that this has more to do with your relationship than your physical intimacy. How's your communication?

Sex Education Audio - Tanya
We've known each other since primary school, and we talk for hours. It might help.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
How long have you guys been together?

Sex Education Audio - Tanya
About four months. We both came out around the same time, and it just happened.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
Interesting.

Sex Education Audio - Ruthie
I'm sure you find lots of things interesting, but our problem's with the sex, not the relationship. So we're just going to figure this out on our own.

Sex Education Audio - Otis
Well, I'll come back when you're ready to talk about your relationship. Good session team, great progress.

Rosara Torrisi
So that scene is wonderful for a few reasons. One is, especially for sex therapists, we're often working with somatics, or the body. And when we get our clients moving sometimes, that helps other things come to light. And on top of that, what makes this a really great scene is that so many people come to sex therapy saying: Sex is the issue. That's why we're coming to you. And I'm the first to say: Okay, I'm a sex therapist. I'm a hammer and the rest of the world is a nail and the nail is sex. Everything's about sex to me. But sometimes it's actually not about the sex. So sometimes in terms of what really is going on is the relational, is the communication, is somebody's own personal development and where they're at, spirituality, someone's individual trauma. There's so much going on that isn't overtly sexual, but is impacting the sex. And we do need to still talk about that.

Anita Rao
One of the things I think the show models really well is being able to have conversations with people about sex when they don't necessarily have the language to talk about it in a way that maybe an adult would. And I think because Otis is a peer he can relate to them on that level. But I'm curious for you, you know, the way that you saw young folks being supported through these important sexual experiences as teenagers, and how that related to some of the work that you do, talking to young folks and meeting them where they are in terms of their development?

Rosara Torrisi
Sure. So one of the things that I also do is teach ninth grade sex ed as part of my congregation. So it's comprehensive sexuality education in a religious setting, which is the coolest thing. In all of these years of teaching my ninth graders, we have something called a question box, where they're able to put anonymous questions. And the show does an amazing job of tackling the questions that I get year after year after year. Am I normal? What happens if I like somebody and they don't like me? What if I'm gay? What if my friends want me to be doing this thing and I'm not really interested in it? Am I safe?

And part of the answering of these questions is the youth having an opportunity to provide support to each other, the normalization of: Yeah, I wonder about that, too. Or, oh, I think this is some good advice for you. And they really do give each other such beautiful advice. And we're there is the adult advisors and kind of experts in the room as well. And so we're able to fill in gaps or correct things a little bit if it's off. So it's kind of a best of both worlds where they get the peer support, and an expert, trusted adult in a room.

Anita Rao
These kids really have a lot of questions. And we've been talking about sex education for the past couple of weeks. And I'm curious about, I guess, where do you think we are in terms of our ability to talk openly about this stuff. There's this interesting moment in the finale of season three. Otis is in conversation with the school's ex-principal, and she's kind of challenging him on about how her generation knew how to conduct themselves, and they knew what was important and Otis responds, and he says: Well, the issues that me and my peers are talking about have always been there, people just haven't felt safe enough to raise them. That's what's changing. What did you think of that line from where you stand?

Rosara Torrisi
Absolutely. I think that actually David Sedaris says something about recognizing he's gay and having sex with somebody for the first time, or being sexual with them, and recognizing that he's inventing the wheel, and wait a second, we're always inventing the wheel because no one is told or taught anything real. And so we're all just trying to figure it out. And we need a space to learn real comprehensive sexuality education, relationship education and life skills, right? We need that. Why are we missing this?

And at the same time, we're also culturally experiencing a very heavy dose of conservative understandings around sexuality that prohibit people from asking, that want people to wear gray and conform and fit in boxes and look appropriate. And I think the future that we're looking at, one of the things that I say is that if we're fighting, if we're getting pushback, we know we're doing something right. You're making moves, you're making movement, you're making momentum happen and there's going to be force against that. But the force against that lets you know that you are making the waves, which is great.

Anita Rao
The energy this show sparks in everyone we talked to was contagious. And it was that energy from our very own intern that inspired us to take a real look at this show. Anthony Howard has been with our team since last summer. He's an incredible human and a sex education superfan.

Anthony Howard
At each season drop I find myself eagerly waiting to grab my remote, press play and binge watch the latest season of the show in one sitting. The show explores sexual and gender identity and interactions that test each character's discomfort — and make me reflect on my own.

Anita Rao
Anthony brought together a round table of folks who see themselves and their relationships reflected in this show. Tyra Blizzard is a social activism influencer. And Claire Holland is a writer. Now let's eavesdrop on their conversation. Here's Claire.

Claire Holland
You know, I just think that there's this idea that there's either too much or too little sex on TV, but I think that the real problem is not — is that there's not enough realistic sex shown on TV and I think that's what's so amazing about this show is that they really go there.

Anthony Howard
Yeah, definitely. I would love to know — I have a favorite character in mind, but I would love to hear from either of you. Tyra, let's go with you first. The character Cal is a nonbinary and queer character in the show. And I would love to know how did Cal's character factor into your own exploration of your own gender queer identity?

Tyra Blizzard
I resonated so much with Cal, but I didn't understand why at the time, because I was still identifying as a cis woman. I had not yet taken the time to unpack the meaning of gender within myself, like, I was doing that on my platform and talking about gender with other people, but never for myself. So, once I started to unpack gender and realize that, you know, my relationship with womanhood wasn't my own idea, it was kind of something that was societally influenced. Then I realized why connected so much with Cal and them being Black as well, was just like, I finally understood why I just was so drawn to them.

Anthony Howard
Claire, what characters in the show do you most identify with and why?

Claire Holland
Um, well, one of the characters who I just was so thrilled to see in this show was Lily, who is a character who throughout the show, she kind of has a journey. She discovers that she has this condition called vaginismus. The first time she tries to have sex, it just won't work. It won't go in basically. And she discovers that she has this disorder that's like an involuntary clenching of the muscles, even though she really wants to have sex. And I have dealt with that in the past, I also had vaginismus. And it took me over 10 years to get a diagnosis and to get help, so — because I had never heard that term. Even today, it's so rare to see people talking about it. So it's just incredible to see that in a story line on TV.

Anthony Howard
Yeah, that's awesome that for both of you, you're kind of intersecting your own identities, whether that be your own gender, or your racial identity. And then also your own experiences, specifically for you, Claire, in terms of the sexual disorder that you have experienced thus far. And I see myself also in Eric, just in terms of his Black queerness. And being out and open. Not only is Eric an embodiment of how to be open in your truth, and being confident in who you are, but then also, I think it does explain that it's not all sunshine and rainbows, just in terms of there are people that do experience families that are not as understanding or don't have welcoming environments and safe spaces for where they can truly be who they are, and live out their truth. And Claire, I want to turn to you again, Eric also pushes against the idea of masculinity. So why do you think this is important for folks to witness this on screen on this testing of this hypermasculine male?

Claire Holland
Oh, my gosh, I think it's so important, especially right now. I feel like we're in this very, like, luckily, finally, happily, empowering time for women. And I think that men are struggling a bit more to find their place and to really understand what masculinity is and what it can mean for them. It doesn't have to be this hypermacho thing. Adam is such a closed up character at the beginning and through his relationship with Eric he becomes so much more open and he learns how to express himself, talk about his feelings — he even wears makeup at one point and thinks he looks quite pretty. Also Eric in his relationship with Otis, it's like, a much more physical, friendly kind of relationship I think than we often see between two boys or two men. So yeah, I think this show just explores a lot of different kinds of masculinity and the way that you can be a man and relate to other men.

Anthony Howard
Yeah, definitely. And on the point and on the topic of relationships, and also breaking down the barriers of what we deem to be the norm of what masculinity entails — I want to turn to a conversation that took place between Cal and Jackson, and Tyra I want to know how do you see the conversation between Jackson and Cal being almost a form of sex education for Jackson. I want to give a little bit more nuance and context around the piece. So Cal is a nonbinary student from Minneapolis who shows up in season three. One of Cal's storylines is that they develop a friendship with Jackson, a popular high-achieving student who has up to this point identified as heterosexual. Jackson develops feelings for Cal, and since Cal is nonbinary, Jackson begins questioning his heterosexuality. Let's listen.

Sex Education Audio - Jackson
I just don't think I'm queer.

Sex Education Audio - Cal
I figured as much.

Sex Education Audio - Jackson
But I thought you were all about breaking out of boxes. So what does it matter if I'm queer or if I'm not?

Sex Education Audio - Cal
Because I'm not a girl and I'm worried you still see me as one.

Sex Education Audio - Jackson
Yeah, maybe I do. But I'm open. Like, I'm willing to learn.

Sex Education Audio - Cal
Here's the thing. I'm still figuring out so much shit about myself. I can't carry you too. And I still want to have fun when I can, because I feel so heavy all the time.

Sex Education Audio - Jackson
So, what does this mean?

Sex Education Audio - Cal
It means that we can still be friends.

Sex Education Audio - Jackson
I do really like you.

Sex Education Audio - Cal
I really like you too. I'm sorry that this isn't gonna work out.

Tyra Blizzard
That scene brings tears to my eyes every single time. Oh my goodness. I was just so happy with how the conversation went, in terms of, you know, Jackson being a cis het man, actually taking the time to remove himself from the situation and determine whether or not he was able to pursue the relationship. And I don't see that very often. Specifically from cis het men, I see a lot of anger, frustration and confusion and kind of fear of the unknown. So him taking that time to sit down and have a conversation with Cal was beautiful, and then the way that Cal responded, kind of choosing themselves over that potential relationship and explaining that they aren't responsible for carrying the burden and, and the labor of educating someone who is in that position of power and privilege over them. Like, it's Jackson's job to do that. And I think that conversation was so educational. I wish every conversation could go that way. So I'm just so in love.

Anthony Howard
Yeah. And I think that speaks to that there's still so much more learning to do. And not only does that learning, that education have to come from a movie series, but it can come around from the people that surround us on a day-to-day basis. Tyra, in what ways do you think the series can continue to explore these discussions of sexuality and tenderness in the next season of the show?

Tyra Blizzard
I think that they could really explore the definition of sex, like what sex actually means, and that sex doesn't always equal penetration. That's something that it took me forever to figure out. There's so many different aspects of sex and intimacy. And if they could explore kind of different ways to have sex and kind of reframe what it means — I think that's gonna help a lot of people.

Anthony Howard
Yeah, definitely. That reframing of what sex is, I definitely agree with you on that. So the show would not be called Sex Education if not for the entrepreneurial spirit of Otis and his quest to educate his peers on sex and love. In what ways does the show accurately portray this reality of love and dating for young adults? Tyra?

Tyra Blizzard
I would say the messiness of it all, in the fact that young teenagers, young adults, we kind of are on our own to figure things out. Because, you know, the older generations, older populations don't always feel comfortable telling us the truth and being straight up. So we're kind of out there, just trying our best to figure it out. And I think that's what Otis was trying to do is help other people figure it out. It was just so raw and real.

Anita Rao
Claire Holland, Tyra Blizzard and Anthony Howard. So yeah, I think it's fair to say that Team Embodied highly recommend that you go watch this show if you haven't already. Thanks so much to everyone who shared their thoughts with us for today's episode. And big ups to our fabulous intern Anthony Howard.

Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Audrey Smith and Anthony Howard with editorial support from Amanda Magnus and Kaia Findlay. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

This show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker- and consumer-owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four Triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next date pickup. Weaverstreetmarket.coop. If you enjoyed this show, share it with a friend or post about it on social media and tag us. It really helps us spread the word and it means so much.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao taking on the taboo with you.

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