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On Sex, Education, And Sex Education
Amia Srinivasan's provocative collection 'The Right To Sex', Leo Bersani’s controversial essay 'Is The Rectum A Grave?', and the much loved third season of Sex Education
The pinned tweet on a gay pornstar's Twitter account isn’t a 40-second preview of a filmed sexual act with a link to their OnlyFans, or a viral clip of a dripping, satiating blowjob they gave years ago, as is the case for so many of the stars. It is, instead, a long Twitter-thread about bottoming in anal sex — the taboos, the taboo-shattering, the precautions, the insistence, the spaces for negotiation, the logistics of a fibre-based diet for optimum shit, the dos and don’ts of anal douching, the pros and cons of various sex positions (Riding — pro: Total control; cons: Everything else), the stilted importance given to the orgasm, and hair. It was illuminating in two ways — the content itself and also the location of the content, right on top (Oh), pinned to the profile for easy access. The ease of access was both a recognition that this is something that people look for and something that people need, and thus something of value that can be offered by the porn star i.e. sex education. But is sex education, like most formal silos of learning, a give and take? An ask and an answer?
In Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy Of The Oppressed, the essence of education is defined as “the practice of freedom”. To not have students as “containers” or “receptacles” that need to be filled with the narrations that ought to be memorized. Friere (who would have turned 100 years old yesterday) calls this the “banking model” of education where “the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filling, and storing the deposits”.
The one way sex education, at least the liberal formulation of it, subverts this is by mutating the syllabus into a question and answer session, so that those who want to seek knowledge bring their own questions to the table, as opposed to the classroom where the questions are posed and answered by the same entity — the teacher.
The Netflix show Sex Education did this very cleverly, with Otis and Maeve, two students who happen to be astute, knowledgeable, empathetic, and entrepreneurial taking money from their fellow-students to dole out sound sexual advice. Students of Moordale Secondary, up in the mountains in a fictional town divorced from the ongoing nightmare of British politics, have odd sexual encounters that fills them with anxious questions — Why am I unable to have sex? To masturbate? Why am I unable to make my girlfriend orgasm? (The solution: “You have 10 fingers and a tongue, Dex. Use your imagination.”)
But it is still, in essence, an ask and answer, a desire as a student to walk into the place of learning — a seedy bathroom stall where Otis sits and mulls over their problems, or the spick and span classroom — and walk out with answers. Friere imagines, instead, a kind of “problem posing” where the student and the teacher become jointly responsible, tethered to a process where they both grow. For students to be “critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher”.
For example, to read in WH Auden’s “Blowjob Poem” not just the atomic, exuberant attention to erotic desire but the potential in the poem to disentangle a reader’s sexual trauma.
“Slipping my lips round the Byzantine dome of the head,
With the tip of my tongue I caressed the sensitive groove.
He thrilled to the trill. "That's lovely!" he hoarsely said.
"Go on! Go on!" Very slowly I started to move.”
Or for that matter, even read Louise Glück’s A Warm Day and think of Almodóvar, Andre Lyon Talley, and the silk gruffness of Cameron Mitchell’s voice, instead.
[S]ex is never just about sex. It’s also about the contours that lead us to it — our ease, our indifference, our anxieties, our phobias that we bring to the act, like language to a feeling. The resounding, radiant success of the Sex Education franchise is testament that as much as we are interested in seeing sex unfold as an erotic act, we are also interested in sex unfolding as a humanizing one.
And sex, for all its erotic givings and misgivings, can be a humanizing act, too. Pauline Kael’s pan of West Side Story, begins with, “Sex is the great leveler, taste the great divider,” a quote burned into my brain, because of the number of times I have read it. Her quote and the socio-sexual world we inhabit would explain why the show was so successful. Sure, it had some of the most colourful, prompt, and clearly etched characters whose love is burnished or bludgeoned in company. (Otis whose loving, giving personality is seen bubbling with his best friend Eric, and restrained when around Maeve, a fractured love.)
But there was also something totally uncontroversial to the liberal mind about this world — of students demanding sex education, one that centers their pleasure. (The people who would be opposed to the show are those opposed to the idea of teenagers having sex, the abstinence-raving moth-ball personalities. I don’t wish to consider them here.)
What I want to do here is complicate the show a little bit, not as an accusation — that the show did not go far enough — because that would be unfair to this kind, generous world that normalized speaking of vulvas like cake frosting. But as an addendum — things the show did not, perhaps could not tackle. This mostly comes from Amia Srinivasan’s brilliant, provocative, ambivalent, and studied collection of essays The Right To Sex, and Leo Bersani’s Is The Rectum A Grave?
The question posed is — Is it enough to advocate for the freedom of pleasure and desire? Or must we also investigate the politics of our desire, how it is formed, how it is trained to eroticize certain bodies, certain acts, certain thrusts, certain willful submissions?
When someone wants to be slapped during sex, turned on by the idea of inflicting violence on themselves, where is this masochism coming from? Is it internalized hatred? Or is it just desire doing what desire usually does — being indifferent to the scepter of appropriateness or inappropriateness. Or as the trans theorist Andrea Long Chu notes, “[T]he problem with desire [is] we rarely want the things we should.”
I bring this up because Sex Education takes a pleasure-centering perspective, where even Otis’ mother, the sex therapist, is more interested in understanding why pleasure cannot be pursued to its lair, as opposed to investigating where pleasure is formed.
Pleasure As Political
Torrey Peters’ needling and frustrating book Detransition, Baby — about a trans woman, a detransitioned man, and a cisgender woman trying to see if they can bring a child into this world and queer the institution of family — begins with a sentence I found oddly constructed, “The question, for Reese: Were married men just desperately attractive to her?” I read the sentence a few times. In my head I kept reading “attractive to her” as “attracted by her”, centering the pleasure of the married men and not Reese, the trans central character of the novel. It was such an odd impulse to re-center the pleasure of the main character, giving it to this abstract category of “married men” instead. Peters delves into this in the very next sentence, wondering if Reese is attracted to married men only because married men are among the only available pool of erotic objects. Is she attracted to married men because married men are the only people who are attracted to her?
This is silly, of course, because desire doesn’t work along the thorough grooves of logic, and this is part of the frustration of the book — it tries to see logic in desire, swerving its logic with every erotic swerve, as if everything needed to make sense. Characters say things like, “My theory is that the only thing I enjoy doing is destroying my own innocence. I have no more innocence to destroy with you.” (As if the problem with sex is always a problem of articulation — a position Sex Education tends towards.) Or sometimes, by just elevating an obvious sentence — “You don’t get to choose who you fuck, you get to choose from those who want to fuck you.” — into an ambiguous theory of desire.
But the point it raised, which eluded me initially was this — Whose desire are you centering? Why? Why was I in my head, already re-centering the main protagonist’s desire?
Sex Education unabashedly centered the desires, the worries, and the catharsis of its students. What it didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to do was investigate the idea of pleasure as constructed. It looked at pleasure as something innate — pre-political and primordial as Srinivasan would say — and so finds no reason to investigate it further. When Cal, a nonchalant, elusive character on the show, notes that they are non-binary, the show doesn’t ask what is the kind of femininity and masculinity they want to reject? The performance of gender, or the anatomy of sex, both, or neither?
When we are attracted to someone, what is it within us that bubbles the hormones to render us an ashpile of fawning, myopic lust? Why are we attracted to certain “types” of people?
There are two things here, which I think Amia Srinivasan’s book really teases out — one about sex positivity, and the other is about the politics of desire. I must also note that her essays are not always conclusive pieces — she swirls around an argument often without stating her own position or providing a resounding conclusion, instead pulling apart ideas, testing the strength of its various assumptions, the tenacity of the evidence. In her own words, “The broad methodological orientation of [this] book is an unswerving embrace of ambivalence,” and this ambivalence irks the kind of people who are looking for closure. (The criticism this book has received which is also similar to the criticism Jia Tolentino's collection of essays had received betrays a discomfort with ambivalence.) But closure requires logic or some semblance of it, and desire eludes logic at every step.
The first thing Srinivasan complicates is the idea of sex-positivity as perhaps inadequate. We often consider sex to be “morally constrained only the boundaries of consent” i.e. moral sex is consensual and immoral sex in non-consensual.
“It would be disingenuous to make nothing of the convergence, however unintentional, between sex positivity and liberalism in their shared reluctance to interrogate the formation of our desires.” — Amia Srinivasan
She quotes Ellen Willis’ 1981 essay Lust Horizons: Is The Women’s Movement Pro-Sex? which was written against the grain of thought that saw sex as a form of male violence where women are implicated, and merely put up with sex. (The idea of “political lesbianism” had come up in the 1970s in America, where women rejected men, and turned to lesbianism not as an erotic choice, but a political one. They might not even want to sleep with women.) But despite being sex-positive, affirming that there is no place for “authoritarian moralism” in sex, Willis also notes that “a truly radical movement must look … beyond the right to choose, and keep focusing on the fundamental questions. Why do we choose what we choose? What would we choose if we had no choice?”
That to choose who you want to have and pursue sex with is your prerogative, your personal agency, but to say you refuse to sleep with certain types of bodies is a claim that must be investigated. Where is this internal distaste coming from? Is it conditioned — something you have borrowed from the socio-sexual world? Or is it innate — something you bring to the socio-sexual world?
She thus asks a very pertinent question in the coda to her essay Right To Sex — are there good reasons and bad reasons for desiring someone? Have you ever not returned the love of someone who has told of their affection? Why?
One of the man thrusts of Srinivasan’s essay is to ask if we even have a responsibility to rewire our desires. She gives an example of Lindy West studying photos of fat women and asking herself what it would take to see these bodies as beautiful. (Aishwarya Subramanian on Instagram had told her followes a similar thing — to follow body positive influencers and how over time your relationship to beauty might change.)
She argues that our “sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own will” — a position I find untrue in my 25 years of having lived, and perhaps 12+ years of having desired. Maybe it is a failure of my imagination. But also, maybe, it’s a failure of theory. It’s also a position I find odd — to look at photos of bodies conventionally considered unattractive and focus on a nose or a mole or a colour or a limp-wrist and think, “Hmm, how do I mutate this distaste into appreciation?” How do we do this with ourselves, staring at the mirror every morning, pontificating over pores and scabs and flabs? Does anything viscerally change when we radically realign ourselves with feminism and feminist principles or does it just make the contradictions more jarring?
In Leo Bersani’s seminal and controversial 1987 essay Is The Rectum A Grave?, he quotes Richard Dyer who suggests that “by taking the signs of masculinity and eroticizing them in a blatantly homosexual context, much mischief is done to the security with which ‘men’ are defined in society, and by which their power is secure.”
This claim, Bersani thinks, and I concur, is quite ridiculous. This idea that gays embodying toxic masculinity in bed is somewhat a parody, a danger to masculinity itself. As Bersani notes, “Parody is an erotic turn-off and all gay men know this.”
Now I don’t want to moralize too much because I would then have to acknowledge all the things that are wrong with my desire, and I don’t want to do that just yet, because I also recognize as Andrea Long Chu notes, that “nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle.” But also because the logical conclusion of such an exercise is often the denial of pleasure. The famous anti-porn legal scholars and theorists Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin ultimately believed in renouncing sex unless sex is restructured, reinvented, unless the eroticization of subjugation ends. I find that line of thinking so politically charged, so inspiring, so boring.
The truth is we love and hate, and they, for the most part tend to align to our sense of right and wrong. To love the right things and hate the wrong things. But then, there is a cross-pollination that completely undoes some of the moral absolutism we seek to live by. (The “Values are not meant to make your life easy” line of thought) So, I guess it takes some indifference, some courage, some conservative carelessness to say we love and we hate and that is all. But we must also recognise that this same line of thought can come to haunt us. To let distaste go uninvestigated is a slippery slope towards, who knows where.
Leo Bersani in his essay quotes a London Sun headline, “I’d Shoot My Son If He Had AIDS, Says Vicar!” accompanied by an image of a man pointing a rifle at a boy. But it wasn’t the headline that was interesting — after all, murder-adjacent zealots in the garb of religion is an age old tradition, what’s new? — but what the son himself said, “Sometimes I think he would shoot me whether I had AIDS or not.”
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