Decoding Sex in the Media: Sex, Explained

Have you ever seen clips of 1986’s Labyrinth used to explain fertility? If you haven’t, then you need to add Sex Explained, a docuseries collaboration between Vox and Netflix, to your queue. The series – welcomingly narrated by singer and actress Janelle Monae – uses a mix of investigative reporting, animations, and interviews with experts, educators, and every day people to cover sex and reproduction.

“This isn’t the sex education you may have had to sit through in school,” emphasizes Vox. “We dig into why a third of women worldwide describe childbirth as traumatic, why we still don’t have male birth control, and why even your weirdest sexual fantasies are way more predictable than you think.”

With just 5 short episodes that run 17–28 minutes each, Sex Explained can be binged in a single sitting. The deluge of thought-provoking content, however, will keep your brain busy for a long time.

What is sex explained about?

Sex Explained is a little bit about a lot of things.

Episode 1: Fantasies covers a gamut of topics in its modest 18 minute length, including the 3 major themes featured in most American adults’ sexual fantasies, what the prevalence of rape in American romance novels tells us about desire, and the queer history of leather in the BDSM community. Author Justin Lehmiller, stand-up star Margaret Cho, and sex educator Yin Q are among the sexperts and interviewees featured.

Episode 2: Attraction explores – and debunks – the idea of attraction being purely about mating. From the varied sexual preferences of twins, to the ways our attraction is influenced by the culture we’re in, Episode 2 – featuring psychologist Lisa Diamond and author Viren Swami – brings up a lot of interesting points in 17 minutes.

Episode 3: Birth Control is considerably longer than prior episodes (24 minutes) and has only one expert featured, activist Loretta Ross. “It’s been over 60 years since we invented hormonal birth control,” begins Janelle Monae, “Shouldn’t it be better by now?” The episode covers the long and hopeful history of birth control and its use across the world, and doesn’t flinch when it comes to the sinister side of that history.

250 babies are born every minute, and the ways that happens are fascinating, underexplored, and simultaneously advancing and on the decline. Episode 4: Fertility and Episode 5: Birth are the longest episodes of the series, topping out at 26 minutes. Like the rest of the series, these episodes don’t gloss over their content: much attention is paid to the pain, uncertainty, and trauma of human reproduction. With quotes from reproductive justice activist Monuca Simpson, infertility specialist Dr. Sherman Silber, and OBGYN Dr. Nicola Pemberton.

Though overall well-received (so far, at least – it’s only been out since January 2 nd), Sex Explained has its flaws. It’s been praised for its enlightening and educational content, but its short runtime and overemphasis on reproduction over sex itself has received some fair critiques. Jordan Julian of Dailybeast summarized it thusly: “Though by no means a substitute for comprehensive sex ed, [Sex Explained] provides adults with a valuable supplement to whatever knowledge they may (or may not) have gleaned from school and experience.”

We need to go deeper than “mood” and reproduction. 

Like reviewers both pro and amateur, I was surprised – and a teensie bit bored – by the amount of coverage baby-making received. 

“The series veers from what gets us in the mood to what happens with our reproductive systems,” writes Joel Keller of Decider, pointing out that the episodes detailing reproduction could have been made into a second show about birth. I personally would have found the transition less chafing if Sex Explained had an episode or two in the middle devoted to further exploring arousal and non-reproductive sex. Keller goes on to lament, “We could have had more of a deep dive into sexuality and why we as a species have sex for different reasons than the rest of the animal kingdom does.”

Sex Explained provides a more extensive, engaging, and inclusive look at reproduction than my high school health class did. But I can’t help but feel cheated. How great would it have been to get this excellent show’s take on consent, porn, flirtation, various sex acts outside of tab-in-slot, or sex toys/tech? Sex is about so much more than – as Keller put it – “what gets us in the mood” and how we reproduce. Audiences are ready for a longer conversation than that. 

We need a longer conversation than that. 

The envelope is getting pushed – and that’s good.

My favorite responses to the show are the positively scandalized takes of bigots on Sex Explained’s inclusion of queer relationships, kinky fantasies, and the racist roots of birth control research. One irate audience review on Rotten Tomatoes called the docuseries “politically manipulative.” Another reviewer on IMDB said, “About half the series had some good scientific points, but I found myself rolling my eyes at […] references to clear political biases I’d otherwise not care to hear.”

“Netflix is not the same platform it was five years ago,” complained one blog, calling Sex Explained “hedonistic content,” and then categorizing the article under the tag “lgbt tyranny.” In just 3 years, the blog has amassed a whopping 19 pages of articles tagged lgbt tyranny. Yikes.

As one can guess based on the trollish objections to its content, Sex Explained is a mostly progressive look at sex. The docuseries attempts to sidestep the largely “western,” heternormative lens through which most mainstream sex ed is offered, and allows much of its narrative to be steered by a diverse collection of sexperts and interviewees. It’s not always successful, but it tries. The history, cultural studies, statistics, and even pop culture references throughout the show come from all over the globe. While I think it could do even better (for example, the narration is often alienatingly binary, and trans people are only mentioned by interviewees), it’s miles ahead of what I expected.

Why do the negative responses delight me? They show that – although not going far enough – Sex Explained is still pushing the conversation around sex into under-explored waters. People get uncomfortable when they’re presented with perspectives they harbor bigotry against. It takes education, effort, and exposure to overcome bigotry and sex negativity. If Sex Explained feels “manipulative” to people who would “otherwise not care to hear” about queer experiences, alternative sex, and the systemic issues impacting marginalized folks’ sexual health, then good. It’s helping break down barriers. 

But as the saying goes: one step forward, two steps back. 

For the same reasons, Sex Explained’s limited scope is a real shame.

Sex Explained is essentially just a spicy 101 presented in bite-sized pieces. It’s not comprehensive and it doesn’t have the time to fully investigate all the topics it introduces. This would be fine, except for the spicy part: the salacious, lesser-known facts and concepts that Sex Explained sprinkles in for flavor. This is what makes Sex Explained so arresting, but it also leaves the audience with some uncomfortably underdeveloped takeaways.

Like, for example, race play in kink and racist rape fantasies.

Sex Explained puts effort into introducing fantasy and kink in a reassuring, normalizing way in its first episode, Fantasies. As a queer kinkster myself, I appreciate this non-judgemental framing and hope it helps inspire viewers to muse on their own desires and discuss them with partners.  

But that welcoming framing – as well as the first episode’s short runtime – were not a good fit for discussing race-based cuckholdery and (presumably white people’s) “Arab rape fantasies”. Episode 1: Fantasies briefly skims the historical context/inspiration behind these racist desires. It also briefly explores how racist fetishization robs people of color of agency over their own sexual identities and the way their bodies and desires are represented. But in my opinion this episode didn’t examine the intersection of systemic racism and sex – and center on the ways it harms people of color – enough.

It’s important to hold space for difficult conversations about kink and fantasy, and the influence and impact of systemic oppression on both. But can that space exist within an 18 minute episode that begins with reassurances that fantasizing is normal, and ends with a sex educator saying that sex fantasies don’t have deeper meaning and thus don’t need to be examined?

Is Sex Explained worth watching?

Sex Explained isn’t perfect. But it’s entertaining to watch, with visuals ranging from pastel-hued animations to clips from Mercy Mistress, and genuinely informative, presenting sex and reproduction as more than the stale bullet point list we got in sex education. It’s well worth the very short binge watch… and the conversations it will start with your friends and partners. 

I hope that like its predecessor Explained (which has explored everything from K-Pop to coding), Sex Explained gets the opportunity to go further with a second season. We’re ready to talk about it.





Betty Butch is a queer, sex-positive blogger who reviews pleasure products and writes about identity and kink at bettybutch.com. You can find her on Twitter via @betty_butch.


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