Apr 06

“Sex Education” Series: Not for Teens Only

Looking for a Netflix series suitable for adults yet mainly about British teenagers finding themselves? Laurie Nunn‘s dramedy Sex Education has two seasons currently available. I found that giving it a chance into the third or so episode pays off.

As Season One began, Allison Shoemaker, rogerebert.com, set up the premise as the following:

…What happens when the sexually repressed teenage son of a sex therapist decides to start doling out some counseling of his own to his fellow high-schoolers? Otis (Asa Butterfield) begins to explore that question at the behest of classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey), an intelligent young woman with a cultivated tough-girl exterior she uses to deflect some of the cruelties hurled at her by the other students. He’s encouraged in this by his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), an openly gay student whose eagerness to embrace life acts as a kind of armor of his own. What Otis lacks in sexual experience of his own, he makes up for in empathy and secondhand knowledge, the latter accrued over years of living with his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson)…

For deeper thoughts about Jean’s character as well as what sex therapists may actually be like as parents, see my previous post on this topic.

As for her son, who’s actually sexually fearful: “Despite his hang-ups, Otis has a mature head on his shoulders, and his advice to his peers — who come to him with Dan Savage-level questions about orgasms, anatomy and kinks — is always humane and generally spot-on,” notes Hank Stuever, Washington Post.

In other words, somehow this improbable story works. Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter:

…Sex Education knows how ill-formed Otis’ knowledge-base is, never cuts him slack when his kernels of wisdom are short-sighted or deluded and never loses track of how Otis is just as confused as everybody else at his school. The show is wildly empathetic and completely committed to, at every turn, understanding that high school is a time in which people are swiftly defined as one thing and yet are rarely that simple.

…(I)ts messages are usually about the importance of self-affirmation and the necessity of proper communication and understanding. They’re lessons surely worth heeding.

Among the things Sex Ed’s high school students have the benefit of learning (George Chrysostomou, Screen Rant) are the importance of prioritizing friends, seeking support, taking responsibility for one’s actions, learning how to say no, making difficult choices, educating yourself, recognizing that parents and adults have issues too, and dealing with sexual identity as openly and proudly as possible.

Selected Reviews of Sex Education

James Poniewozik, New York Times: “The creator, Laurie Nunn, has managed to make a teen sex comedy I haven’t quite seen before — timely but not hamfistedly topical, feminist, with a refreshing lack of angst about its subject. Sex, in this show, isn’t an ‘issue’ or a problem or a titillating lure: It’s an aspect of health.”

Valeria Sevilla, Screen Rant:“(It) may not be an exact representation of a mother-son relationship or a therapist’s modus operandi, but still manages to address important matters in a comedic, serious-yet-refreshing way.”

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, AV Club: “Season two packs in an astounding amount of stories that have real heart and skin to them, while also allowing significant space for pansexuality, queer sex and queer desire, bisexuality, and asexuality. It’s sprawling and intimate all at once, like several personal diaries strung together.”

May 16

“Ask Dr. Ruth”: Sex Therapist Up Close

Ask people of a certain age to name a famous sex therapist and the answer will probably be “Dr. Ruth.” Ryan White‘s new documentary Ask Dr. Ruth, filmed as the still active Ruth Westheimer was approaching her 90th birthday, now reveals more about her as a person.

“Dr. Ruth’s public life turns out to be the least interesting piece of her story. The first half of the documentary is artistically expansive and frequently emotional,” notes Dan Fienberg, Hollywood Reporter.

Here’s why, as reported by Amy Nicholson, Variety: “…Half of the documentary is spent tracing how Karola Ruth Siegel, of Frankfort, Germany, became the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Holocaust. When she was 10, her mother put her on a kindertransport to a Swiss orphanage. She never saw her parents again, though she still has every letter they sent until communication abruptly stopped.”

The second half is more about her professional life, which has included sex education and therapy, authoring books, and frequent appearances on TV and radio. According to Robert Abele, The Wrap, “America’s Favorite Sex Therapist Gets a Cheerful, Enlightening Doc Portrait.”

Some info about her career, via Justin Chang, LA Times: “What made Westheimer’s 1980s radio program, ‘Sexually Speaking,’ so radical wasn’t just the frank advice she offered her anxious callers or the ease with which she normalized the use of words like ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ on the air. It was the reassuring lilt in her delivery, the gentle, grandmotherly insistence that the matters under discussion, embarrassing though they might be to those listening, were nothing to be ashamed of…”

Her inner life apparently receives little mention. Amy Nicholson, Variety:

The irony at the core of the Dr. Ruth persona is that the maverick who made the bedroom public is herself incredibly private, and while she encourages women to get intimate with their bodies, she’s not in touch with her own emotions. Still, she is vocal about respecting boundaries, and White acquiesces, trusting that the facts of Westheimer’s life say plenty about her peppy workaholism. At her most personal, Dr. Ruth tells White that as a survivor, she feels an obligation to live out loud. This refugee who wasn’t even allowed to attend high school managed to earn a doctorate and grab a microphone — and she has no intention of letting go.

Some of the important things we do know about Dr. Ruth are from her words and deeds, per Josh Modell, AV Club:

She’s been unwavering in her support of gay rights, reproductive rights, and empowerment of women, though much to her granddaughter’s chagrin, she resists labeling herself a feminist. More than once in Ask Dr. Ruth, she’s told that her advice—and really just her very existence—saved someone’s life, and she happily accepts that claim as true. She knows that she’s been a force for good in the world, for acceptance and equality.

Watch the trailer below. If you can’t find the movie in theaters, it’s on Hulu:

Jan 17

Sex Therapists As Parents (See “Sex Education”)

What kind of individuals become sex therapists?

Sex Education, a new Netflix series, stars Gillian Anderson as Jean, an “extremely forthright” sex therapist who “overshares” with her son Otis (Asa Butterfield), a teenage virgin (Vulture). He tries to turn this to his advantage by “counseling” his classmates regarding sexual matters.

Is Anderson’s character typical of parents who are sex therapists? An unusually high comfort level with sex talk, surely; weird parent-child boundaries, best not to generalize.

One individual who’s commented in the past on having a sex therapist mom is Tom Cutler (The Guardian). “Her straightforwardness on the topics of sex and what can go wrong with the sexual psyche led me as a boy to view the subject first as intellectually interesting and, second, as perfectly normal, in all its incredible variety. As a consequence, my own son has been brought up in an unembarrassed household where sex questions have always been answered in plain words, and often with a laugh, for if sex is not a funny subject then what is?”

Another “survivor” is Lola Maltz, whose one-woman show in New York, “My Mom Is a Sex Therapist,” was derived from her own personal experiences. From a Broadway World description: “…Lola plays multiple characters, including her Mom, a sexually voracious alter ego, and the full cast of a lesbian safe-sex PSA…” Unfortunately, I’ve found no deeper info than that.

What about the actual practice of sex therapy? Clinician Isadora Alman emphasizes, for one thing, that “there is no personal touching in the office” (Psychology Today).

What kind of educational and professional background do sex therapists have? Alman notes that there may be no state licensing, but an advanced degree and training is necessary. In addition, a sex therapist generally belongs to a specialized professional organization such as the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists or the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

One well established—30-plus-years—sex therapist and sex educator is Sallie Foley, who was interviewed by Brad Waters for Psychology Today. Regarding her enjoyment of her work:

What keeps me going every day is that combination of head and heart. Being present to witness people change as they become more empowered to take their journey into their own hands. It’s a commitment to knowing that change requires a presence and a connection.

Sex is different for all of us. One of my favorite writers, Margaret Nichols, who is a sex therapist in New Jersey says, ‘We’re all queer.’ We’re as different in our interests in sex as we are about food and that makes this work very interesting.

Oct 19

Sexual Surrogacy and Sex Therapy: Follow-Up to “The Sessions”

In the new film The Sessions (see yesterday’s post), the role played by Helen Hunt is based on Cheryl Cohen Greene, who actually provided sexual surrogacy to Mark O’Brien. Her new book, An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, becomes available next month.

Greene is the current vice president of The International Professional Surrogates Association (IPSA), the principal surrogacy training ground. According to Newsweek, however, relatively few certified surrogates are actually available for the hiring—there are “only 25 IPSA-trained surrogates in the country, almost all of them located in California.”

What is surrogacy and what is it not? In the movie, one of the things Mark is immediately told by Cheryl is that surrogacy is not the same as prostitution; rather, it’s time-limited help for a fee. In an interview about her work, real-life sexual surrogate Linda Poelzl explained how she clarifies her role to clients:

…I have a confidentiality agreement. I spell it all out in a paragraph, differentiating my work from prostitution. It’s not a contract for sex:

‘CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT: I understand that the surrogacy sessions are for the purpose of expanding my ability to feel physical pleasure and emotional fulfillment through greater intimacy and increased sensation and to overcome sexual dysfunction.  I acknowledge this session series is not for the purpose of sexual gratification or entertainment and may or may not include sexual intercourse, manual, or oral stimulation.  I understand and will abide by the above agreements.’

Some other interesting things about sexual surrogacy, as indicated by the above-cited Newsweek article:

  • The practice is not widely endorsed by psychiatric professionals or related professional associations, e.g., the American Psychological Association.
  • “More than half of IPSA’s clients are middle-aged virgins, and 70 percent of them are male.”
  • “Only 10 percent of IPSA’s clients are physically handicapped, and teaching them to embrace their sexuality is paramount to helping them find romantic partners. But even after a reaffirming experience with a surrogate, they may feel disconsolate and alone.”

Sexuality counselor Ian Kerner (The Chart, CNN) offers additional info about surrogacy, including its difference from sex therapy:

  • “…(L)ike a therapist/patient relationship, the question of whether a surrogate partner is sexually attractive to the client is not part of the equation.”
  • Sex therapy is different from surrogacy. Many sex therapists neither conduct “hands-on” sessions nor refer to surrogates. Sex therapy is more likely to be similar to other types of therapy—it’s about talking, not doing; it’s about encouraging the client to use his or her own real-life partner as the “surrogate.”
  • The practice of sexual surrogacy is “highly unregulated,” though IPSA does have a code of ethics. Who, though, watches over those surrogates who don’t affiliate with IPSA?

What’s the future of this profession? Surrogate Poelzl’s response (in her 2010 interview) to being so asked:

We are a dying breed. I think some of that has to do with the fear of liability that psychotherapists have; there are people who think this work is excellent, but fewer therapists want to risk their licenses. Maybe I’ll look into training people. We need young blood!