Sex Education knows we all love giving but not taking advice

Sex writer Bianca Farmakis feels called out

You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.

Howdy, I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause. Despite my casual use of the word ‘howdy’, it may surprise you to learn I didn’t lose my virginity until after I had graduated high school. Maybe if I went to Moordale High, things would have been different.

While Otis and Maeve take a step back from their underground ‘sex advice’ service, in Sex Education’s third season the students become their own teachers: they deftly navigate difficult conversations in relationships around kinks, sexual preferences, and emotional needs.

If anything, the two characters who struggle the most with hard conversations are our experts Jean and Otis, which is why for this week’s Scene & Heard, I chatted to sex and consent reporter Bianca Farmakis, a former sex columnist for Nine Digital and co-host of podcast Officially Unofficial. We’re diving into an argument between the Milburns, where Otis calls Jean out for treating him like one of her patients. 

JR:

As someone who will offer relationship advice to anyone who merely mentions they have a boyfriend, I see a lot of myself in Jean and Otis, who both can’t help but analyse the decisions of friends, family, and acquaintances at any moment. But unlike them and you, Bianka, I am not a sex-pert: pivotally, no one is ever asking for my advice.

BF:

This scene resurrected the imposter syndrome I thought I’d buried as a sex-pert (as you kindly put it). It reminded me of all the times I’ve dished out advice about sex and relationships that I’d clearly never taken — plus, the guilt when someone finally called it out.

Here, Otis storms into his blended family home in his God-awful mandated uniform, only to rebuff his mother Jean’s natural intuition as she asks “what happened?”. Who knew two words could spark a spiral of teen angst, but that’s exactly what we get when Otis laments, “I just messed everything up, again!” paired with “I am clearly incapable of forming healthy relationships with anyone!”.

As someone who also believed the smallest romantic rejections would alter the course of my life as a teen, this struck a chord. A “read receipt” on MSN? No “like” on the 50th kelvin-filtered Instagram selfie I’ve uploaded for the day? Like Otis, I am clearly incapable of forming healthy relationships! 

Otis definitely over-reacts, but it’s fair he gets frustrated with his mum. Who’s in the wrong here?

Well hand me a double-edged sword why don’t you, because honestly both and neither of them. 

The idea of ‘wrongdoing’ here hides the true question, one I’ve personally grappled with since becoming a sex and consent writer in the field of love and sex: ‘When are we communicating and when are we just talking at someone?’

The tension in this scene mounts when Jean lets slip that she knows all about Otis and Maeve’s relationship, something Otis has never mentioned to her. She may as well have read Otis’ diary or group chats — but who can blame her? She’s his mum, for one, and asking the questions we are all desperate to know at this point in the series.

As a professional therapist, Jean offers explanations and tangible solutions for Otis’ complicated relationship with Maeve. It’s a manner we’ve witnessed her approach many of her clients with. It’s her job to help people understand why they act the way they do in their intimate lives. But in giving advice to her son — who knows her far more intimately than her clients do — he reveals the myriad of hypocrisies that shine through in her own struggles with maintaining “healthy relationships”.

I think what’s helpful in determining wrongdoing in this instance is self-awareness. Otis is able to admit, albeit dramatically, that he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s doing when it comes to his own love life. Jean, however, has to hear it shouted at her by her son who declares that she’s “unethical”.

And that is my personal nightmare. I mean, seriously, after writing about other people’s intimate lives for the past few years, you’d think I know how to discuss my own. But in that moment, staring at Jean’s glum expression and growing belly — sans the pregnancy and phenomenal work from home attire — I saw myself. I thought about all the times I’ve given out advice I’ve never taken about love, and worn someone’s red flags like a bandana.

It’s a theme that plays out throughout Sex Education: advice is easy to give, and difficult to take. There are endless reasons why this is true, but the one I always come back to is that acting on the advice we give often involves us confronting our own intimate fears and looking at where we may be at fault. That scares us, and I think it’s fairly human to avoid doing things that scare the shit out of us. 

How much agency do we have to comment on other people’s love lives when we’re struggling with our own? Do we all just admit we have no idea what we’re doing? You see? I’m doing it again, asking questions about love and sex I don’t want to answer!

It's your right as Australia's Carrie Bradshaw! And I began to wonder... What's the advice you find yourself always giving out, but struggle to take on-board yourself?

Oh, this one’s easy! It would have to be telling your partner what you want, not what you think they’d like. 

There have been so many times I’ve told people to ask for what they want in bed for the best sex, and then stared at the ceiling post-romp silently wishing I’d brought a vibrator to make my own encounters actually enjoyable

That’s so emblematic of my own relationship communication issues. It’s not simply a sex toy -- it’s mutual pleasure and a useful aid in navigating my body’s needs and wants. But as poetic as that sounds in theory, when I attempt to tell my partners that, I go silent and pretend that the ensuing 10–20 minutes of straight missionary is exciting (no shame if anyone loves that, do you).

Despite talking about sex and relationships openly and constantly, I still have a lot of internalised shame to unpack. And we see that in the show, no matter how personally developed any of the characters are. For example, Ola and Lily are two of our most communicative characters, but they hit an emotional road bump during Moordale’s trip to France after Ola suggests the pair mix their alien role play with “normal” (I hate that word) sex.

Lily is overwhelmed with shame. And that moment evokes the fear we all harbour about communicating with our partners: hurting their feelings. One time, I told a partner I didn’t care much for dirty talk and it was like telling a child Santa Claus didn’t exist.

Shame infiltrates all of Sex Education’s characters, which is gut-wrenching to watch, but also comforting. And like all perfect romantic comedies, we even witness moments when they overcome that shame in their own creative ways. Aimee makes vulva cupcakes. Ruby finally lets someone witness the home she grew up in. Adam asks to be the bottom when having sex with Eric (but only by turning his back to him and avoiding eye contact). Maybe I’ll stare at a wall and bake a cake when I finally ask my partner to dress up as Count Dracula… or I’ll just make them read this? 

Either way, as a sex writer, I’ve learnt that sexual confidence is less a personality type and more a skill – it’s something we have to keep chipping away at, whether that’s by asking to be submissive or adopting something extra-terrestrial in the bedroom.

That moment with Adam really stood out to me, too: there's so much wrapped up in his awkwardness around his own expectations of how he can be queer and still 'manly'. Just because he has a GIGANTIC penis and is the traditionally masc one in the relationship doesn't mean he always wants to top!

I really loved Eric's response: he's caught a little off-guard immediately, but is down once he adjusts his thinking. 

I know right! It’s so beautiful. We watch Eric take a moment to process Adam’s needs, and in turn we see how you can remain open and supportive to a partner even if their requests challenge your expectations. I always tell people you can’t control how people react to sexual requests, you can only control how you do.

A stellar example is when Isaac and Maeve get intimate, exploring the boundaries and nuances of interabled sex. To me,  this is the most beautifully done sex scene in the entire series, as it encapsulates the power of communication when approaching a sexual encounter you may not be familiar with. Simple questions result in a sensual, passionate sex scene. It’s so refreshing, not only because it's one of the rare times we see disability represented intimately on camera, but a shining example of how the apprehensions we may have are often a product of fear, shame, or social expectations.

This season we're also reminded that being open and communicative doesn't mean you'll necessarily solve your issues: or rather, the solution is sometimes breaking up.

Call me a product of the “dump him” movement, but the main piece of advice I typically give people is to end things rather than fix them. It baffles me how regularly people I speak with think there’s some magical solution to help their relationship, rather than accepting the uncomfortable truth that it’s simply not working, and there’s nothing wrong with moving on. 

It all comes back to shame — we’re still not at a place in society where we see break-ups as something regenerative or supportive of ourselves. We just perceive them as “failed relationships”.  

I once stayed in a relationship for almost two years with someone who couldn’t even be bothered to organise a single date because I convinced myself that he was “super busy” and “so motivated”. Really they just wanted to do whatever they wanted, and slot me in when it worked for them. 

Someone who grapples with this is Amiee, who struggles to be intimate with Steve, assuming it’s as a result of her sexual assault. But as she processes her assault in therapy, and regains strength and clarity of the situation, she realises Steve — in all his kindness and wonder — simply isn’t for her.

Amiee’s new sharpened focus helps her friends, too, giving her strength to tell Maeve she’d be an idiot to give up a life-changing experience simply to “chase a boy”. In the final moments of Season 3, we witness characters realise there’s far more to life than high school, and a big part of that narrative relies on being comfortable with being able to let things go. It’s a far cry from Otis’ earlier revelation that his life is “simply over” because he can’t maintain a healthy relationship. Can anyone?

Unfortunately, it's time for us to go our separate ways. It's not you, it's me (I'm famously gay). 

I must be off too Jared, my vibrator is fully charged and my self-esteem is sincerely through the roof. Enjoy a day of existential crises and romantic fantasies — I know I will.


Bianca Farmakis is a Sydney based writer and occasional sexpert, who launched Nine Digital's resident sex positivity platform ‘Unsealed Section’. She also co-hosts relationship podcast Officially Unofficial. When she's not writing or talking about other people's relationships, she enjoys the sight of expensive clothes she won't purchase online or baking amateur-grade renditions of Martha Stewart recipes.

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