There are always certain subjects that our parents, our teachers, and all of society tell us are taboo. Sex — despite being an integral part of society — is a topic that many people avoid directly discussing because it feels “uncomfortable” or “awkward.” This stigma is reflected in the lack of comprehensive sex education: Only 13 states require sex education to be medically accurate, and fewer than half of high schools teach all 16 sex education topics recommended by the CDC.
A recent surge in Netflix shows about sex has countered the stigma surrounding sex. The provocative show Sex/Life hit 67 million subscribers in its first month, and is now onto its second season; Bridgerton’s steamy scenes were streamed on porn channels; and Sex Education is an honest analysis of awkward teenage sexual hookups.
In light of this emerging sex-positive culture, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show Sex, Love, and Goop has sent shockwaves throughout the media since its release on October 21, 2021. This reality TV show features Paltrow enlisting the help of sexologists and sex therapists on relationships, communication, and intimacy. In each episode, real-life couples meet with Paltrow and a sexologist to discuss their issues, whether these be physical or emotional.
But the series doesn’t stop there. By including scenes of sex therapists orgasming and simulating sex in front of clients, watching clients being intimate, and having clients use sex toys, the series normalizes the notion of sex therapy. Couples are often scared of sex therapy because they fear being vulnerable and exposed; many couples also don’t want to acknowledge that something is wrong with their sex life. There are also cultural gender divides: Men tend to feel that sex therapy reflects on their failing performance in bed, whereas women worry that sex therapists will simply tell them to have more sex.
“I love the idea that we could be creating a space where anybody that’s withholding anything, or hasn’t felt comfortable, or wants to try something, or has some trauma they want to unearth – that they could point to the show and then it would act as a set of tools,” Paltrow says.Paltrow in an interview with USA Today
Paltrow’s show also normalizes the idea of female sexual pleasure and female anatomy. The series includes scenes of the female vulva, an erotic blueprint test, and real orgasms from a woman — all completely separate from the realm of pornography. These scenes shocked viewers: Women’s sexual pleasure is considered inappropriate for teenagers, which is why it’s less socially acceptable for women to discuss their sexual preferences with their partners or learn about themselves through masturbation.
Meanwhile, men’s sexual pleasure is normalized: advertisements excessively focus on erectile dysfunction, sex education programs generally neglect to cover women’s external genital stimulation, and movies and TV series mainly feature sex scenes focused on the male climax. When women’s sexual pleasure does happen to be featured in the media, it’s usually tailored towards the male gaze: most scenes featuring women’s sexual stimulation are of lesbian couples in a porn–like scene, which is fetishized by straight male viewers. The misunderstood concept of female pleasure is also manifested in the gendered orgasm gap, as women on average have fewer orgasms than men.
Many women have also internalized this message, which is why women are more prone to hiding their sexual pleasures from their partners or feel uncomfortable communicating their preferences. In a 2019 study by the National Library of Medicine, 55 percent of women survey respondents reported that they chose not to talk about sex with their intimate partner, despite wanting to. Reasons for this decision included feeling uncomfortable going into details (40.2%), feeling embarrassed (37.7%), not knowing how to ask (35%), not wanting to seem demanding (18.3%), not wanting their partner to think they were “perverted” (10.1%), and others.
All these reasons reflect the shame that women subconsciously associate with their own sexual pleasure — which is extremely damaging, as female sexual pleasure is essential to overall mental health, body–confidence, and having a healthy relationship dynamic.
Paltrow touches on her personal reasons for filming the show: “As a woman in my 20s, there wasn’t really a rubric for being comfortable with pleasure or talking about my sexuality. I really appreciate that this show destigmatizes that and creates a space for people to ask for what they want and to explore who they are as a sexual being.”
The show specifically touches on body–positivity, which is an important aspect of female sexual pleasure. One scene includes an exercise in which participants stand in front of a mirror, look at their bodies, and observe what they do and don’t like. The aim of the exercise is for the participants to analyze their personal biases about their body, and understand how societal messages have twisted their self–image.
Its underlying message promotes body neutrality: the idea that part of the body–confidence is feeling comfortable with our flaws, rather than feeling pressured to constantly feel body–positive. And in a world dominated by social media apps, advertisements, and TV shows that promote a filtered version of the “ideal” body type, promoting healthy mindsets about women’s bodies is essential to female self–empowerment.
With an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes within the first two weeks of being released, it’s clear that viewers are embracing a sex-positive cultural revolution that is long–overdue.
Paltrow describes her hopes for the show’s impact: “I hope that there are really resonant aspects for people…I think there’s some of us in at least one of those characters. If we can honestly help just one couple create a template for having a conversation, it’s worth it.”
Feature Image Courtesy of Netflix