The sultry substitute teacher Holly Holiday is back, and this time she's here to educate the Glee kids about sex. How? By making sex education "Sexy."
The TV show Glee is great fun, but I feel like it has consistently done a terrible job talking about sex. Not only has it played young people's sexual ignorance for humor value - a main character thought he got his girlfriend pregnant by being in a hot tub with her for much of the first season- it has allowed these misconceptions to stand as truth for months at a time.
In general, the show is highly sexualized and sensationalistic, and the way Glee has tackled sexual choices in the past made me dread how they would address the topic of sex education. In the end, the episode "Sexy" both lived down to my expectations and surprised me with moments of sheer brilliance.
The plot of the episode revolved around the return of Gwyneth Paltrow as the sexy substitute Holly Holiday in order to take over the health class. To make sex ed exciting to the students she was teaching, she decided to make it "sexy" and, of course, incorporate a lot of music.
Other sub plots included a more detailed exploration of Santana's attraction to Brittney, the fact that Emma is afraid of sex and running the chastity club, a ridiculous pregnancy scare, and the evolution of the Finn and Quinn relationship.
What the Episode Got Right
What really impressed me about this episode was how it handled questions about the sexuality of GLBT youth. I loved the talk that Blaine had with Mr. Hummel about the fact that school-based sex education programs don't provide gay, lesbian, and bisexual kids with the information they need to have healthy sex lives. I also appreciated his real concern that Kurt wouldn't look for the information himself.
Kurt's dad's response was ideal. He went to the health department, picked up information that was likely to be accurate and unbiased, and then talked to Kurt about sex -- even though it made him uncomfortable. It was a beautiful sex talk, possibly the best one ever on TV, focusing not just on the physical risks of sex but how important it is to value yourself as a human being when you're making sexual decisions.
I also loved the end of the episode where Santana admitted to Brittney that she was attracted to her. I think that both of their experiences were very true to reality: from the way that Santana expressed her internal discomfort with her own homosexuality through excessive sexual experimentation with men to her difficulty understanding that Brittney's attraction to both men and women was real. It was also lovely to see a bisexual character whose sexuality was not played as slutty -- when Brittney chose to remain true to her relationship with Artie even though she also admitted her love for Santana.
What the Episode Got Wrong
There was so much wrong with this episode's portrayal of sex education that it's hard to sum up the problems in one short review. There are, however, a few things that I think are important to point out. The first is that comprehensive sex education programs are highly supportive of young people's decision to remain abstinent - not dismissive and insulting in the way that Holly Holiday was. In fact, the way that the show portrayed choosing abstinence as uncool, out-of-touch, and even pathological was greatly disturbing to me. I think that comprehensive education is important because eventually almost all young people will choose to be sexual, but in no way should anyone be trying to shame or embarrass young people who choose abstinence.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that, unlike Holly Holiday, most sex educators are actually trained to teach young people about sex in an informative, non-judgmental manner without making them uncomfortable by sharing inappropriately intimate details about their own sex lives. They understand that sex education is not about being "sexy" but about empowering young people to make healthy, informed decisions about sex. Unfortunately, the sex education in this episode was highly judgmental while imparting very little actual information other than the old standby of reminding people that you're having sex not just with your partner but with everyone they've had sex with in the past.
What You Need to Know
Although, in general, I was not impressed with the actual "sex education" aspects of this episode, there were a few good moments. In particular, my favorite quote from this episode was Holly Holiday saying "I'm about to have crazy sex cause I'm crazy informed about it!" It was a nice way to phrase what I sometimes think of as the sex-positive sex educator's ultimate truth: that the road to hot sex begins with quality information and good communication.
"Sexy" did bring up some interesting and timely issues: including virginity pledges and teen sex tapes, but it didn't cover them in particularly appropriate ways, and I wish Glee had done better. The way that Glee portrayed comprehensive sex education as outrageous, uninformed, and anti-abstinence does educators a great disservice by encouraging the perception of anti-sex-education activists that it's all about encouraging people to have sex.
The truth is that good sex education is all about encouraging people to make informed decisions and giving them the skills they need to enforce them. For some people that means choosing to have sex, safely, with someone they love. For others, it means choosing to wait to have sex until they're ready -- even in the face of pressure from a society that wants to make them feel bad about that choice.
Conservatives shouldn't try to shame people for choosing to have sex, and liberals shouldn't make anyone feel bad for deciding not to. The decision to have sex, or not to have sex, is a personal one, and it is the job of sex educators to give young people the information they need to make that choice -- not to make it for them... and not to judge them for their decisions.