Sex Explained: A review by a relationship therapist

The new sex documentary on Netflix

Sex Explained, a Netflix documentary, is one of the best sex documentaries I have seen in a long time. It does an excellent job of blending social justice issues, history, and updated research all in one place. I would even consider using it in my sex counselling practice or in couples therapy— it’s that good.

The episode on attraction was particularly refreshing dispelling so many myths that have been kicking around for far too long! A lack of recognition for gender-non-conforming (GNC) folks was a missed opportunity to explore those of us who are very proactively challenging status quo beauty standards. A small shout out to androgynous fashion models is not quite the same thing…

One of the best aspects of the documentary is having Janelle Monáe talk to me for extended periods of time as I wind-down from a day of relationship counselling…

It is also the honest coverage of how BIPOC communities have been uniquely impacted by various sexual health issues such as the exploitation of Puerto Rican women during the development of birth control pills in the 1950’s. There was definitely an emphasis on having a diverse cast of professionals and relatable individuals which is paramount in making the information accessible beyond typical programming that tends to be made by and for white audiences.

Speaking of birth control, this was one of the best and most disappointing episodes in the series. What I loved about this episode was how the documentary unapologetically tackled the very real experiences of people who were frustrated by the various side effects of birth control that are not being adequately addressed for cis-women by doctors or researchers. These very same symptoms continue to push back progress for developing a birth control pill for cis-men! Ah, patriarchy at it’s finest!

What was disappointing about this episode was that there was a great opportunity here to talk about the very real and very effective barriers methods— cervical caps and diaphragms. If you’d like to learn more about these non-hormonal barrier methods for folks with a uterus and vagina, check out my earlier blog post here! Or check out the video below!

I talk about the FemCap (unfortunately named) and CAYA diaphragm all the time in my sex counselling practice for the very same reasons the documentary covered with respect to the side effects of hormonal birth control methods. The experience reminded me of the time I requested a sex education blog run a story on cervical caps and diaphragms and was told, very unenthusiastically, “we are not interested in this project at this time.” Is there an anti-caps and diaphragms mafia I don’t know about? If you don’t hear from me in another week, I guess we’ll have our answer…

One last piece to keep in mind with respect to the episode on Fantasies, and really any research about sexuality, is that the people surveyed on sex research are always going to be different than the general population, as explained by Lehmiller in his book Tell Me What You Want but not explained in the documentary during his interview segments.

Folks who are willing to participate in sex research tend to be people who have elevated interests in sex and therefore would persumably have a wider range of fantasies or fantasize more often, have sex more often, or prioritize sex more than the general population. This really matters! It means we need to be really careful when we say things like, “the generally population does x, y, or z” because we actually don’t know. We know what people who are willing to take a sex survey would say or experience! But that’s as far as it goes.

Is Sex Explained explaining the whole story? No. Does something need to be perfect to be valuable? Absolutely not! Voices from indigenous folks, voices from trans including nonbinary folks were lacking, voices on disability and mental health were no where to be found, and I’m sure there are so many more topics/voices I am not even thinking of right now… but was it pretty good? Has it updated our cultural knowledge with research conducted within the last few decades? Yes!

And for these reasons I am deeply grateful this documentary exists. And who knows, perhaps it will pave the way for continuing the conversation and filling in some of those gaps!