Growing up is hard. Everyone remembers feeling awkward, embarrassed and uncomfortable in middle and high school at least once or twice. The constant changes that puberty brings to your body, paired with a growing awareness of your own attraction and sexuality, makes it difficult to navigate healthy relationships and standards in your personal life. It’s even more difficult to understand these changes when so many of the topics that you are curious about are considered taboo or inappropriate. Parents and trusted adults can share advice and educate their children on these newfound changes and urges, but ultimately there are some conversations that parents don’t want to have — and some parents don’t have them at all. It’s difficult to grow into your sexuality when you don’t fully understand what is happening, and this is especially true if what you’re experiencing is something our society refuses to talk about.
This is not made easier across the United States, where only 24 states and the District of Columbia require public schools to teach sex education. In many states, sex education is left to the discretion of the district, and it varies greatly across different communities. Due to the taboo nature of sex across society, some laws even create limits of what is able to be discussed. Michigan, for example, has a mandatory abstinence focus in its sex education.
The Residential College, the University of Michigan’s four-year interdisciplinary liberal arts program, holds forum meetings, or student-run discussions, which students can take for one credit. I regularly attend Sex Forum, which fosters these kinds of conversations about sex. During our meeting on sexual education, it was clear that the knowledge and experiences of the group members, varying state to state, were vastly different. Being from Michigan, my sexual education was in stark contrast to many of the other members from states like California. I experienced abstinence-based sexual education, where contraceptives were discussed, but not demonstrated; where the curriculum was heteronormative to a point of me not remembering even the mention of other sexual orientations; where there existed a general shame of sexual activity; and where there were more in-depth discussions of STDs than of sex itself, with an emphasis on negatives, side effects and lifelong dangers rather than sexual safety.
But this discomfort surrounding sexuality is not limited to our education system. Our media is equally as guilty in creating abnormal and unfair sexual standards and expectations across our society. We have indulged in a mixture of sex shaming and over-sexualization. There are clear depictions of “normal” sexual behavior: frequency, orientation and the preexisting relationship between those involved in the sexual activity. More sexual activity can leave people feeling ashamed, less sexual activity can leave people feeling undesirable. And it seems as though there is a connection between these distinct sexual expectations and the discomfort surrounding certain sexual topics. Normalization of sexuality can create a safer, more sex-positive environment for those who are growing into their sexuality, and this is something that both education and media could benefit from. With regards to media, season two of the Netflix Original “Big Mouth” has given me some thoughts.
“Big Mouth,” an animated series created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, follows the experiences of a group of kids struggling through puberty. Targeted for adults, the show is filled with raunchy humor and suggestive storylines, but ultimately delivers a lot of important punchlines that rely on one simple fact: We’ve all been there. The program shows the hidden challenges of puberty and growing up, especially in relation to sexuality, through the lens of kids who are working through it.
The buried topics of sexuality that kids have to figure out on their own are put on full display in “Big Mouth.” Season one, episode five, “Girls Are Horny Too” examines the gender stereotypes associated with sex drive, and the taboo idea of female pleasure, even including a reference to female masturbation. Season one, episode eight, “The Head Push” portrays a high school party gone awry, and shows the group maneuvering consent. A recurring character in season two, the Shame Wizard, works to emphasize the way that desire and sexual situations can result in feelings of embarrassment and guilt when they actually affect everyone going through puberty.
Why do we not have a show like this directed towards actual middle and high schoolers? “Big Mouth” itself is a hilarious, entertaining show that conveys important messages, and one of the reasons audiences connect with it so much is that they relate to the experiences of the kids. We were just as clueless as them at one point. But why do these lessons have to be learned the hard way? Couldn’t the messages of the show better benefit the youth who are currently trying to navigate the straits of puberty? By viewing these types of storylines, adolescents can see that growing into their sexuality is not uncommon. Normalizing sexual experiences in places like the media could allow for young people to understand that sexuality, while often times difficult to understand, is a part of life — while simultaneously ridding them of these unfair, binding societal expectations. Let's find the next “Big Mouth,” rated TV-13.
Erin White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.