The Trouble With Sex Education’s Eric, Part 2

Content note/trigger warning: sexual assault and rape.

There’s a scene in the final episode of Sex Education season 1 (spoilers) which sees Eric, a fabulous, black, gay and queer guy, in detention with Adam, who has been homophobically bullying Eric throughout the series. The bullying continues and Adam shoots mushed up bits of paper through a straw at Eric’s face. They then fight over a music stand and Adam violently shoves Eric. Eric shoves back. The shoving continues until Adam overpowers Eric and pushes him to the ground. Eric, in self-defence, spits in Adam’s face. Adam does it back, asking: “How do you like it?” Eric says, “I don’t” to which Adam replies, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” There’s a pause as the two look one another in the eye and Eric raises his head a fraction (a tiny fraction) and then Adam kisses him before going down on him. You can watch the scene here (but you probably don’t want to) and you can reread a blog post I wrote on this last year. My biggest concern is that we’re being led to believe that violence between men isn’t problematic and that the ending of a storyline of physical and psychological abuse with barely-consented-to sex is somehow a happy ending. As the series creator, Laurie Nunn, said, they were “telling a love story through bullying.”

I want to make it categorically clear that it is impossible to tell a love story through bullying. Bullying and any form of abuse is the opposite of love and if it results in sex the likelihood is that the sex involved is actually rape or sexual assault. Naturally, I was all for not bothering with series 2 given I’d felt so let down but after a number of friends started singing its praises I decided to watch some of the episodes. Regarding the Eric and Adam plotline, Adam has been shipped off to military school and Eric begins a relationship with the epic and loving Rahim who is kind, compassionate, loving and all the things someone might want in a partner. But. Adam returns and surprise, surprise, Eric starts to fall for him again. Otis, Eric’s best friend, has a go at Eric for wanting to return to Adam: “…this is about you being so self-hating that you’d let yourself fall for someone who literally treats you like shit.” But Eric fights back, defending Adam and saying that he’s changed. We do witness a little of this change as Adam struggles with a lack of friends and his bisexuality but as for how he treated Eric, while he claims to now realise that he treated him very badly he doesn’t ever say sorry. Come the final episode and Adam interrupts the school play and makes a grant gesture to Eric, asking to hold his hand. Eric consents. It’s not long before he dumps Rahim and Eric’s family are delighted because apparently being with an emotionally sensitive man who didn’t attack and abuse him was a bad thing but getting with one’s aggressor is to be celebrated.

There are many things that Sex Education gets right but I don’t think this storyline is one of them. It glamourises and romanticises abuse and violence between men encouraging us to champion the dysfunctional and previously violent relationship between Eric and Adam. The sexual assault of series 1 gets zilch reference precisely because we’re not supposed to see it as sexual assault (likewise in real life) and men attacking men and finding romance through bullying is supposed to be sexy and the stuff of happy endings. The issue is infantilised and treated as a will-they-won’t-they sort of tease rather than a nuanced story exploring shame, self-loathing, violence and sexual violence between men within and without the LGBTQ+ community.

Freedom And The Divine Right Of Kings

“We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of Kings.”

So said Ursula Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014. And, as ever, she was right. Capitalism, as the prioritising of money over everything else, and the toxic cultures it creates has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, pushed countless people into poverty, sent countries to war, corrupted democracies, eradicated species and destroyed so much of the earth. Hand in hand with authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, aristocracy and a whole host of other unjust power structures the grip of capitalism is agonising. But beyond despair Le Guin believed in the possibility of change.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

However, as the UK endures another Conservative majority government so change is harder to imagine but, for those of us that can, we must do our best to try. We must imagine a time beyond systemic racism, beyond rape culture, beyond the devastation of public services, and beyond capitalism. We must imagine a time where the leading values aren’t selfishness, greed, prejudice and violence but compassion, empathy, kindness and resilience, the exact values we’ll need as we build the worlds we want. And if you need any tips on how to exercise and expand your imagination, Le Guin has more advice to offer:

“Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.”

Taken from her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, this quote reminds us that however sure we are of our truths – that all people are equal, that everyone has a right to free healthcare, that no one should face violence – we still have to communicate them well. Whilst the facts are vital and telling them is crucial so too is transforming those facts into stories which will engage people’s imaginations and emotions, allowing them to see and feel the change we care so passionately about. Stories are the bedrock of empathy, which facilitates our ability to care about others.

And the more of us that care the more of us there will be to take action and challenge the racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination that are on the rise. The more of us there will be to question our privileges and redistribute them so as to increase equality. The more of us there will be to actively resist the oppressive and dangerous policies of this bigoted government. Change and resistance are possible, we must never forget. Indeed, for many who lived during the reign of King Charles I of England and Scotland it might have seemed impossible to imagine a time when this divinely appointed despot wouldn’t have so much power over their lives. And today, it might seem impossible to imagine a time when Borish Johnson, who rules with all the arrogance of someone who has been divinely appointed, doesn’t have so much power over our lives. But, following two civil wars, Charles I was found guilty of high treason as “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy” and beheaded on 30th January 1649. And I don’t think it will be long before Johnson is metaphorically beheaded (probably by his own party) as he fails to deliver on the lies he promised. In the meantime, we must keep imagining, keep hoping and keep doing the work that needs to be done so we, like Le Guin, can be the recipients of that most beautiful of rewards: freedom.

Will Elsa Ever Be Gay?

Elsa’s journey to lesbianism has been a long one. It began in the subtext of the first movie (I mean, the metaphor speaks pretty loudly and Let It Go did become an LGBTQ+ anthem) and became a rallying call in the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend dating back to 2016. Over the years those at Disney regularly alluded to Elsa’s possible homosexuality without ever  committing to it in what is a classic case of queer baiting as the fans did the imaginative labour (and spent their rainbow dollars) while Disney never had to come out for LGBT+ equality and representation. Then an unknown female figure was spotted in the sequel’s trailer and we’d finally been given a glimpse of Elsa’s future girlfriend! Alas not, as it’s now been made clear Elsa isn’t going to fall in love with a woman (or a person of any gender for that matter).

“Like the first movie,” said Kiristen Anderson-Lopez, the film’s songwriter, “Elsa is not just defined by a romantic interest. There are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. That’s not a story that we wanted to tell at this point in time. What we really wanted to tell was if you have these powers, how do you grow and change and find your place in the world and find answers that haven’t been found before?” And Anderson-Lopez is right, there are so many movies that define a woman by her romantic interest. But there are zero Disney movies that allow a protagonist to be defined by their romantic interest in someone of the same gender.

Furthermore, being defined by a same-gender romance doesn’t mean a character has to be reduced to a stereotype or trope. In fact, given how Elsa’s society treated her for having ice powers it wouldn’t be surprising if they shunned and shamed her for being gay, thus traumatising her and forcing her on a lone quest for healing and self-empowerment. Being Elsa and being fab she would find resilience in the face of hostility and liberation in the face of ignorance and if along the way she found love then, my God, she would deserve it and the audience would celebrate it. To clarify, the problem with reducing LGBTQ+ characters to their romantic interest has nothing to do with LGBTQ+ people or characters but everything to do with the ignorance, prejudice and lack of creativity of the heterosexuals who contribute to oppressive cultures of heteronormativy and benefit from its privileges and violent policing of binaries. Tokenism and stereotyping are perpetrated by oppressors, not the oppressed. In the wrong hands Elsa would be reduced to a trope but in the right ones she would be shown for the multi-faceted and brilliant gay character she could be in the face of a world of hostile bigotry and callous indifference. But something tells me that the courage and bravery so prevalent in the hearts of all queer people who have to fight simply to exist is not to be found in the offices of the billion-dollar company that is Disney. I guess I should just let it go.

Imagination Is The Best (Now, Go Read A Novel)

Imagination is defined as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses”. Or, as Ursula Le Guin put, “imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to it to enrich it” (Making Up Stories, 2013). An idea, a hypothesis, a lyric, a harmony, a story, a poem, a thesis, a recipe, it’s as if imagination is vital to almost everything we do. Which is why, as I mentioned earlier, the new Cats movie and the current state of politics are symptomatic of a dearth of imagination. Yet, the New Stories of our times, while brilliantly critical of business-as-usual, can still end up sounding a bit old-fashioned, a little unimaginative if you will. So, I think most of us could do with stretching our imaginations a little (or a lot) and we can start with reading a novel.

Because novels come in all shapes and sizes, and many, many genres, and all these genres have a thing or two to teach us. Say, you’re one of those Silicone Valley tech-guru types offering a vision of an all-singing, all-dancing, wizz-bang future, then you’re flying in the space of science-fiction, looking to an imagined future to help inform the present. Or maybe you like harking back to the glory days of yore when England was England or even further back to a time before the Romans invaded and wiped out our pagan heritage, then you’re riding through the realm of fantasy, looking back through history and giving it your own spin. Or maybe you don’t truck with fiction and prefer to focus on the “facts”. Then let me refer you to realism, as equally fictitious as the other genres, but working just as hard to engage the imagination of the reader with concepts a little more familiar than space ships and trolls. Other popular genres for modern storytellers include dystopia – the world’s going to sh*t; uptopia – the world will be great again if we do it this way; whodunnit – who’s to blame for all this; and romance – how to fall back in love with yourself in ten easy steps. I’d say a book like Homo Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, shelved in non-fiction, manages to engage all these genres yet despite professing to have a written A Brief History of Humankind he barely mentions a single novel, no poetry either.

Ideas need the imagination because it’s the faculty that allows us to engage with them. As Ursula Le Guin put it, “Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.” So if you want to get stylish in your telling you’re going to have to do better than a bullet point list and would do well by exercising that imagination of yours. And if you want an imaginative workout, you could start by reading a novel.

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The Children’s Fire

We were standing in the stone circle of Embercombe around a small, ceremonial fire called the Children’s Fire. Based on a Native American ceremony the fire burns for all those who stand around it and is a pledge that no act henceforth shall be done in harm of the next seven generations of children. Just imagine. Imagine a culture that looks so far into the future with such wisdom and care. It was a Sunday morning and most of us had only arrived on Friday afternoon. In the short space in between we had shared meals together, harvested apples and blackberries, cooked for one another, told stories under the stars, sung songs, swam in the lake and done lots of washing up. During the ceremony we were each given a small stick to place on the fire as an offering. It was my turn. I was nervous and my heart was beating fast. I stepped towards the flames and I said, “This is for the queer kids. The ones who make it, the ones who haven’t, and the ones who are on their way.” I placed the stick on the fire and returned to my place in the circle.

It might not seem like much but being openly queer has regularly been a challenge for me, especially in places where people don’t often talk about LGBTQIA+ stuff. I never know what people will think of me and what prejudices and assumptions they might have. It’s a risk and it’s one I took at the Children’s Fire. I’m glad I did because so many queer kids haven’t made it and still so many won’t make it. We need help. And despite my nerves I was not met with hostility or resentment and the friendly people I had known those few days remained just as friendly.

I long for the day when I can arrive in a beautiful, rewilding valley and all of me is known and welcome. I long for a queerer Valley of Embers. But I know this doesn’t happen by magic (even though magic will, of course, be involved) and I know I have to do the work to help make it happen. It’s work that involves having a thick skin, as there are times when I meet ignorance and prejudice, and an open heart, able to be kind to people and meet them where they’re at. And I have met so many people at Embercombe over the years and they are all amazing. They are generous, kind, fun and adventurous, and all have their own struggles and stories. It’s not for me to judge and I try not to but I know there is still work to be done because if the Children’s Fire truly burns for all children then it burns for the queer kids, each and every one of us. I love Embercombe. A piece of my soul is buried there. I hope one day you’ll come and visit.

A Single Queer

It seems a long time ago when I wrote that post on being a single (gay) man. Back then I was busy trying to sail the seas of life when I got caught between a many-headed monster and a whirlpool. The former, the plethora of mental health problems facing gay men, and the latter, the sheer indifference towards those issues from mainstream, heteronormative society. Since then, let’s just say that the monster grabbed me in its many teeth, shook me about then flung me into the whirlpool. It was a bumpy ride and I had to hold my breath for a long time but, now, as I resurface, clinging to a bit of flotsam, I might not be able to see the sea for the waves but I am a stronger swimmer.

I think something that took me by surprise was the sheer magnitude of the problems facing the gay male community including high depression rates, high suicide rates, high levels of addiction, HIV stigma, hate crimes, prejudice, a lack of institutional support, toxic masculinity, homophobia, internalised homophobia, zilch to minimal education on sexual health, to name a few. Within this overwhelming array of problems I found my own experiences of depression, loneliness, anger, isolation and yearning. Never before had I been able to chart the co-ordinates of my unbelonging with such accuracy. It was a reckoning I never saw coming and it hurt.

Recovery was slow and involved rest, therapy, calling on family and friends for support and, better than ever before, being able to actually explain what was going on for me – having just learnt the hard way. I could finally name and explain my unbelonging. I could share its origins in my past and its continuation in my present. This allowed me to gain emotional and conceptual distance, which meant I could build a different relationship with my unbelonging rather than just get swept up in it. I spoke up for myself in a way I never had, claiming my space as a queer and gay person and man in the face of heteronormativity’s best efforts at exclusion. I could speak a word for queer suffering in the face of heterosexual privilege. I could own my pain without it owning me.

It’s been a long, old journey for me and it ain’t ending yet. I never asked to unbelong in this world quite like I do and no one ever prepared me to learn to live with the consequences. But now I know I can belong to me in ways I never have. And here I am, floating on a piece of flotsam that’s swift becoming a raft, trying my best to be me, a single queer. But not single as in unpartnered, single because there’s only one of me. And, yes, it’s regularly tough, and often people don’t learn the lessons I wish they would, but I’m tough too and learning so much more than I ever knew.

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The New Story Of Our Times (I’ve Got It!)

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? No, silly, it’s The New Story. From the mossy groves of land-based communities, the chthonic myths of oral storytellers, and the fiery determination of eco-activists, it is a story being pieced together sentence by sentence. Add to it the translated wisdom of many an indigenous community, throw in James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and thank God that Earth (with a capital ‘e’) is a woman, and the sentences become paragraphs. Take the darkness and light of our souls, some lentils and the pleas for a less-populated world (with multiple options on how we de-populate our world), and the chapters gather until The New Story is at our fingertips. A story in which humanity lives sustainably and peacefully on Planet Earth.

Wow, this sounds like a great story and it’s one I’ve been keen to be a part of. I’ve done personal development courses in sustainable(ish) communities, I’ve fasted in a Welsh valley, I’ve signed online petitions to save the planet, and I’ve written many a poem about our deep connection to nature. For a long time I believed in this story, I saw Ecotopia on the horizon and I ran towards it (barefoot, naturally). I wanted to be part of the story, admiring of its prophets, and desiring of a world of so much more than this. Until a young gay man I briefly knew who also loved these stories took his own life. Until I realised that within the discussions of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine there was no space for other genders – transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, questioning and beyond. Until I found the relentless sexism despite these discussions of “divine” masculinity and femininity. Until it became achingly clear how white these spaces were. Until I realised that it’s one thing to talk about (and laud) diversity of animal and plant species and quite something else to talk about diversities of gender, race, ability, class and sexuality. Yes, I was naive but I did my best to question the systems I was part of (just as the purveyors of the New Story told me to question the systems of the Old Story). It started to seem that the so-called New Story actually contained a lot of the Old Story – y’know, that one of patriarchy, power, oppression and abuse.

So I’ve come to be sceptical of anyone peddling The New Story because just as monocultures deplete earth of nutrients so monostories deplete people of their diversities. I don’t think a single story can save us (and maybe I’m being unfair to suggest that anyone is actually suggesting this) but I do think the more we gather as people with our many, many stories to hand, the more likely we’ll be able to face the monsters that really are coming over the hill. Of course I want a more sustainable and loving world and, of course, stories will inspire this change but we also need more than narratives with convenient beginnings, middles and ends, because life is so much more than a story.

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