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.

The Inheritance

Imagine your friendship group, y’know, those people you care about and love spending time with. The people who know you and help you deal with life’s problems. Now imagine being told that one by one they are dying. They’re dying because of a disease called GRID, gay-related immune deficiency. That’s right, gay men are spreading diseases. GRID is deadly. You can get it through physical contact, sharing food, sharing a drinking fountain and even through sneezes. A phone call, another one of your friends has died. Meanwhile, GRID gets a new name, AIDS. The public is outraged and not because people are dying but because gays are spreading diseases. People are calling for AIDS patients to be quarantined, to be tattooed and to be forced to carry identity cards. Another phone call, another death, it’s your best friend this time – if only he’d said something. You worry you’ve got the disease but you don’t know who to talk to. Your family is homophobic, your local bishop is urging the parishioners to stop drinking from the communion cup and, now, your boyfriend has been diagnosed with the disease.

This was the reality for many gay men living through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and was vividly realised onstage by The Inheritance – a new duo of plays that recently finished showing at the Young Vic. The plays explore the trauma and the stigma that typified so much of the crisis and how both impact on the lives of gay men living today. I am a gay man living today and I often think of what I have inherited from the AIDS crisis. As well as the ability to live positively with HIV, something denied to my forebears, I have also inherited a gaping hole in my history. Not just a lack of knowledge and education but also a lack of people. As the script says, people who could be mentors, friends, lovers, teachers and elders but cannot because they have died.

I have often been told how disappointing gay men are – we spread diseases, we’re narcissists, we’re too irresponsible to be allowed to have sex at the same age as heterosexuals, and other such criticisms. But I wonder if the people who criticise me and my community have spent much time actually thinking about my community and its history. I doubt it. This is why plays such as The Inheritance (and Angels In America) are a vital weave in the fabric of the gay and queer community, a stitch in time to save lives and ensure our future can be better than our past. Fortunately, the show will be transferring to the West End to ensure more folks can enjoy such a smörgåsbord of acting, directing, teching, writing and staging talent. And for those of you who don’t want to spend six hours in an auditorium but do want to know more about the AIDS crisis and its legacies why not click here.

Andrew Burnap and Samuel H. Leving in The Inheritance

Why Do Fairy Tales End In Weddings?

And it all ends happily ever after – the dragon slain, the terrible King overthrown, the witch thwarted, the wolf outrun, the villagers saved, the damsel rescued and…wedding bells. In old folktales, in Disney cartoons, in far too many movies and, of course, all over real life. Many people spend a lot of time, pain and money trying to craft that perfect day – the white dress, the giant cake, the big guest list. Sometimes they’re lucky and the only problem is the slightly leery uncle and other times it’s a disaster of catering, drained alcohol supplies and family feuds. Either way it seems we’ve taken the concept of a fairy tale wedding very seriously and tried to recreate it in real life. But I think we’ve slightly missed the point.

I do love a good fairy tale but I get pretty bored when it’s all about cisgendered, white, straight guys rescuing helpless damsels and marrying them, yawn. But the tradition was somewhat reclaimed for me when someone explained why fairy tales have a habit of ending in weddings. It’s not because the tale is literally a how-to manual for planning the big day, no, it’s a little more subtle than that. One way to interpret a traditional fairy tale is to see the characters in the story as facets of our personality (or psyche). We all have a questing hero in us and sometimes we can be a bit of a tyrant as well. There’s a wild wolf in us too, a wise sage, a jokey trickster, a helpless victim, a cunning witch and even a terrifying dragon (metaphorically speaking). We’re not just supposed to identify with the hero (y’know, that dull straight, white guy), instead all the characters represent different aspects of who we are. Many of us might play the part of the fool more often than the wise one, or the tyrant than the victim, but the point is the potential is there and our psyche is multi-faceted (whatever those dull personality tests tell us, give me dragons and witches over ENTJ any time). Basically, folktales are a form of psychology and therapy developed hundreds of years ago, pretty cool huh.

So why the wedding? Well, it’s not just some random straight folks tying the knot, it’s the marriage of your psyche. Say what? It’s when all of you, all of you, is invited back home to one giant party – it’s when you finally come to terms with being you. In many traditional tales the wedding won’t just include the in-laws but the tyrant king will be there (and he may well ceremoniously die as metaphor for you conquering your inner b*stard), the annoying brother, the sage, the mentor, the dragon’s head maybe, the witch (providing she survived and promised to be a little less wicked) and even the wild wolf might be seen flitting around in the garden. The guest list is vast and the catering cost astronomical but the point is all of you has been welcomed back home. It’s not about white dresses and multi-tiered cakes, it’s about inner healing and empowerment. So, as symbolism for inner transformation goes I think fairy tales are pretty ace. However, if like me you’re not such a fan of heteronormative ceremonies traditionally based on the buying and selling of woman, you’ll agree that the tales need a bit of a 21st century makeover. No more weddings for me, just one giant queer house party. All welcome.

A reflection on leg hair

This! An amazing post from fellow blogger Nettles and Webs on her recent trip to the beach. If you find yourself reading this and thinking women should shave their legs, then please think again. What a shame that diversity in bodies can yield derision, scorn and mockery. But I reckon my friend is hotter, freer and happier than so many of us. Here’s to hairy legs!

Nettles and Webs

I am sat on a beach in the south of France in a little town called Collioure. I came here a lot when I was younger and it is around 17 years since I was here first. The sea is perfectly clear and many shades of blue, the sun is shining and beach is stony. I am surrounded by people from many countries and of all shapes and sizes and shades. Some people are covered up a lot, others have just tiny speedos or bikini bottoms on. Toplessness for all is happily embraced here, which feels liberating. The big difference I am noticing of myself is that so far I am the only woman on this beach – or any beach I have been to so far – who has chosen to have hairy legs. Now some women have fair hair on their legs and I may not have noticed…

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David Mitchell Misses The Point

It’s alright, I never really liked Peepshow anyway, the humour is so predictably cynical and masculinist that it just gets boring. The best thing about it was Olivia Colman, I’m very glad her career has gone stellar, whilst her co-stars just sit on comedy panels with other white, self-congratulatory men. Talking of whom, David Mitchell just missed the point in a recent piece on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University (my previous post explains what the campaign is all about). Like many privileged white men before him he thinks it’s alright to make trivialising jokes about racism without actually adding anything of substance to the debate. Nevertheless, here’s another post to reiterate why racism is bad.

There are an awful lot of arguments to keep the statue up. Some are openly racist – there are still people who venerate Cecil Rhodes and don’t like black people (for example, the many alumni of Oriel College who threatened to take the college out of their will if the statue was removed). Some are ignorantly racist – some don’t really know who he was but think it’s all a bit too much and impolite to ask for a statue to be removed, especially to ask in a forthright matter (the sort of people who’ve never been part of a racial minority). Then there are the likes of David Mitchell, again, just racist, somewhat apologetic about it but certainly not ignorant.

His argument rests on the familiar case that removing the statue is tantamount to “erasing history”. It’s a sensationalist argument that purposefully misses the point and makes it all sound far simpler than it actually is. But he’s wrong. Removing a statue isn’t erasing history, it’s one small act of recognition of the UK’s oppressive and violent legacies. We are not removing books on Cecil Rhodes, nor his Wikipedia page, nor all sites about him that would come up on a google search. If David Mitchell really wants to learn about Rhodes he can use the internet. He even admits to never having seen the statue which implies he’s not that interested, he just wanted an excuse to write a ranty, cynical article. I very much doubt he’ll make the effort to walk down the Oxford high street, look at the statue and think: “gosh, this is a potent reminder of how terrible imperialism is and was, and how we shouldn’t venerate racists”. The reason I think this is because his article, like so many others, is void of any history. He glibly refers to Cecil Rhodes being a “shit” and follows the line, “other than all the racism in history which, it goes without saying, doesn’t go without saying”, with no account of racism in history. So, actually, it does go without saying then? He ignores the history and present realities of racism because it suits him to and he’s too lazy to try to identify with oppressed groups he is not part of.

Mitchell also compares the “unwavering moral self-confidence” of the colonial Victorians who thought Rhodes was “right and good” with the students protesting as part of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Yup, he’s comparing nationalistic racists with anti-racism activists. It’s a lazy comparison but maybe he’s just stating that these groups of people have points of view, unlike Mitchell who seems happy to repeat what others have already said. Of course, if he can find an activist who is actively calling for every trace of Rhodes to be removed (this would include the burning of books, the deleting of websites etc) then that would be a problem but he hasn’t and I doubt he will because the RMF campaign is far more nuanced and progressive.

“Do they [the RMF campaigners] think that we can have the debate about colonialism, about racism, once and for all now, and then just move on, having wiped away all offensive traces of our former ills? Do they really believe that they are simply correct about everything now – that, after millions of years, humanity has cracked it, that the truth about how to be has been discovered and must be propagated and enforced? History warns us that terrible things are done by people who think like that.” The answer to both his questions is No and I’m not sure he’s given any examples of people ‘who think like that’ (has he even talked to one of the campaigners?). Why? Because he’s lazy and couldn’t be bothered to do much research for his article and because he’s white and privileged and lacks empathy. There are lots of people like Mitchell – scared individuals who hide their insecurities and vulnerabilities behind acerbic repartee and cynical jokes, who lack the compassion and empathy to identify with others. But rather than dig his heels in and continue to speak from a place of fear and ignorance why doesn’t he step up as a privileged, white guy and do what he can to redistribute that privilege? He’ll probably make lots of new friends in the process as well. So here’s an amazing TED talk by Vernā Myers to kickstart that process.

All I Want For Christmas Is…A Dress

About a month ago I was in a shop with a friend waiting for her to return a dress. Somewhat curious I asked one of the staff what dress size they thought I might be. A 10 as it turns out. Still curious I thought, sod it, I’ll just try one on. So I did and I liked it and so did my friend. Then a little while after that I found myself trying another dress on and this time I shared the picture on Facebook and it went down well – y’know, plenty of likes and comments (the real stuff of self-affirmation). And now all I want from Father Christmas is a dress.

So why do I, as a guy, want to get a dress? Predominantly because I think life is too short not to. Dresses are brilliant and far more interesting than the often monochrome array of clothes on offer for men. I wore dresses when I little, as part of dressing up, and back then no one batted an eyelid. But then there came an age when I stopped wearing dresses and stuck to trousers and grey t-shirts  – in other words I adopted normalised masculinity and the idea of breaking this norm became increasingly hard to imagine. At school it didn’t even occur to me to wear a dress and if I had, imagine the ridicule, bullying and how stupid I’d look. Someone born with a penis, testicles and presumably a Y chromosome isn’t supposed to wear skirts after all.

But is that really it? A doctor saw my penis at birth and designated me a man and because of that I was put in certain clothes, certain schools and granted certain privileges. So many expectations and assumptions were attached to me just because I was a boy, including what clothes I should and should not wear. But I’m a little older now and less fearful of bullies (because I actually get to choose who I hang out with) and better at interrogating the expectations that others have of me, so maybe I can finally get that dress. Add to this what the sales assistant said to me as I asked for their opinion on the second dress I tried on – they said there are more important things to be worrying about at the moment than whether some random guy is wearing a dress. And I agreed. Even if other people do find it weird, if I look good in it, then why not!

And that’s really the main reason I want to get a dress for Christmas, because it suits me. I’m not making a comment about my gender (that’s for a different blog post) and I’m not trying to parody what it means to be a woman by wearing clothes that are typically sold to women. No. I just want to wear clothes that I like and it’s a sad state of affairs if other people have a problem with that. But it’s their problem, not mine. What we wear is a big deal and we express ourselves through our fashion but that still doesn’t mean we can be reduced to our clothes, there’s so much more to people than that, and nor should it mean that little boys who like to wear dresses should stop having to wear them because others can be too close-minded. Of course, there’s more to this than style, there are bigger questions to be asked of gender identities, roles and norms; the gender binary itself and what biological sex really is. But for now all I want is for Father Christmas to give me that dress and not another lump of coal.