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Glee! Reviewing the Sex Ed Episode

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Last night, Glee aired the long awaited sex ed episode staring Gwyneth Paltrow as Holly Holliday, the “sexy substitute sex ed teacher.” We live blogged the entire thing if you want to see our real-time reactions to the episode.

This morning, we talked through the episode as a staff and thought we should offer an actual review of the episode. Warning: This review contains spoilers.

A Recap (Spoiler Alert)

If you didn’t watch, here’s what happenned:  Holly Holiday reprised her role as a substitute teacher, this time filling in to cover health class. Mr. Schuster reluctantly agreed to let her teach the Glee Club members about sex – and about being sexy. Some of her messages were age-appropriate and factually accurate (the old “when you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with everyone they’ve had sex with” line), and some were not (her bizarre addition to that: “and everybody’s got a random”). Meanwhile, Emma Pillsbury has taken over the Celibacy Club, which is portrayed as frumpy and out-of-touch with reality. The writers chose to portray comprehensive sex education and abstinence as somehow dichotamous, when in reality, all comprehensive programs honor abstinence as a positive, safe, and valid choice. Outside of the classroom, we saw the Glee cast struggle with their relationships and identities. Santana revealed romantic feelings for Britney, but Britney turned her down because she’s committed to Artie. Blaine urged Kurt’s dad to have the big talk – and he did, delivering perhaps one of the best ever parent-child sex talks in TV history. Quinn and Finn reestablished their relationship (and established a sexual one) and Quinn revealed her regret of having slept with Puck. Emma revealed to husband John Stamos that she’s still in love with Mr. Schuster, and Mr. Schuster expressed his romantic interest in Holly Holiday. And that’s what you missed on Glee!

Our Review

Despite our snark and nit-picking last night, we really enjoyed the episode. (The debate about whether or not it was better than the Britney S. Pears episiode rages on…) We thought they handled some things incredibly well, and fell short on others.

The Good

  1. Kurt and his dad had the best parent-child sex talk in television history: Blaine, Kurt’s friend/love interest/gay peer and mentor, approached Kurt’s dad to urge Kurt’s dad to talk to Kurt about sex. Blaine makes the very valid point that sexuality education often excludes LGBT youth and youth who participate in same sex sexual behavior. Kurt’s dad gets pamphlets from the health department (yay for seeking outside resources; yay for accessing information that’s more likely to be factually accurate) and then sits him down for the talk. They both acknowledge their discomfort. And, when they do talk, Kurt’s dad’s message is this: Sex has an emotional component, and he hoped that when Kurt decided to become sexually active it was because he was ready to make that emotional connection with someone rather than for casual, physical gratification. If every parent delivered that talk, our world would be a much better place!
  2. Relationships were nuanced: The episode did a great job of illustrating that relationships are tricky, and that sexual and romantic relationships often include some grey area. Santana and Britney’s relationship worked well as an example. After carrying on a physical relationship for some time, Santana revealed her romantic feelings for Britney, as well as her fear of being judged for being something other than straight. Britney chose to stay committed to boyfriend Artie, triggering Santana’s rage. It touched on themes of discomfort with one’s sexual identity, unrequited love, the challenges LGBTQ youth face in developing an identity and pursuing relationships… All around, we loved this story line. 
  3. Sexual health, relationships, and sexuality education were depicted as broad: Sex ed wasn’t simply a condom on a cucumber. The episode covered relationships, sexual identity, parent-child communications, peer communications, relationship communications, STIs, the dangers of ignorance (like Britney thinking she’s pregnant because she saw a stork), etc. It was also great to see adults struggling with their sexual health. Holly had her regrets; Emma, her fears; Mr. Schuster, his desires. It’s a great way to bring up adult sexual health and to elicit adult viewers’ empathy for what young cast members were experiencing.  We hope viewers come away with the idea that sexual health is a part of overall health, and that helping young people become sexually healthy adults requires ongoing work at home, in school, and in communities.  
  4. We’ll admit that – all fears aside – the episode was entertaining!

The Bad

  1. Holly Holiday was a terrible representation of a sexuality education teacher: Having an untrained substitute teach sex ed is a major no-no. A good sexuality education teacher undergoes significant training, presents factual information in a nonjudgemental way, and maintains clear professional boundaries. Holly crossed too many lines: she was judgemental, she gave too much personal information, she presented a goal of helping the Glee kids be “sexy”. This is not an accurate representation of a real sex educator, and - other than providing entertainment - will only stoke the fears of parents and policymakers who are apprehensive about sexuality education.
  2. Comprehensive sexuality education and abstinence education are presented as dichotomous: In reality, all comprehensive sexuality education curricula uphold abstinence as a positive, safe, and valid choice. On the flip side, many abstinence curricula deny teens important information. Rachel had a great line when she said, “We might choose abstinence now, but we’ll need other info at some point.” This was a very true statement, but it’s unfortunate that it was only tucked in at the end.
  3. All the abstinence snark: Abstinence was the butt of too many jokes. That risks invalidating that choice for young fans who do want to be abstinent now.
  4. Connecting sex ed to “sexy”: Being informed and having sound decisionmaking skills are the basis for lifelong sexual health. Being sexually healthy is a core part of being “sexy” if that’s what one wants to be. Other than that, there’s not much of a connection between sexuality education and being sexy. It was inaccurate and irresponsible to have scenes where the sex ed teacher was trying to help youth become sexier, and I hated the advertising for the episode that said, “starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the sexy sex ed teacher.”

Those are our thoughts. Feel free to comment and add your own!

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