Sex, Explained is a new five-episode series from media company Vox narrated by musician Janelle Monaé. If you’ve seen any of the other shows in the Explained series, you’ll know what to expect: cutesy graphics and substantiated-but-approachable science in a 20-minute episode. Here, though, the topic is sex. Well, sort of.
Going on the trailer alone you’d be forgiven for thinking Sex, Explained is more about the act of sex and related proclivities than it is. Though the first episode concerns sexual fantasies (which it divvies up into three key categories: group sex, novelty, and power and control), the rest concern sex-adjacent topics.
Sex-adjacent topics you’ll learn about, from attraction to birth control
The second episode looks at attraction. It breaks down what happens chemically and hormonally when we’re drawn to other people, but also convincingly argues that our social context and culture plays a huge role in deciding to whom we’re attracted, rather than attraction being purely a biological drive to reproduce. This means the episode is more sex-adjacent than directly about it… and the episodes veer further and further away from the initial promise as the episodes proceed.
Next up is an episode on birth control — including its fraught history and the travesty that is the male contraceptive pill — then one on fertility. The series rounds things out with a thoughtful look at the complexity, confusion, and conflicting agendas that surround contemporary childbirth.
We’re merely letting you know that if you’re expecting five doses of slap and tickle, you’re going to have to rewatch the first episode five times.
None of this should put you off watching Sex, Explained. Its brevity means you can watch the whole thing in the same time it’d take to watch most movies, it’s insightful without being overtly evangelical about any of the particular positions it presents, and did we mention the dulcet tones of Ms Monaé steer proceedings?
We’re merely letting you know that if you’re expecting five doses of slap and tickle, you’re going to have to rewatch the first episode five times. Sure, this means you’ll really internalise the fact that assimilation is considered so important to Asian Americans that many of their fantasies concern caucasians.
But you’ll also miss the later gem that the average man today has half the sperm count his grandfather did, probably because of increased exposure to plastics.
You’ll find out that real intimacy includes the ugly, and that some women like “butt stuff” as a power play in what’s still a largely cis-het world.
But you’ll miss the engineering wonder that is the cervix, which can change from welcoming, assistive sperm highway to amniotic fluid plug to elastic band and back again.
Local is lekker, if not lascivious
Remarkably, three out of five episodes of Sex, Explained make reference to South Africa. The first comes in episode 2 and concerns a study that asked people to rate the relative attractiveness of 10 body types from skinny to curvy.
The second concerns a faulty birth control device that was shipped to apartheid-era South Africa as one of the numerous developing-country dumping grounds for the American manufacturer to recoup some of its losses at home.
And the third discussed a C-section performed in Mzansi in 1826. So, neutral, bad and good, then. The whole gamut.
If you’re interested in how childbirth went from being the purview of midwives to that of doctors, how sexual attraction can be affected by circumstances in the womb, or how the definition of fertility has changed (and why it matters that it has), Sex, Explained is a great way to spend a couple of hours.
But if you’re after titillation, check out our list of more explicit shows and movies below.