When we first encounter the character Aimee on Sex Education, she is having less-than-satisfying sex with her boyfriend Adam. "Do you like my tits?" she asks him. "Do you want to come on them?" Although she eventually decides against that, remembering that she got a rash the last time Adam ejaculated on her face, the rest of the scene is similar in tone. Aimee's noises are not unlike those performed by a large quantity of the female actors one might find on Pornhub. There's something calculated, cliche, and intentionally over the top about her moaning, and when she finally says, "I'm gonna come. Are you gonna come?" her lack of an actual orgasm is tangible.
To be fair, Adam doesn't finish, either. He fakes his orgasm, too, and for biological reasons, he is instantly caught in the lie. We later learn that Adam is actually struggling with his sexuality. He lives with parents who offer little to no emotional support, in an environment where he clearly doesn't feel comfortable coming out. Aimee (played by actress Aimee Gibbs) has her own reasons for faking it. They are less about identity, and more about the disconnect between sex and pleasure that so many women of all ages experience. They are about the simple fact that girls aren't usually taught sex is something for them, let alone that it's something that can be kind of nice.
Throughout most of the show's first season, streaming now as a Netflix Original, it's clear that Aimee very literally performs sex to satisfy her partners, and when things aren't going smoothly, her default approach is to assume she's doing something wrong. She asks boys if they want to come on her face or boobs because she thinks she has to. And, when she eventually dates someone who actually gives a sh*t about her, she is incapable of answering his plea: "Tell me what you want."
It was in this moment that I realized Aimee's narrative is a mirror for a lesson I want my own daughters to learn as they grow up and grow curious about sex. It's a simple lesson, really, or at least it should be: Their pleasure matters.
You see, even though Aimee always has a boyfriend, she's never had an orgasm. This isn't a particularly surprising occurrence, given that studies have long shown that plenty of women never come, at least not from vaginal penetration. Dating back to 2009, ABC News reported that "75 percent of all women never reach orgasm from intercourse alone; that is, without the extra help of sex toys, hands, or tongue. And 10 to 15 percent never climax under any circumstances."
'I don't know what I want,' Aimee confesses. 'No one's ever asked me that before.'
In 2017, Debby Herbenick, a researcher at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, and OMGYes, a company dedicated to educating the masses about female pleasure, surveyed 2,000 women between ages 18 and 94 in the largest female orgasm study conducted to date. Their findings, which were published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, found that 37 percent of American women need clitoral stimulation in order to orgasm, while only 18 percent of women could come from vaginal stimulation on its own. University of Florida psychology professor Laurie Mintz, PhD has found that women take just 4 minutes to orgasm on their own, but 20 minutes with a partner, and argues that the so-called "orgasm gap" — where men orgasm more often than women — "is cultural, not biological," as Suzannah Weiss surmised in The Establishment.
Moreover, from the time sex education begins in actual schools, pleasure is a devalued (if not entirely ignored) component of the subject matter. In 2017, Alex Phillips, the relationships and sex education policy head at Terrence Higgins Trust, a leading HIV and sexual health charity in the UK, told Metro UK that nine out of 10 young people (89 percent of students) are not taught about sex in relation to pleasure in schools. Socially, female pleasure is even more taboo, and always has been (probably since long before Freud declared that female pleasure should be intrinsically tied to reproductive achievement).
It's a message that both girls and boys have been internalizing for decades, and it would seem particularly so when it comes to heterosexual sex and relationships. Plenty of girls don't believe they can come, or deserve to come, or should care about coming, while plenty of boys don't think making female partners come is a valuable feat at all. That's where Sex Education (starring Gillian Anderson as Dr Jean F. Milburn, a renowned sex therapist, and Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn, her teen son) is something of a revelation.
In an exchange between Aimee and Steve, the first thoughtful partner she dates, he asks her whether she really wants him to orgasm on her face or tits. "Yeah, I think so," she replies with obvious uncertainty.
It is an exchange that leads her to seek counsel from Otis, fellow teenager and the school's residential sex education therapist. "I don't know what I want," Aimee confesses. "No one's ever asked me that before."
In her session with Otis, we learn that Aimee's never even masturbated. She quickly exclaims "yuck" at the sheer thought of it, which Otis suggests is a result of the shame that is ascribed to female masturbation in general. Girls are often, in one way or another, conditioned to think of getting off as "taboo or dirty," he tells her.
Otis' recommendation is that Aimee needs to spend some time exploring her own body, and figuring out what actually turns her on. Although she's reluctant at first, she then spends an entire night in close quarters with her clitoris. She is seen experimenting in all manner of positions and with the company of a blow dryer.
Having spent my teens and early twenties thinking that masturbation was shameful and that sex wasn't something women could even enjoy (not unlike Aimee), I know how grim these notions can become.
It's only after this experience that she can tell Steve what she wants. In what is arguably one of the most weirdly heartwarming scenes of the show, we finally see her prioritizing herself in the bedroom. "OK, so here's what I want," she tells him. "I want you to rub my clit with your left thumb. Start slow but get faster, but not too fast. When I start to shake, blow on my ear and get ready for fireworks."
Aimee is sort of lucky, in that she eventually finds a partner who gives back. She discovers her own body and its myriad sexual capabilities, and finally begins to use her voice in the bedroom. For a lot of girls, this never happens. We can spend decades, if not our entire lives, suffering through mediocre or wholly bad sex; unfulfilling sex; sex that isn't about us at all.
I would never want that for my own daughters. Having spent my teens and early twenties thinking that masturbation was shameful and that sex wasn't something women could even enjoy (not unlike Aimee), I know how grim these notions can become. I know how terribly they can fracture our self worth. I know how hard they can make it to pursue relationships that are actually founded in trust. I know they are a surefire way to never, ever come.
Through a narrative like Aimee's, though, I am reminded that parents can start having healthier conversations about sex with their children. If the schools aren't going to do it, it's up to us. It's up to my husband and me to explain that sex can be fun; that they deserve partners who care about their happiness; that they can love and explore their bodies as much as they want; that they matter. That their voices, and wishes, and orgasms all matter.