It’s not every day you get a WhatsApp voice note explaining how it’s possible to get chlamydia in your eye. But that’s what I received when talking to sex educator Alix Fox about her role as a script consultant on Netflix’s Sex Education.
Part of what makes Sex Education so gripping is the accurate and well-informed way the series tackles topics that many viewers, like most of the characters, might not know much about. Compulsory sex education in secondary schools is finally coming into force in the UK in Sept. 2020. But for generations like mine, who missed out on any kind of comprehensive sex education, we’ve been left to fill in the blanks on our own.
Research shows that many young people have significant gaps in their knowledge about sex. According to a report by the Sex Education Forum, half of the young people surveyed hadn’t discussed real-life scenarios about sexual consent. In an age where misinformation about sexual health is rife online, there’s a great responsibility that comes with producing a program about sex education.
Fox’s job is to make sure Sex Education gets it right. A sex educator who’s been writing about sex and relationships for the past 15 years, Fox is the host of BBC Radio 1’s Unexpected Fluids show. Over WhatsApp’s voice notes, Fox explained to me what her role on the show entailed. Hint: she had a lot to do with the chlamydia outbreak in Episode 1.
“I was the engineer of the chlamydia if you will.”
On Season 2, Fox’s role as a script consultant was a lot more involved than in Season 1. Back in the first season, Fox’s job was to inform Gillian Anderson’s role as Dr. Jean F. Milburn, a sex therapist. Fox’s job was to give examples of the kinds of conversations she might have, the language she would use, and the resources Jean might use.
“For Season 2, things became a lot more specific,” Fox told me. “I was sent chunks of the script and my job was to look at them and firstly decide whether they were factually correct.” She was also asked to give suggestions as to where the plot could go, and what might happen next. She was “really chuffed” to be asked if she had any ideas for jokes, so she had a comedic input too.
Fox told me she is responsible for the unforgettable chlamydia disaster at Moordale High that kicks off the second season with a highly dramatic bang. “One of the main plot lines that I had a big say in was the chlamydia outbreak and associated hysteria that starts off in Episode 1 of Season 2,” she said. “I was the engineer of the chlamydia if you will.”
Fox said that initially in the plot, they had to sort out the logistics of this chlamydia outbreak because a few early ideas suggested a character could have been told by a doctor that they’d contracted chlamydia before going on to spread it. “I had to share the knowledge that it’s actually because chlamydia — provided it’s not super-chlamydia which is antibiotic-resistant — is fairly easy to treat and fairly instantaneous once you have a diagnosis,” said Fox. “In most cases, you can take a shot of antibiotics and you’re sorted. It’d be very unusual for someone to go to a clinic or a doctor and get a diagnosis and then not take the tablets.”
Fox’s work didn’t end there, though. “I also suggested that they might not know that you can get chlamydia in your eyes,” she added. “You don’t have to have sex for that to happen if you touch your face around the eye area and you’ve got infected fluids on your hands. So, if you’ve been fingering someone, for example, then it can actually get into your eye area.”
You might recall, around eight minutes into Episode 1, a panicked student accosts Otis in the hallway. “Excuse me, Otto. Can one get chlamydia of the eye?” she says. “OK, it’s Otis, and if infected genital fluids got into your eye, then yes, you can have chlamydia of the eye,” he replies. Fox was delighted to discover that her suggestion made it into the final script. “I yelped at my TV, I absolutely screeched when I saw that had been included,” she said.
Another storyline Fox had a hand in was Rahim teaching Eric about anal douching. In case you missed that episode, anal douching is basically rinsing out the rectum before you have anal sex.
Initially, the talk focused on what type of douche Rahim would recommend using. “There are certain douches you can get that attach directly to the head of a shower. They can be extremely efficient and convenient for a lot of guys, but also because they connect directly to the water supply, they can have all the power — if you’re not careful — of a water world flume,” Fox told me. “They’re certainly not something I would advise for beginners.”
“Often it’s about balancing what people do in real life with what is best practice.”
They also discussed using mini douches, which, Fox said, are possible for beginners to use but “because they’re so very tiny, you’d have to do a heck of a lot of squirting,” and would take a long time to use. The mini and more powerful douche was taken out of the original notes for the script. Instead, Fox recommended the use of a standard bulb douche.
“It was all about making sure that the information contained within the show was as accurate and as realistic as possible,” she told me. “Often it’s about balancing what people do in real life with what is best practice. It has to be believable but we also don’t want to give young people the wrong idea of things that are dangerous.”
Later on, in Season 2, viewers learn that Lily has vaginismus, a condition that makes the vagina suddenly tighten whenever something is inserted into it. It can be very distressing and painful, but it is treatable.
This storyline was a really important one for Fox. “For the last five years, vaginismus has been something I’ve really focused on in my writing and broadcasting work,” she said. “I don’t think the term vaginismus was one that was in many people’s lexicon a few years ago, including that of medical doctors, not a lot was known about it.” That has started to change in recent years, and several key news reports have shone a light on this previously undiscussed topic.
“Actually getting it on a major TV show like Sex Education can be utterly transformative for people who are going through this or if their loved ones are affected by it too,” she said.
Fox has received an outpouring of messages, tweets, and even letters from viewers of all ages who told her they were “overjoyed to see something they’ve been coping with very privately” portrayed in the show and spoken about so openly.
Fox’s role doesn’t just include advising what storylines should be covered — she also advises on correct terminology. “In some early iterations of the script, people in the script were using the outdated term STD when most people nowadays in the business say STI,” she said. “The reason being you can be a carrier of infection without experiencing any symptoms and sometimes it can be in your body without doing any damage but you can still potentially still pass it on.”
But as well as advising on correct terminology, Fox has also suggested playful words. “One was ‘dramatized’ which means hypnotized by dick,” she said. “When the D is so good, or you fancy someone so much that you can’t walk away from them even though perhaps you should.” That’s certainly one I’ll be using in the future.
She’s also noticed people using Sex Education-inspired terminology. “I have heard people use the term ‘competing’ to mean women who masturbate while lying on their front,” said Fox.
“A lot of young women’s exposure to female self-pleasure is something they’ve only ever seen in porn. and because porn is primarily aimed at the male gaze the imagery is women with their legs splayed, showing everything off, and positioning their bodies in manners that everything can be seen,” said Fox. She’s not wrong — here’s a piece I wrote on the best female masturbation positions that aren’t like the ones you see in porn. And another on the most accurate depictions of female masturbation in TV and film.
“There’s a very famous scene in the first season where Aimee finally brings herself to climax while lying on her front and proclaims she’s eaten a load of crumpets,” Fox said. “So, ‘ competing ‘ was taken from that.”
Well, you learn something new every day.
Sex Education Seasons 1 and 2 are out now on Netflix, with Season 3 just announced.