OUR EXPERIENCE WITH SEX-ED: How Bridgerton Reminds Us of the Importance of Learning About Our Bodies
By Reagan Meyers and Zainab Saleh
Netflix’s biggest hit show, Bridgerton, is a period drama centering around eight siblings of the Bridgerton family during the Regency era as they embark on their own journey’s of finding love. In a competitive high society, the first season reveals Daphne Bridgerton and her “suitor,” Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, as they persuade society of their romantic attachment. While the show challenges the outlooks on sexual virtue during 19th century London, the realities of a lack of sex education felt and exuded by Daphne hits all too close to home in its 21st century release.
Z: Bridgerton has taken the social scene by storm as Daphne Bridgerton, the main debutante who is put on the marriage market in 19th century London, showcases the implications of the lack of sex education. As the joys of womanhood are poked and prodded on in the show, kept secret in the presence of brothers and potential suitors, the suppression of knowledge for the sake of keeping oneself presentable and desirable places Daphne at the forefront of a transformative sexual awakening. While her mother, Violet, plays coy on the way sex occurs (using an animal reference to keep the conversation between her and Daphne appropriate and proper), Daphne is all too left in the dark of the realities of a sexual experience; even for Regency London, the fact that a sexual experience could lead to what Daphne has always dreamed of--a child.
Beyond that, Daphne has no idea that her body is one that contains multitudes of discovery. As creator of Bridgerton states “I refer to this season as ‘the education of Daphne Bridgerton... She starts out as this young innocent debutante who knows very little of love. And she knows nothing of sex. And over the course of the series we watch her transform entirely.”
One of the most candid moments in the show is in Episode 3, when the Duke of Hastings, Simon Basset, shares with Daphne how she can “touch herself,” a surprise for the debutante about the certainty that her body contained, the new knowledge of being able to learn and relearn her body without the constraints and denunciation of high society. While Daphne starts acknowledging her sexual desire, her sexual awakening illustrates a pivotal moment for many of whom are unaware of the capacity of one’s body, the ways in which learning through one another instead of formally from a parent or school system are all too persistent measures some of us have to take to understand sex and sexuality. As noted by Dr. Justin Lehmiller, even in contemporary times, sex education is one of the most “inconsistent experiences for teens,” despite current progress related to educating young teens and adults on sex, sexuality, and consent (“The State of Sex Education in the United States in 2020”).
R: At this point, three episodes into an eight episode series, I find myself almost debilitatingly uncomfortable. I am an adult in my own household, which I share with my partner of three years, and I still find myself unable to look sex right in the eyes. I think more specifically, I find myself unable to look pleasure in the eyes. My logic brain knows that there is no actual reason to be uncomfortable, but as Katie Cross explains in her article “The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theocity’” that there are “PTSD-like” consequences of adopting purity culture, in which “the body is made the enemy and the adversary”.
In both my modern world and the world of 1813 London, the female body is already an enemy unto itself without any addition from purity culture. In one of the first scenes of Bridgerton, we see a corset being laced incredibly tightly. We see breasts pushed up as high as they will go so as to appear as appealing as possible. Hair is curled into intricate updos that have to have taken hours. There’s lipstick, and parasols so that the skin remains unmarred enough to be able to take on the false rouge pretense of flush. In the Midwestern town I grew up in, when I was just a few years younger than Daphne is in the series, I woke up two hours before school every morning so that I could do my hair and makeup correctly. I wore a padded bra under my sports bra when I played volleyball so that onlookers wouldn’t think for a second that I could be flat-chested. I understood the importance of looking sexually desirable while abstaining from anything that could actually be construed as sex.
Z: Growing up, my mother was fairly candid about educating me on everything that had to do with my body. When fifth grade rolled around and the TV was wheeled into the classroom, my slip was signed with my mother’s “H’s” a little too slanted and her “S’s” rushed into a near scribble. As a Muslim, hijabi kid, sex was not ever talked about, heard about, or joked about in the presence of kids. I, of course, listened into my mother’s conversations on the phone or sat next to her when her friend’s and herself are having coffee talk, but to say I was educated on sex was too much of a taboo. It was, ultimately, too wrong. So, when I came home with tampons and pads in a little baggie and a head full of questions about childbirth and how much it must hurt, my mother was often condemned for her approval of me being educated on sexual health and the emotional and physical realities of said education.
Watching the sexiness of Regency London’s most applauded families unfold under the watchful eyes of high society, I am reminded all too well of the way, as Reagan alludes to, I still lower my eyes at the sex scenes in front of me. I always aimed to be, even if I wasn’t kept from a decent sex education, accepted. Or rather, I didn’t want to be deemed “the corruptive person” who told their daughters that Hannah kissed Jake on last week’s episode of Hannah Montana. As I said, I wasn’t kept from a pretty “okay” sex education, but I remember sitting in the car with friends of my community as sexy lyrics filled the car, their eyes looking out the window or towards the floor, almost disembodying from themselves to remain “good.” As Episode 6 of Bridgerton highlights Daphne’s sexual awakening, the way she opens up to learning about her body, I find myself almost looking around my room as if my childhood friends were in there with me, shielding their eyes at a mere kiss on screen. I wonder how things would be different if we were all experiencing the same level of acknowledgement of how important it is to learn about our bodies.
We can relate all too well and all too differently to Daphne’s journey to discovering what her body is capable of and why sex talk is deemed scandalous and erroneous. As a Muslim kid (and even adult) growing up, gossip and “girl talk” happened all too often around the coffee table and at social gatherings. The minute anything related to sex was (and is) brought up, eyes wander around the room for the younger girls, the ones who are, like Daphne, left out of the dark from an honest and open conversation about sex. The occasional “ah, there are girls here” is thrown out and I’ll laugh under my breath while my mother shoots me a look, the look where she knows that I know, because she didn’t keep me from a comprehensive sex education--because she knew I was capable of finding out myself if need be.
R: In my experience, unlike Zainab, my mother appeared to be afraid of sex and talking about it. I was a victim of the now-memed “The Care and Keeping of You” American Girl book placed on my bed without discussion. In the eighth grade, they taught abstinence only sex education as the primary method of birth control, but also showed us condoms and did the infamous banana demonstration. My mother called the school and complained- that if they were really trying to teach abstinence only education, then that should be the only thing they were teaching us. There was a girl in my eighth grade class who was pregnant. Perhaps abstinence only sex education is the epitome of “too little, too late,” but it was also the only education I had real access to in my household.
My Christian youth group required us to have a “purity month” every February, where they split the boys and girls into separate rooms, and lectured us each about the dangers of sex, and, more importantly, the danger of the female sex. I was told that “young women make righteous men fall,” that it was my duty as a woman to be the epitome of purity so as to not tempt men. The Bible does not look kindly on women generally, but particularly when the woman becomes a sexual object rather than just an object. There is Bathesheba, guilty literally of nothing more than bathing in her own home while King David watched, unbeknownst to her. There is Jezebel, who dared rule in her husband’s name. At the end of purity month, we had to sign an “abstinence pledge” that we were to carry with us at all times, a reminder that God is always watching, something I still feel even years later, though I no longer attend church.
My story, while not over, progressed in much the same way as Daphne’s -- the unknown, no matter what it is, is terrifying. Without guidance from the adults in my life, but with all of the hormones and desires of a normal human, my experience was the equivalent of hiking Everest without a map or a guide. Sure, the top could be exhilarating and worth the climb, but I will never forget the horrors I saw and battled against along the way: things that didn’t need to be horrors, but were just by virtue of being untold and sinister.
Z: I asked my mother why she was always so accepting of the fact that I was one of the few to get a sex education in my community, seeing as many of my friends who were Muslim were signed out of being in the classroom on the day we learned about our bodies. I understood their parents having a different approach to sex education, but weren’t they bound to find out one day? I mean, why was I allowed to learn at a young age? She shrugged and said, “Well, you’re a curious kid. And curious kids can’t be silenced. I mean, kids can’t be silenced. They’ll find a way to learn about it, they’ll hear about it from their friends or television or music. So, if your school wants to tell you how babies are made or how childbirth works or how your period goes about, then so be it. You’ll eventually ask and I’ll eventually answer. Who am I to say no to being educated?”
Lehmiller, Justin. “The State of Sex Education in the United States in 2020.” Taylor and Francis, 26 Aug. 2020, think.taylorandfrancis.com/the-state-of-sex-education-in-the-united-states-in-2020. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.
Blake, Meredith. “How Accurate Is ‘Bridgerton’s’ Tale of Sex and Scandal in Regency England? We Asked.” Los Angeles Times, 27 Dec. 2020, www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2020-12-25/bridgerton-netflix-sex-scandal-marriage-regency-england. Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.
O’Donnell, Karen, and Katie Cross, editors. Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture & Church in Critical Perspective. SCM Press, 2020.