By Samantha Panepinto
As a sex educator, I wouldn’t normally advise young people to use Netflix to teach themselves about period stigmas, anatomy of the vulva, or sexual consent. There are plenty of terrible examples of all these topics on TV. (Exhibit A: any hetero sex scene in which penetration = instant vaginal orgasm.) But “Big Mouth,” the adult-content cartoon about middle schoolers Andrew, Nick, and Jessi, delivers nuanced messages about puberty while somehow remaining hilarious and free of Afterschool Special vibes.
Here are six scenes that could be used to facilitate discussions about puberty and sex with children (and adults!) of all ages:
Lesson 1: Everyone goes through puberty at their own pace.
(Episode 1 - “Ejaculation”)
The series aptly opens on a scene in which our heroes are watching one of the infamous “puberty videos” in school. On my first watch, I was instantly sold when Jessi, who would become a reliable speaker of feminist truth to power, complains that puberty for boys is portrayed as “the miracle of ejaculation,” while “for girls, we’re just a yarn ball of aching tubes.” Yes, Jessi. Sexual pleasure for non-penis-havers is often ignored or outright shamed in sex ed programs. She then shouts, “...and that’s why we need equal pay!” Correct.
The main lesson of this episode, though, is central to any quality puberty education program: everyone goes through puberty at their own pace, and it’s not helpful to compare yourself to your friends. During a sleepover, Nick accidentally sees his best friend Andrew’s penis. This triggers an anxiety spiral for Nick over Andrew having more pubic hair. This relatable moment can open larger conversations about what causes puberty and dispel myths, like the misconception that eating certain foods can induce or delay puberty, or that developing breasts means a person has engaged in sexual activity (both myths I’ve heard in real life).
Lesson 2: Periods are normal, but kind of suck sometimes.
(Episode 2 - “Everybody Bleeds”)
On a field trip to the Statue of Liberty, Jessi gets her first period. In WHITE F*CKING SHORTS, as she screams into the cosmos toward the end of the episode. Because that’s how it goes, along with many other vaguely shitty things about growing up, the anthropomorphized Statue of Liberty tells her.
The episode goes on to tackle period taboos, the aversion many cis men have to hearing about anything related to periods, and the tampon tax. These topics are a necessary supplement to learning what a period is and how to care for it, but go largely untouched in many health classes.
Lesson 3: Figuring out your sexuality is part of puberty, and it’s okay to not be sure what it is.
(Episode 3 - “Am I Gay?”)
I love the way this episode presents the process of questioning sexuality. My little queer heart sang when Andrew got a boner for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and had that moment of “oh boy...am I gay?” I was like, BEEN THERE, BRO (not about The Rock specifically, but you get the idea).
Portraying that experience is so important for queer and questioning young people — especially because Andrew isn’t scared or self-hating, just curious to figure out his desires. Would it have been extra amazing if the episode had ended with Andrew actually being gay? Yes, probably. More queers on TV, please. But it was also refreshing to have a character explore the possibility of being gay, come to the conclusion that he’s not, and have the whole process just be normal and okay.
Lesson 4: People of all genders can get horny (and some people don’t).
(Episode 5 - “Girls are Horny Too”)
Yeah, the title of the episode says a lot here. The boys are flabbergasted when all the girls in their lives become obsessed with a steamy romance novel, which is hilarious to watch. But my favorite part of this episode—the part that’s actually an amazing teaching tool—is when Jessi’s hormone monster responds to Jessi’s literary-induced horniness by encouraging her to look at her vulva with a mirror.
Jessi examines her (talking) vulva, played excellently by Kristen Wiig, who gives her “the grand tour.” The ensuing conversation tours through the clitoris (“where the party happens”), the urethra, labia, and vagina. Jessi acts as an avatar for a teen viewer, voicing common misconceptions like “oh, I didn’t know there was a second hole,” and “I thought the whole thing was the vagina!” At the end, her vulva tells her to masturbate.
What’s not to love about this scene? We’ve got an anatomy lesson, sex positivity for vagina-havers, and Kristen Wiig. Done.
Lesson 5: Active and enthusiastic consent (CW: sexual assault)
(Episode 8 - “The Head Push”)
The gang is exposed to some high school escapades when they crash Nick’s sister’s house party: including a very not-okay hookup between the sister, Leah, and her crush, Daniel. After getting caught in Leah’s closet in an attempt at seven minutes in heaven, Missy and Andrew watch as Leah and Daniel make out, then he starts pushing her head towards his crotch. She says no, they keep kissing, and then he does it again. After a brief exchange where Daniel accuses her of being “tangled in knots sexually” and giving him blue balls (not a thing), Leah rolls her eyes with the force of a thousand women scorned and leaves the room.
Leah proceeds to tell the party at large what happened, and she and her friends publicly shame Daniel. The middle-school boys wonder aloud how else you’re supposed to get someone to perform oral sex on you, and are quickly schooled with several options: wait until your partner wants to, offer to give oral sex first, or—wait for it—ASK YOUR PARTNER WHAT THEY WANT TO DO.
This is a great example of what consent doesn’t look like, and its relative subtlety makes it a great teaching tool. It’s not a violent assault that everyone would denounce without question — it’s a disrespect of boundaries that a lot of people (like the boys in the show) might not see as a big deal. (I can think of a few high-profile examples from real life where that’s the case as well.) A critical step in ending rape culture is discussing these types of interactions with young people, unpacking why they’re not okay, and teaching ways to ask for, check in on, and give enthusiastic consent.
Lesson 6: Watching porn can be fun...but approach with caution.
(Episode 10 - “The Pornscape”)
Andrew becomes dangerously addicted to porn — staying up all night, unable to enjoy his normal activities, the whole enchilada. He gets sucked into “The Pornscape:” an alternate universe filled with sex scams and extreme scenes, from which Nick needs to rescue him.
Young people have more access to pornography than ever, and cultivating a healthy relationship with it is a necessary part of developing sexual literacy — whether someone chooses to engage with pornography or not. Watching porn can be a way to explore a natural curiosity about sex, but it’s important for young people to know that the sex portrayed in many porn scenes might not be exactly realistic. Most porn portrays a narrow range of beauty standards, and the videos show edited, staged professionals in exaggerated scenes. The sex you have when you’re first starting to explore your sexuality most likely won’t look like the sex you see in porn, and that’s okay.
What other shows in your queue have awesome (or cringeworthy) sex ed moments? Share your picks with us in the comments!
Samantha is a Brooklyn-based educator and writer. You can catch her drinking coffee outside, obsessing over her roommate’s industrial sewing machines, and putting an extra clove of garlic in everything she cooks. Find more of her nonsense on Instagram and Twitter.