It’s unlikely you’ll ever read this, and I’m not sure I’d want you to. I don’t think we’ve talked about sex or sex education since I was 11, maybe? Is that right? I’ve blocked it from my memory. Maybe you have too. But in Sex Education, Harry Clayton-Wright addresses his mum, so I thought I’d do the same.
First of all, I’m quite glad I didn’t bring you to see this show. Not that it isn’t good, it is. It’s witty, chaotic, honest, and engaging (if not a bit jumbled). But I’d feel uncomfortable sitting with you, watching you watch Clayton-Wright explain his ‘prolific promiscuity’ to his own mum. And I know you’d feel uncomfortable too.
Why? Well, first, there’s a lot of porn. To start the show, there’s a montage of videos and pics of Clayton-Wright that are, well, let’s say ‘rude’.
Then there’s more porn. Gay porn. On DVD — which for some reason makes it worse. They’re played in snippets while Clayton-Wright chops cucumbers in a wedding dress (You might like that part). His dad bought the DVDs for him when he was 14 as an education tool; it’s highly unlikely my dad the minister would have done the same. The videos are low-budget, rather unsexy, and totally hilarious – in one of them a pet rabbit on a red leash is eerily prominent, the camera zooming in on his furry face as his naked owner presses against another naked guy in the snow… And now I’m describing porn. To my mother.
That’s not how I’d likely discuss a candid, sex-positive solo piece like Sex Education with you. I’d probably begin in abstract terms, outlining the show’s structure. It bounces off the walls: voiceovers from Clayton-Wright’s mum, powerpoint slideshows, interviews with his flatmates, a George Michael dance sequence complete with sexy Santa suit, back to the bunny (this time with a Donnie Darko twist), and don’t forget about the porn! When it works, Clayton-Wright exudes charm and raises thoughtful parallels between his life and his parents’ lives. Not everything sticks, and there isn’t a clear direction, but it might not need one: Clayton-Wright champions ‘talking, listening, teaching and sharing’ about sex, even when it feels out of context or off-topic.
I would also probably stay on the intellectual plane and raise some ‘critical observations’ — you know, like mother, like son. I’d mention that at times it feels like three separate shows: one reflecting on a mother/son relationship, another exploring the value of sexual education, and the third explaining Clayton-Wright’s choice to ‘democratize his body’. The topics are valuable and interesting — particularly his decision to abandon ownership of his images online — and each is approached with conviction. But with all three in play at once, Clayton-Wright only ever manages to scratch the surface of each.
There’s one part I do think you would love: a survey for the audience about whether they had a good sex education. We’ve never talked about it, but I’m sure you would’ve replied the same way I did. Isn’t it sad I already know that? Then, with sharp fury, Clayton-Wright hammers home a powerful statement advocating for LGBTQ sex education and labelling it suicide prevention. Sure, it’s frustrating he doesn’t pursue this point further, but you and I, Mum, as well as everyone in the audience, we know exactly what he means.
He’s talking about protection. And that’s what I actually want to talk to you about, even if it’s difficult. Sex Education insists that providing access to information is an effective way of increasing knowledge, erasing shame, and reducing harm. I wholeheartedly and adamantly agree; I think you would too. But some see it in another way, believing the exclusion of information to be the best form of safeguarding.
By the way, Clayton-Wright’s mum is not in the room. ‘Not here, but present’, he explains, admitting he doesn’t want his mum to see his provocative shows. He wants to protect her. Sure, there’s a lot of explicit images of him, but this isn’t show that unequivocally champions sex. There are also some tough bits to watch: he mentions he is lonely, and shares a sexual encounter that sounds traumatic, dangerous, and scary. I understand why he’d rather his mother be absent, while also yearning for her presence.
Sex Education makes me think about the ways in which you act to protect me, and the ways in which I act to protect you. It makes me think about that impulse to shield, to shelter, and how it can be so so helpful and other times so harmful. And it makes me think about how that impulse alone is just not enough; that we require proper tools and a non-judgmental environment to reflect on how best to keep each other safe. It’s likely to produce difficult conversations; protection isn’t easy.
I would like you to see this show, Mum, even if it’s not with me. I think we should probably talk about it.
Sex Education is on at 7.10pm at Summerhall, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.