Australia has a problem with sex. Our censorship laws treat sex with as much (if not more) trepidation as they do violence; as one commentator has remarked, ‘sadistic, realistic, serial killing like that in Wolf Creek [Greg McLean, 2005] is fine, but show real rumpy pumpy and we run for the hills’.Tim Dick, ‘Censors Should Grow Up: Adults Can Handle Sex’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 2011, <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/censors-should-grow-up-adults-can-handle-sex-20110624-1gj94.html>, accessed 27 July 2016. Schools are also notoriously reluctant to provide students with comprehensive, inclusive information about sex: a 2011 study found that sex education in Australian secondary schools lacks consistency and breadth, and is perhaps somewhat outdated, with abstinence still being taught by almost 94 per cent of teachers.Anthony Smith et al., ‘Sexuality Education in Australian Secondary Schools’, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, April 2011, available at <http://apo.org.au/files/Resource/sexeducationinaustsecondaryschools2010-1-5-2011.pdf>, accessed 3 June 2016. Even the more progressive Safe Schools program has come under attack for promoting ‘the LGBTQI’s left agenda’.Kevin Donnelly, ‘Safe Schools Program About LGBTQI’s Left Agenda, Not Bullying’, The Australian, 19 March 2016, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/safe-schools-program-about-lgbtqis-left-agenda-not-bullying/news-story/de10e8f89dc62b18d17eaf93dbb45e8d>, accessed 27 July 2016. And, while sex is still largely considered taboo according to traditional social mores – witness the clandestine presentation of sex shops, the infuriating persistence of slut-shaming, and the fact that obscenities related to sex and sex organs are rivalled only by racial slurs in their power to offend – hardcore pornography is now unavoidable for anyone who is regularly online.The ubiquity of online pornography has been widely acknowledged and discussed, particularly in relation to preventing and/or dealing with children coming across such content; see, for example, Amy O’Leary, ‘So How Do We Talk About This? When Children See Internet Pornography’, The New York Times, 9 May 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/garden/when-children-see-internet-pornography.html>, accessed 27 July 2016. It is a baffling societal paradox that the very act responsible for the existence of most of us is so thoroughly feared.
Comedian Luke McGregor is, in many ways, a product of this fear. Last year, at thirty-three years old, he had only had sex twice. ‘I thought I was terrible at it, I really didn’t like talking about it, and the act itself always terrified me,’ he says.Luke McGregor, quoted in Northern Pictures, Luke Warm Sex press kit, 2016, p. 18. Not only was he debilitatingly anxious about all things sex, but he also had what he describes as a significant knowledge gap: ‘I never got a lot of education about it growing up […] and I just wanted to get better at this thing that we’re all supposed to know how to do.’Luke McGregor, in Clare Bowditch & Nelly Thomas, The Conversation Hour, 774 ABC Melbourne, 14 March 2016, available at <http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2016/03/14/4424723.htm>, accessed 27 July 2016. Getting better, for McGregor, manifested as a six-part factual program, Luke Warm Sex, that follows his journey to achieve sexual confidence and enlightenment, and which aired on the ABC earlier this year.
Luke Warm Sex undoubtedly achieved what it ostensibly set out to: sex, for McGregor, is ‘no longer something that makes me anxious […] It’s something I look forward to, not dread.’McGregor, quoted in Northern Pictures, op. cit. The show’s real value, however, lies in its capacity to speak to a broad audience about this essential topic: there may be countless documentaries about sex, but they don’t all boast the appeal and accessibility of Luke Warm Sex. This is largely thanks to McGregor himself. Many viewers are likely already familiar with his nervous, self-deprecating brand of humour, ensuring a significant level of interest before the show even begins. Certainly, this humour also makes the show highly entertaining to watch. More crucially, though, with his blatant inexperience, conventionally unattractive appearance and characteristic awkwardness, McGregor is all of our sexual anxieties personified – and magnified. So, while most of us will have our own insecurities and knowledge gaps, we can rest assured that we won’t have it as bad as McGregor – we’re not going to come away from the show feeling worse about ourselves.
Thankfully, just getting people watching isn’t where the successes of Luke Warm Sex end: the show is as enlightening as it is entertaining. Logic informs the series’ structure: McGregor starts by facing his fear of being nude in Episode 1 – an obvious first step on the path to being comfortable with sex – and the episodes that follow progressively explore other facets of intimacy and sexuality. It’s an appropriately slow build, with the first half of the series covering issues that are so often disconnected from sex in popular media. Episode 2, ‘Comfortable with Contact’, sees McGregor attend a ‘cuddle party’, whereby participants are encouraged to form a tangled mass of bodies on the floor as a way to experience the joys of platonic touch. The sequence is confronting because McGregor’s palpable fear of such an act is entirely relatable, and shocking in its implications: why are we so afraid of something that is so fundamental to human connection? And how, if we cower from this basic level of physical intimacy, can we form meaningful sexual relationships?
McGregor goes back to school in Episode 3, ‘How Do I Prepare My Body for Sex?’, learning about myriad forms of contraception from forensic sexologist Amanda Lambros. Elsewhere in the episode, the traditionally boring lesson on sexually transmissible infections (STIs) is reworked into an entertaining skit performed by such recognisable comedians as Hamish Blake and Dave Hughes. The practical information McGregor gathers and shares in this episode goes beyond what many would have learned in school, however, as he also partakes in an endearing (if somewhat naff) outdoor slip-and-slide experiment to demonstrate the effectiveness of various kinds of lube, and an exercise in learning to control his point of climax. The lube lesson is particularly pertinent; in response to sex educator Michelle Temminghoff’s query about why he’s never used it before, McGregor echoes the attitude of many when he says, ‘I just feel like, if I’m doing everything correctly, I shouldn’t need any.’ Temminghoff goes on to make a great case for synthetic lubrication, explaining that women’s soft internal tissue can be damaged by the abrasion inherent in penetration, and pointing out that ‘when you do use it, it does make everything so much better’. Even without McGregor’s full-body experiment, the information in this segment is invaluable for individuals of any gender, and will undoubtedly change the way many viewers think about this misunderstood aid.
Subsequent episodes see McGregor learn about sex toys, how to perform fellatio and cunnilingus, the basics of stimulating the vulva and vagina, and some advanced techniques for stimulating the penis (Episode 4, ‘It’s a Pleasure to Meet You’); how to build intimacy outside of traditional sex, what life is like for a male escort, and how porn is damaging our capacity for intimacy (Episode 5, ‘Getting Intimate with Intimacy’); and how to take sex to another level through role-playing and BDSMThe initialism refers to the various sexual practices of bondage and discipline (BD), domination and submission (DS), and sadism and masochism (SM). (Episode 6, ‘Spicing Up Our Sex Lives’). While some of the information seems a little off-course – McGregor’s foray into writing erotic fiction is markedly less educational than the other segments – for the most part, each episode engages with ideas and information that people may not have explored or even heard of before. In this sense, Luke Warm Sex can truly be understood as the sex education we never got in school.
In many ways, the show is exemplary of how we should be talking about sex, to our current or potential sexual partners, as well as to young people. Executive producer Karina Holden says that the term ‘sex-positive’ is something that she only learned through making the series, and describes it as ‘a concept that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages freedom of expression’.Karina Holden, quoted in Northern Pictures, op. cit., p. 30. Luke Warm Sex wholly adheres to this concept, and McGregor, in particular, is admirably non-judgemental, even when faced with ideas and activities that he obviously finds exceedingly uncomfortable. In Episode 3, for example, psychotherapist and counsellor Cath Carter appears strange at best as she sits across from McGregor at an outdoor table and demonstrates how to achieve a full-body orgasm just by breathing according to a certain pattern. While McGregor is clearly unsure of how to react, his voiceover presents the scene as informative, complete with straightforward instructions on how to practise the technique at home; instead of taking the easy route of ridiculing this kind of ‘kooky’ behaviour, he aims to learn from it. McGregor’s journey is driven and defined by curiosity, openness and acceptance, demonstrating an approach to dealing with difference that is in marked contrast to the bigotry and violence (ideological and otherwise) that so often result from challenges to people’s worldviews.
It’s not just conventional attitudes to sex that McGregor contends with, however; his sheer vulnerability on display throughout the series also offers a version of masculinity rarely seen on our screens. Beyond proclaiming to the nation that, at age thirty-three, he’d only had sex twice – a far cry from the virile Lothario the media often presents as the figure boys and men should aspire to – McGregor also shares many intensely personal emotions. The most affecting instance of this comes in Episode 4, when he attends a class on oral sex. Before the class, he reveals that he hasn’t performed oral sex on anyone before. ‘[I’m] mostly a waist-up kind of guy with the old mouth,’ he explains, palpably nervous. When it comes to practising cunnilingus on an apple, McGregor’s nerves increase, reaching their peak when instructor Madison Young asks him to perform the act on an apple she is holding between her legs. He hesitates, and apologises. ‘I’m just embarrassed,’ he mumbles, head down, unable to make eye contact. After Madison helps him relax by standing up with him and shaking out the nerves, he completes the activity, but appears visibly unsettled at the conclusion, his face carrying an expression that communicates a quiet fear, and his voice quivering like that of someone about to break into tears. ‘All the insecurities about sex and making this show were running through my head,’ he explains in voiceover. ‘It was annoying ’cos I really wanna learn this stuff.’
Here is a man so terrified of sex that the idea of putting his head between the legs of a fully clothed woman brings him to tears, pushes him to the edge of panic. And, when he does reveal this unprecedented level of vulnerability, he is not mocked for it; contrary to the way most mainstream media texts would depict the nerdy archetype McGregor so thoroughly aligns with, here, the audience is not encouraged to laugh. Instead, we feel touched by his candidness, and admire his determination. This version of manhood – one that prizes emotional expression and self-improvement – is overwhelmingly refreshing to see on Australian television. Certainly, as a woman, I found the mere discussion of cunnilingus on screen heartening to witness, let alone McGregor’s desire to meet the needs of his future partners by learning how to do it.
This desire also represents another crucial departure from normative expectations of masculinity, in that McGregor’s attitude towards women in relation to sex is not one of acquisition. Rather than viewing sex (and women) as a prize to be won, as is so often the case on our screens, McGregor sees it as a mutual activity he would like to take part in. When he reflects on his emotional response to the simulated oral sex in a post-class interview, his comment that he ‘do[es] want to share that with someone’ is genuinely moving in its earnestness. This is not something he wants to do to someone, and this distinction is a crucial one in changing the way we collectively think, talk about and engage in sex.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the nation’s aforementioned sexual anxieties, there were some negative responses to the show when it aired in March. The most publicised audience criticism came in the form of a letter that was published by Fairfax, in which the offended viewer dismissed the show as ‘absolute rubbish’, expressing outrage at the ‘disgusting and unnecessary’ full-frontal nudity.See Andrew Stephens, ‘Luke Warm Sex Provokes Passionate Responses for ABC’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 March 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/luke-warm-sex-provokes-passionate-responses-for-abc-20160323-gnoxrb.html>, accessed 27 July 2016. Though many other viewers (and critics) rushed to defend Luke Warm Sex, which suggests that the disgruntled anti-nudist may have been an anomaly, the show was also the target of less overtly hysterical criticism. Most notably, critic Luke Buckmaster lambasts it as ‘a bland milk-and-water pseudo sex-ed doco that feels like it was co-written by Healthy Harold and the 40-Year-Old Virgin’. Buckmaster goes on to call the content ‘tame’, and condescendingly refers to the various interviewees as ‘experts, counsellors and quacks’. While the critic reluctantly acknowledges that McGregor’s approach is one ‘we can all to some extent relate to’, he laments the blandness of the series, fantasising about imagined same-sex experimentation and orgies that might have been realised had John Safran been at the helm.The ‘40-Hear-Old Virgin’ refers to the character played by Steve Carell in the eponymous 2005 film directed by Judd Apatow; see Luke Buckmaster, ‘Luke Warm Sex Review – Not Just Sex That’s Lukewarm in Documentary Stunts’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/16/luke-warm-sex-review-not-just-the-sex-thats-lukewarm-in-documentary-stunts>, accessed 27 July 2016.
Luke Warm Sex is certainly not flawless. Despite McGregor’s non-judgemental approach, a couple of the experts he visits are so far left of centre that they will inevitably invite ridicule from some viewers, which threatens to tarnish the overall credibility of the show. A few other segments are skimmed over too quickly, potentially diminishing the importance of the topics (the investigation of porn’s effect on intimacy most notably falls prey to this). But these are minor, entirely forgivable drawbacks. Criticisms like these, and like Buckmaster’s, miss the point entirely, and detract from the show’s monumental achievements. In a society that is collectively afraid to talk about sex – which can lead to unfulfilling sex lives, and the as-yet-unknown fallout of generations of kids turning to misogynistic porn as their sex edSee O’Leary, op. cit – McGregor’s informative, accessible overview of healthy sexuality is a crucial stepping stone on the way to a more enlightened, tolerant Australia. In this sense, contrary to Buckmaster’s accusations of blandness, Luke Warm Sex may be the most daring thing to have appeared on our screens all year.
|1||Tim Dick, ‘Censors Should Grow Up: Adults Can Handle Sex’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 June 2011, <http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/censors-should-grow-up-adults-can-handle-sex-20110624-1gj94.html>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|2||Anthony Smith et al., ‘Sexuality Education in Australian Secondary Schools’, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, April 2011, available at <http://apo.org.au/files/Resource/sexeducationinaustsecondaryschools2010-1-5-2011.pdf>, accessed 3 June 2016.|
|3||Kevin Donnelly, ‘Safe Schools Program About LGBTQI’s Left Agenda, Not Bullying’, The Australian, 19 March 2016, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/inquirer/safe-schools-program-about-lgbtqis-left-agenda-not-bullying/news-story/de10e8f89dc62b18d17eaf93dbb45e8d>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|4||The ubiquity of online pornography has been widely acknowledged and discussed, particularly in relation to preventing and/or dealing with children coming across such content; see, for example, Amy O’Leary, ‘So How Do We Talk About This? When Children See Internet Pornography’, The New York Times, 9 May 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/garden/when-children-see-internet-pornography.html>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|5||Luke McGregor, quoted in Northern Pictures, Luke Warm Sex press kit, 2016, p. 18.|
|6||Luke McGregor, in Clare Bowditch & Nelly Thomas, The Conversation Hour, 774 ABC Melbourne, 14 March 2016, available at <http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2016/03/14/4424723.htm>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|7||McGregor, quoted in Northern Pictures, op. cit.|
|8||The initialism refers to the various sexual practices of bondage and discipline (BD), domination and submission (DS), and sadism and masochism (SM).|
|9||Karina Holden, quoted in Northern Pictures, op. cit., p. 30.|
|10||See Andrew Stephens, ‘Luke Warm Sex Provokes Passionate Responses for ABC’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 March 2016, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/luke-warm-sex-provokes-passionate-responses-for-abc-20160323-gnoxrb.html>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|11||The ‘40-Hear-Old Virgin’ refers to the character played by Steve Carell in the eponymous 2005 film directed by Judd Apatow; see Luke Buckmaster, ‘Luke Warm Sex Review – Not Just Sex That’s Lukewarm in Documentary Stunts’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/16/luke-warm-sex-review-not-just-the-sex-thats-lukewarm-in-documentary-stunts>, accessed 27 July 2016.|
|12||See O’Leary, op. cit|