Society is abuzz with the latest bingeable Netflix show, Bridgerton, based on novels written by Julia Quinn. Perhaps it is a surprise to you, that we should bring this up here. After all, what does a regency romp have to do with the bold work of our own reproductive health organization? But the truth is that Bridgerton is a far better mirror of modern times than it is an accurate representation of the regency era. Because I will tell you, gentle reader, as someone who has provided sex education to young people for nearly a decade, sex ed has not come as far in the past two hundred years as you might think.
If you’ve not yet seen Bridgerton, I must inform you that sex, reproduction, the exploration of pleasure, and even bodily autonomy is a thematic thread throughout the series, which, for anyone familiar with romance novels, is not a surprise. As a genre written largely by women, for women, and about women, romance novels have long hosted these conversations. But one of the things that makes this thread so outstanding is how blatant and deliberate the withholding of sex education is for the younger characters, particularly society’s young, marriageable women.
I must admit, dear reader, that I gasped in horror when even on the night before her wedding, Daphne’s mother refused to tell her how sex works. We viewers ultimately see the awful results of what happens when young people are not given a clear understanding not only of how their bodies work, but any understanding of consent.
As a sex educator, I hear the exact same kind of stories from students today that the young characters in Bridgerton are navigating in the 1800s. I still have students in their late teens asking me if masturbation is okay. I still have students who say their partner promised to pull out and then didn’t. I still have students who think drinking a cap full of bleach will stop or end a pregnancy.
I am saddened to report to you that these stories exist all across the United States because sex education is a patchwork of laws, not only from state to state, but sometimes school district to school district. What is worse is that we see the results of this lack of education play out in unintended pregnancies, sexual assault, STIs, and sexual relationships that prioritize the pleasure of one partner over the other.
What can you do about this, you ask? Planned Parenthood of Illinois supports the REACH Act, which would make comprehensive sex education mandatory in all Illinois public schools and I urge you, dear reader, to do the same!
But that’s not all we are asking for. Sex education must not only be comprehensive, it must also be queer-inclusive and sex positive. It is sex positivity that brings me back to the potential in romance novels. Because the truth is that romance novels were my first introduction to sex education, a fact for which I am grateful every day. Because even in school districts where comprehensive sex ed is taught, pleasure and consent are rarely a part of the curriculum. In romance novels, however, they are almost always a central theme.
The genre has come a long way in the 20 years since Bridgerton was written. Now more than ever, romance is a place where young people can explore, learn, and discover elements of sex and sexuality in a way that is safe and healthy because if romance has taught your humble author anything, it is that everyone deserves a happy ending.
A Lady of Education