As I sat and binge-watched what I thought would be an inclusive, sex-positive, informative series, I realized that Netflix and Janelle Monáe sold me a dream of black kink and birth outside the binary.
Two years ago, Netflix partnered with the news outlet Vox to create the docuseries Explained, which focused on a number of social and cultural issues. After two seasons they decided to release Sex, Explained, a series centered around sexual and reproductive health. So, for five short episodes, I yelled at my television and cursed every scene because if I wanted a bunch of white people telling me about my body alongside cute but weird illustrations like sperm in sunglasses, I’d sit in on my daughter’s health class.
In total, the series is 106 minutes of white experiences with a healthy dose of black trauma thrown in on issues ranging from sexual fantasy and attraction to birth control, fertility, and childbirth. And while these are all important topics that need to be “explained,” what we really need is an explanation for where all the damn black women are.
While, yes, black women make cameos in the series, we only appear as experts in trauma, pain, and oppression.
The first episode concentrates on sexual fantasy, and while I have many kinks, racism and erasure are not two of them. They didn’t interview a single black woman about her sexual fantasies and not a single stock photo or video showed our bodies. This literal lack of representation perpetuated the everlasting idea that black women do not exist in these spaces or conversations.
Meanwhile, Taylor Freeman, professional dominatrix, and founder of the “Black Domme Society” would have been an amazing resource for the series. Taylor is an educator and advisor for black women looking to navigate sexual fantasy and kink without the shame and stigma that white spaces and curricula have constantly projected on us. We’re now in a time where safe spaces for black women to explore our sexual fantasies have been curated in many forms— Mandii B and Weezy’s sex-positive podcast “Whoreible Decisions” has been my own raunchy refuge for some time and certainly could have “explained sex.”
The episodes did have a handful of black men discussing their fantasies and attractions, but I have to name that their role in fantasy was through the racist-ass lens of sleeping with white women...and as monkeys. So I guess being black and visible wasn’t the best way to go, either.
We were given a little more grace in the following episode on attraction, wherein a total of four black women materialized on screen—two of whom were twins, so count that as you please. An entire episode about who and what we find attractive relying strictly on three stock images of racially-ambiguous, curly-haired women is supposed to be the nuanced conversation about sex appeal we needed?
After skipping right over conversations about STIs and with no mention of abortion, we reach the exploration of birth control. First, can I name that again, because they interviewed a few black men in this episode—about birth control—just to set the tone?
Once black women finally got some screen time, I rolled my eyes as eugenics and the sterilization of black people was briefly referenced and cut short for white women to be given credit for their advocacy around safety and the regulation of birth control and to give their own take on contraception. This irritated me even more because this episode had the audacity to include the founding mother of reproductive justice, Loretta Ross; but rather than her expertise and insight, Ross was interviewed about her own trauma and sterilization as a result of an IUD as if that was all she had to offer.
This was followed by a brief appearance from the executive director for the reproductive coalition, Sister Song, Monica Simpson, in the episode about infertility, where, once again, her contribution was limited to oppression and access barriers rather than her expertise.
Of all of the experts brought in for this series, only the black women were the ones positioned to speak from a place of trauma.
The final episode, which focused on childbirth, was the most cringeworthy. They finally featured an in-depth interview of a black woman but did they really have a choice when black women are dying during childbirth at astronomical rates? And even then, white women managed to take up more space than necessary. I sat and listened to white women laugh and share their birth stories while a black woman was literally giving birth and trying to survive in the next scene.
And the loudest white woman in this episode was Ina May Gaskin, who was credited as an influential grassroots birth activist and “mother of midwifery.” In reality, she’s the same culture vulture who said black women using drugs and having poor diets is to blame for why maternal mortality is so high, rather than naming the truth: it’s racist medical providers like her who are killing us.
Sex Explained managed to miss out on the comprehensive conversations that could—and should—have been told. There cannot be spaces or talk about advancing sexual liberation without the stories and experiences of marginalized people. Black trauma damn sure shouldn’t be the narrative sum of reproductive justice when our bodies and labor built the framework of the movement itself. They selected Janelle Monáe, a black, non-binary, queer artist to narrate a docuseries that centered gender and whiteness, with Monáe serving their identity politics as a billboard.
After suggesting they would deliver an inclusive, unorthodox approach to sexual health, Sex, Explained provided a timely reminder that in some spaces, inclusivity ends with queer and checks race and gender at the door. This was supposed to be the long-overdue alternative to the health classes that failed so many of us. In addition to years of not receiving affirming sexual healthcare or education, we were owed better than the scraps Netflix gave us. Somehow, Sex Explained did the most while managing to do the least—at least, for me.
Brandi Collins-Calhoun is a menstrual maven, pleasure-positive baby mother and birth worker writing and critiquing culture through a reproductive justice lens as a member of Echoing Ida