Sex toys arrive in the post. Erotica lines her bookshelves. And her nude photo is framed in a famous members’ club. As the cult hit Sex Education returns… The excruciating reality of having a sexpert for a mum (and her son admits it bothers him!)
- British journalist Rowan Pelling has been writing about sex for 25 years now
- First as Erotic Review editor, then as a sex columnist for various publications
- Her eldest son has noted the similarities between his mother and the main parent in Netflix’s Sex Education, Dr Jean Milburn (played by Gillian Anderson)
Back in January 2019, my elder son, then nearly 15, announced he’d watched a new drama series called Sex Education on Netflix: ‘The mother in it is just like you, Mum.’
I hadn’t seen the show yet, but I hoped he meant glamorous, intelligent, witty and wise . . . What he actually wanted to convey was: ‘She talks about sex all the time and her son finds her really embarrassing.’
With the third series of Sex Education starting tomorrow, half the nation now knows the mother-son dynamic that my own son, Scobie, was discussing.
Teenage Otis is the only child of sex therapist and single mum Dr Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), who’s always issuing unsolicited erotic advice to her boy, trying to grill him about his private life, or, worse, write about it — which means Otis ends up feeling far more repressed than he otherwise would. Jean’s house is filled with suggestive art works, sex toys and explicit books, and Otis’s classmates discover and share TV footage of her giving full-on sex advice.
I’m not a therapist, but I have been writing, pontificating and broadcasting about sex for 25 years now; first as editor of the Erotic Review magazine, then as a sex columnist for various publications, including stints on GQ and this newspaper. More recently, I edited The Amorist ‘for devotees of love and passion’ and guest-curated two sales of erotic art at Sotheby’s.
British journalist Rowan Pelling (pictured with her sons) has been writing and broadcasting about sex for 25 years now; first as editor of the Erotic Review magazine, then as a sex columnist for various publications
The books I’ve edited include titles such as The Decadent Handbook, The Erotic Review Bedside Companion and Erotic Stories.
I once presented a sex-themed chat show, Sweet Talk, on Channel 4, which was so risqué we had to film in Amsterdam. And I’ve fronted short documentaries on a variety of renowned erotic writers and painters.
What never occurred to me, until I had my sons, was how all this sex talk would impinge on my offspring. At first, I avoided any impact by having two personalities: at the school gates in Cambridge I used my married name; I only became Pelling when my train reached London’s King’s Cross.
But, inevitably, there came a day when a parent of one of Scobie’s primary school classmates said: ‘I saw you on TV last night.’ I knew at once he’d been watching a repeat of Lawrence Barraclough’s BBC documentary about male body image, My Penis And Everyone Else’s, for which I’d been interviewed. I drew comfort from the fact the dad’s comment was equally revealing about both of us.
But my cover was comprehensively blown — and would continue to be blown.
During the play-date years, I appeared on programmes about kissing, breasts, bits, lovemaking and general eroticism.
Modelling: British journalist Rowan Pelling posing while editor of The Erotic Review
Typical titles included The Big Dirty List Show: 50 Years Of Sex And Music and The Story Of O: The Vice Francaise. When 50 Shades Of Grey came out, I gave one of the first critiques on Radio 4’s Today programme and last year I fronted a programme on erotica writer Anais Nin.
To be frank, it’s a rare day when the post doesn’t bring me an erotic volume, or a sex toy.
Even so, for a few obstinate years I believed my job had no effect on my sons’ lives. Erotic magazines were kept in plain cardboard boxes, rude books lived on our bottom shelves, obscured by the sofa, and I didn’t hang the erotic prints I’d been given over the years.
My husband’s great passion is military history, so the house was filled with images of Spitfires and Dreadnoughts, not naked bodies.
There was, of course, that moment, seven years ago, when I walked into my living room and found my younger son Torrin (then aged six) clutching a book entitled The Secret Lives Of The Sex Witches and pretending to read it aloud to his big brother. ‘Sex, sex, sex,’ he chanted, then cackled like Sid James, before continuing, ‘sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex . . .’
Her eldest son has noted the similarities between his mother and the main parent in Netflix’s Sex Education (pictured). Teenage Otis is the only child of sex therapist and single mum Dr Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) in the series
He was delighted at finding almost every book on the bottom shelves had a dirty title. But then, as one school mum said to me: ‘Your younger son reminds me of that naughty comedian.’ I knew who she meant: ‘Russell Brand?’ I asked, ‘Yes, that’s the one,’ she said.
Eleven-year-old Scobie was rather less amused. Secondary school proved a more testing environment for the child of a so-called ‘sexpert’.
‘I’D BE LYING IF I SAID IT DIDN’T BOTHER ME’ — BY SCOBIE, 17
By the time I was 11, I was awkwardly tiptoeing around the questions surrounding my mum’s occupation. School friends had seen her on TV or heard her on the radio, where she always seemed to be talking about sex, and would bombard me with questions about her job.
I never budged on my answer: ‘She’s a journalist’ — a job title I hoped would distract them from her ventures in erotic literature and sex advice.
Unfortunately, Google’s search engine meant my attempts at covering up the true nature of Mum’s work were doomed. It spared no mortifying detail of her career: agony aunt, sexpert, the sort of person who talks about genitals and erotica on the BBC.
Fast forward a couple years and, by 14, I was no longer being questioned about her profession, but being shown images of Mum in her underwear, which classmates had nicked from a sex advice article — they seemed to imagine this would come as news to me.
Although my demeanour suggested otherwise, I’d be lying if I said the interaction didn’t bother me — it felt like a violation of my family’s and my privacy. At that age you’d rather your parent was a criminal than someone your friends could look at semi-naked.
Truth be told, her vocation was never top secret in our household. Our bookshelves were lined with copies of The Bedside Companion, The Decadent Handbook, The Story of O, and numerous other erotic texts that meant nothing to me for a time.
The same can be said for the many cardboard boxes filled with issues of The Erotic Review.
I couldn’t point you to one eureka moment where it clicked that Mum wrote about sex for a living. It was something I subconsciously chose not to acknowledge, until it became odd not to do so.
Accepting your parent’s unconventional choice of work isn’t the difficult part, it’s the seemingly never-ending rabbit-hole of embarrassing filler that comes with it.
Let’s just say, being made aware, by a family friend, of a nude photograph of Mum in the men’s toilets at the Chelsea Arts Club wasn’t high on my list of proudest son moments. Neither was a school friend announcing they’d seen her on Newsnight, lying on a chaise longue and reading an explicit passage from the novel Fanny Hill.
There were times I was cross with Mum for putting me in such a difficult situation.
I can recall watching Sex Education and drawing instant parallels between Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Jean and my Mum herself. The ‘well-known sex therapist and writer’ attempting to intervene in her son Otis’ love life felt like a familiar story, as did the character’s eagerness to have a mum/son chat about sex.
Even my then 11-year-old brother Torrin picked up on the similarities between the fictional Jean and our very real parent. Mum’s work had less impact on Torrin as he can be a bit like an actor in a Carry On film and loves saying stuff that shocks people. When he discovered Mum’s erotic books, aged six, he stood in our living room pretending to read passages aloud. Perhaps it runs in the genes.
Now, I can’t say that any mention of Mum’s work brings the red-faced unease it once did, but I’m not going to publicly advertise it. If my peers ask, I’ll continue to say she’s a journalist. And if they stumble across the truth, so what? Some journos write about politics or food, while Mum covers sex. Someone has to.
Torrin, 13, says:
I am a bit embarrassed by Mum, as she sometimes talks too much about sex — usually when we are watching TV together. That’s awkward sometimes. Teenage boys don’t want to think their parents know about that kind of stuff.
But I never felt worried at school. I think that’s because most of my good friends and their mums have known my family since I was little. So they have always known about Mum’s work.
It’s no big deal. And it’s probably better having a mum you can talk to and who gives good advice than one you can’t.
I didn’t know until quite recently that another boy in his class had shown him scantily-clad newspaper photos of me from my Erotic Review days, before he was born, wearing little more than underwear. He told me he’d said ‘so what?’ and had shrugged it off. But he was 14 at the time; an age when your parents’ power to embarrass you is at full nuclear strength.
I felt terrible he’d had to face those blushes on his own. And worse, knowing there were naked photos of me in the public domain. I’d done two underwear shoots and three artsy shoots with top photographers where I was persuaded to dispense with clothes (the things you do when you’re young).
No wonder he was angry during some of our exchanges at that time. Impossible to imagine my kind, sensible, wise mother placing me in that situation as a teen. It provided a vital moment in my parenting education: the realisation there are times when you should make a full, grovelling apology to your children.
Proper explanations are essential, too, if you want your teenagers to respect you. I told Scobie how the photographs were taken when I was 31 and immersed in my ‘erotic editor’ persona — five years before he’d make his grand entrance into the world.
Search engines were in their infancy and social media as we know it now didn’t exist. It never occurred to me future offspring could be mortified by old photos, summoned in the blink of an eye.
The episode also gave me an opportunity to demonstrate to my sons how the jolly jape of yesteryear can become the impossible-to-eradicate mistake of later years. Although my boys would have to work hard to make more of a spectacle of themselves than I have.
Since Scobie had opened up to me, I confessed an embarrassing encounter of my own: he had no idea of the time a plain-speaking mum from our road said to me over a coffee, after I’d told her I was an old-fashioned romantic when it came to matters of the heart: ‘Oh! I always thought you were a swinger.’ Which made me confront the fact my public profile was far racier than the truth.
I’d always told myself I didn’t care what others thought about me, but suddenly discovered I minded quite a bit if other parents thought I was raising my sons in an anything-goes, free-love ménage.
I realised then there might always be some conflict between my desire to bring up my boys in a household free of the sexual repression and censure their dad and I experienced during our schooldays, and my desire to instil appropriate boundaries.
On some occasions, I was sterner about bog-standard boy exploration of sexuality (such as looking up rude words on an iPad), because I was worried other people might think I was encouraging it. This was part of the reason my sons were both pretty much the last kids in their years to have access to smartphones or tablets.
Yet my own work escapades could pull in a different direction.
I’d say things came to a head when I was commissioned to follow up a story from the U.S. about new research supposedly proving orgasms make you smarter (because of the rush of blood to the head, flooding the brain with chemical nutrients, apparently).
This involved me flying to the department of neuroscience at Rutgers University in New Jersey and interviewing top sexologists Barry Komisaruk and Nan Wise.
It also involved me clambering into a functional MRI scanner wearing nothing but a bathrobe, bed-socks and a grim-looking mesh mask to — and there’s no polite way of saying this — self-stimulate to the point of climax for science, so my brain could be scanned at the point of a big O.
‘Mum, why are you going to America?’ I’d never before been stuck for words. My policy has always been to be truthful, while restricting information to an age-appropriate level of detail.
I started trying to explain my mission while not mentioning the word orgasm, but even my expurgated version had Scobie backing out of the room. For several years after, I avoided any topic that would result in him yelling ‘TMI’ (too much information) at me.
But there comes a point when any responsible parent — whether they’re an eroticist or an actuary — has to speak to their children about sex.
I’ve long been aware you can’t raise sons without speaking to them at length about the importance of proper consent in intimate relationships; nor about contraception and STIs. Nor without discussing the perils of pornography and how it can distort people’s view of what’s acceptable sexual practice.
It’s fair to say I bang on about this kind of thing until my boys roll their eyes and say: ‘Yes, I know, you told me this last week. And the week before.’
We once had a heated row about them using the ‘p-word’ in the U.S. sense of meaning ‘cowardly’.
I pointed out that it’s misogynistic to use a slang word for the most powerful part of a woman’s body, which gave life to them, to mean a wuss; also that I prefer almost any other slang term for female anatomy to that porny term.
At least the crudest Anglo-Saxon lingo has been employed by fine writers, including D. H. Lawrence.
And I’ve used the TV series Sex Education quite literally as, well, sex education for my sons. I discuss the scenes that I think are well done, realistic or make excellent points.
‘I like to think my job, like Jean’s in Sex Education, has made me more of a force for moral good in their lives than bad’, mother Rowan (pictured with her children) said
Equally, I’ve pointed out rather too many erotic scenes in series one and two are conducted at the kind of fast, furious pace that gives no thought to foreplay, sensuality and women’s pleasure.
But I applaud the fact that Otis is portrayed as gauche, embarrassed and largely unprepared for the realities of making love — isn’t that how most of us remember our first fumbling overtures at intimacy?
Torrin, 13, is a way off worrying about any of that. He’s more interested in football. Scobie, like any boy his age, enjoys a full social life but declines to share details with his dinosaur parents.
There’s no doubt I’ve been a mortifying mum at times, giving unwanted advice, but I’d argue that’s better than having a one-off chat about the birds and bees aged 11, then leaving them to fend for themselves.
My sons know they can air pretty much any topic, however intimate, with me should the need arise. They know I think erotic intimacy is one of life’s great golden goals, so long as it’s not achieved at the cost of hurt to others. Equally, they are aware I think almost any material you’d categorise as ‘porn’ is distorting, boring and exploitative — and not to be emulated.
Talking about thorny topics as a parent is a key way to exert influence. I like to think my job, like Jean’s in Sex Education, has made me more of a force for moral good in their lives than bad.
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