There are a few sticky issues with Netflix’s ‘How To Build A Sex Room’
We talked to pleasure educator and entrepreneur, Poppy Scarlett, about how the super-streamer’s show can better hit the spot when it comes to sex
Saturday 6 August 2022 By Anastasiia Fedorova Top image by Rosie Lowery
How To Build A Sex Room is Netflix’s latest foray into the exploration of sexuality, albeit under the unlikely guise of an ‘interior design’ show. I use inverted commas because I’m not sure how many butt plugs, dildos or Shibari ropes usually feature in your average middle-class, American home makeover. Still, it’s a look, right?
The premise of the show is fairly simple: take a shamelessly enthusiastic and slightly irritating British designer (Melanie Rose), accessorise with a Mary Poppins bag of sex toys, and post out to 10 couples, one single woman and a polycule to transform spare rooms into ‘sex rooms’.
The result is everything from plush, fluffy textured boudoirs to what the show describes as a ‘rock-and-roll sex dungeon’. But beyond Rose’s obsession with a St. Andrew’s Cross and tantric furniture, the programme has some bigger and more ethical issues. Ruffling feathers among the online sex educator community, How To Build A Sex Room is being criticised for not handling the sensitive topic of sexuality with enough respect and caution.
Truth is, the mainstream film and TV industries are all too quick to jump on the ‘sex sells’ bandwagon, resulting in a product that is unrealistic, biased or even harmful; Netflix’s Bonding offers a terrible portrayal of BDSM, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sex, Love & Goop is just, well, boring.
To help unpack How To Build A Sex Room, we invited Poppy Scarlett, a London-based pleasure educator, and founder of sex boutique, Self & More, to share her views on the importance of sex education – and why throwing on a set of handcuffs may not be the best solution if we’re to build a future where genuine, safe pleasure is firmly hitting the right spot.
By H @rbbxx13
By Rio Carciero
What do you think of How To Build A Sex Room?
‘I have very mixed views on the show. I think it’s always great to see people talking about sex in an open way. And one of the things I think it does well is show lots of different couples and relationship styles. It has real people who are being very bold when talking about their sexual preferences on TV – and I think they deserve some applause for being so open. However, I think in some ways, the show ends up being a bit too tongue in cheek and very wink-wink, nudge-nudge; there are lots of puns – obviously the presenter is British on an American TV show, which adds to this.
‘But there are also bigger things. In one episode, a woman doesn’t know if she’s ever had an orgasm or not. That would have been a really great opportunity for the show to bring in a “sexpert” or a sex therapist, rather than an interior designer, who could talk about that issue in an open and educational way. There are a few missed opportunities like that, where they try to brush away the problem or fix it with more stuff and rooms full of toys.’
Do you feel like having an expert on sexuality would have added another level to the show?
‘It would have definitely given it more substance. Otherwise, it’s very much just, “here you go, use some handcuffs”. There was an opportunity there to be genuinely useful as well as just entertaining. Also, there are a few instances where couples have said that they’re not interested in BDSM or pain play, but then they’ve gone on to take them to dungeons and show them quite intense whipping and flogging scenes. That makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, especially as someone who is kinky and in the kink scene. It feels a little bit risky and irresponsible to be showing quite intense sexual practices, like whipping, without any context about the kind of safety and skill that goes into being able to do those things.’
By Charlotte Douleur
What’s the right balance between entertainment and education?
‘It’s not to say that entertainment programmes are bad, or that we shouldn’t be aiming to entertain. We absolutely should. But when the official sex education we have in this country is lacking, it’s a really nice opportunity to present sexuality in an informative way.
‘We’re seeing more and more that TV programmes and films that are starting to engage intimacy coordinators and people who are trained to help actors portray sexuality, intimacy and relationships in a way that’s realistic. We do have some good examples, like Sex Education, which explores a lot of awkward topics such as masturbation, protection, STIs, douching, all of these kinds of things that are perhaps glossed over a lot in other TV shows.’
Do you have any other examples of good representation?
‘The Bisexual, Fleabag – I enjoy more awkward, and at times, raw descriptions of sex where it’s not just all pretty and neat.’
How To Build A Sex Room is obviously rooted in a very commercial concept, essentially a business based on sexuality. Running a sex-related business yourself, how do you ensure that it’s ethical?
‘I think there’s no problem in making money from people’s sexuality, as long as you have their best interests in mind. As a sex-positive business, we have a responsibility to sell something that actually works, is manufactured responsibly, and to educate people around how to use that product responsibly. Again, on How To Build A Sex Room they speak about anal a lot, but they could have very easily said, “By the way, every time you put something in your bum, it has to have a flat base so it doesn’t get lost.” That’s something that I’m very conscious of doing on my website; making sure people know how to use the products safely.
‘In the end, anyone can buy a bunch of sex toys from anywhere and sell them to people without actually caring whether what they’re putting on or in their body is going to harm them or not. Anyone can make a quick profit. But what makes an ethical business is having someone’s genuine and safe pleasure in mind.’