Warning: Sex Education Season Four spoilers ahead.
Sex Education’s fourth and final season opens with a bang: a hot and heavy scene involving resident will-they-won’t they couple Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Otis (Asa Butterfield). There’s one caveat: the two sexual partners in question aren’t in the same room. Instead: the golden couple are embarking on an exchange of nudes, which is equal parts intense and awkward.
While Maeve’s offering comes fast and furiously (pardon the pun), Otis falters when faced with the task of taking and sending a nude. He’s berated by Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) for not replying to Maeve, therefore messing with sexting etiquette and “leaving her hanging.” This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the politics around sending nudes.
Taking nudes is an art. Here’s how to create a masterpiece.
By the end of the first episode, we discover that Otis feels uncomfortable in his body while sending nudes, so it makes him feel very anxious trying to take photos for a partner. Also, needless to say, his decision to not respond in a timely manner to Maeve leaves her feeling insecure.
Body image issues when sending nudes
The storyline expertly highlights the complexities that come with sending nudes to a partner, not least that it can force certain levels of intimacy and trust that you may not have considered before. It can also put you very closely in touch with your own body, whether that’s how much you love it or ways you might be struggling with your body image.
“Sending consensual nudes can potentially help you feel more embodied and connected emotionally with your body, leading to better body confidence,” sexologist Ness Cooper tells me.
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After a period of rejection and heartbreak last year, I found sending nudes incredibly freeing and empowering. There was something about looking a little closer at my body and finding ways to accept it as it is, during a time in my life when I was finding acceptance and self-love particularly difficult. Plus, the thrill that came from the partial risk and the dopamine hit that came from certain reactions was second to none.
“Sending consensual nudes can potentially help you feel more embodied and connected emotionally with your body, leading to better body confidence.”
Why was this, though? Cooper explains that the act of sending nudes “can also lead to greater awareness of your body’s contours, which can help you become more aware of which part of these areas you enjoy being stimulated during both solo and shared sexual experiences.” So, it can help you to better connect with yourself, if you feel comfortable going on that journey.
How to safely store your nudes
While sending nudes may come from a sexual impulse, it may also help to cultivate different kinds of day-to-day intimacy with a partner. “It may help normalise nudity within a relationship as nudity isn’t purely focused on being sexual,” Cooper suggests. “There are many couples who struggle with nudity around their partner when not having sex, and this sometimes can cause some couples to feel disconnected and awkward during everyday activities such as dressing.” That said, it’s certainly not a requirement to strip off in front of a partner, in front of or off camera – everyone has their own boundaries.
Emma Mackey as Maeve Wiley in Sex Education Season 4.
Credit: Thomas Wood/Netflix
Otis and Maeve’s mishap expertly brings to the fore how confronting sending nudes can be, should you choose to send them. It can force how we feel about our bodies, our selves, our sexuality, to the surface. And if we embrace that, it can be super empowering and exciting. But it can also be frightening.
Ness suggests that there’s a multitude of reasons why this is – some societal and some more personal, and they interlink. “There can be a focus on getting images just right before sending them, which can make some people seem less relatable and real to others,” she says.
“Plus, societal pressure around body standards can influence how some people feel around sending nudes. This can make some people struggle with anxiety around their body image if they find it hard to differentiate away from social scripts.”
“Are you sending them to share yourself intimately with your partner? To let them into this side of you? Are you sending them because it feels like an empowering decision for you?”
Ask yourself why you’re sending nudes
Sexologist and relationship coach Madalaine Munro recommends “setting an intention” and being “sure of your why” before sending nudes. “Are you sending them to share yourself intimately with your partner? To let them into this side of you? Are you sending them because it feels like an empowering decision for you?”
She states that ensuring you’re sending images through an empowered decision, not to seek validation from others, is key. Plus, the nature of receiving nudes can quickly create a pressure to perform. Otis receives a nude relatively out of nowhere, and feels overwhelmed and stressed by the pressure to reciprocate immediately. Having conversations to check in whether both parties are ready and in the mood for an exchange can go such a long way when it comes to comfort and empowerment.
When it comes to mitigating insecurities and empowering yourself, sending nudes with a foundation of mutual consent at the core of your practice is also essential. “Consent is a big contributing factor in feeling empowered when in a relationship, and making sure you navigate consent around sending nudes can make the experience better,” Cooper says.
It’s also helpful to communicate beforehand about certain boundaries, like how and where your nudes will be stored by the recipient, the speed of your partner’s reply times and preferred reactions to avoid any insecurity.
Munro recommends an “embodied practice” when it comes to reflecting on what exactly your boundaries are, which means taking note of your bodily responses when imagining these boundaries. “Does it feel like a yes, where perhaps you feel empowered, grounded and – while perhaps nervous – you feel a sense of calm? Or does it feel like a heightened sensation, perhaps a lot of butterflies, adrenaline, or nerves?” she asks.
“Does it feel like a yes, where perhaps you feel empowered, grounded and – while perhaps nervous – you feel a sense of calm? Or does it feel like a heightened sensation, perhaps a lot of butterflies, adrenaline, or nerves?”
Your answer to these questions can suggest if you’re excited or uncomfortable deep down at sending nudes, and whether you fully trust your partner in question. “It may indicate that it isn’t the right picture, boundaries, or person and that while there is what could feel like excitement it may also be your nervous system dysregulation and a ‘no.'” If your answer feels like the latter, like it’s too much, Munro suggests reflecting and amending your boundaries to find that embodied yes.
Of course, the safety element and risk of sending nudes cannot be ignored. We live in an age where the risk of so-called revenge porn — aka image-based sexual abuse — looms large in our minds. Research found that 1 in 7 women (and 1 in 9 men) between the age of 18 and 34 have experienced threats to share intimate images. Trust between you and your partner is paramount.
“I love a good nude, but trust is essential. And I’ve only ever sent them using the disappearing picture option on Instagram or WhatsApp,” Anna, 30, tells me. Of course, these pictures can be screenshotted without consent, she concedes, recounting that she “lost it” at an ex for doing so. No method is completely safe.
In the end, we see Otis confess to his peers, and eventually Maeve, that he feels uncomfortable sending nudes due to his own discomfort with his body. As a couple, they’re then able to find other ways of expressing their sexuality that suits both of them — they have phone sex. So whether or not you find sending nudes empowering or terrifying, the key to navigating these feelings is communication and finding what works for you.
Cooper suggests that communication can “allow couples to open up conversations around intimacy that are more connected and embodied, as it brings awareness that there’s more than just a body behind any images, but a human with feelings and emotions.”
When handled in a way that honours our physical and emotional vulnerabilities, sending nudes can be empowering and heighten intimacy with a partner or alternatively strengthen our relationship with ourselves.
Taking nudes as a form of self-appreciation
Whether or not you want to send nudes to a partner, taking them for yourself might lead you to feeling more attuned with your body and your needs.
“Sending nudes isn’t just about sharing your sexual wants and desires,” Cooper explains. “It can also help individuals see themselves as individuals and bring awareness to themselves [and their] physical form. This can lead to a greater mind-body connection and understanding of how your body supports you through day to-day-day life.”
Alice, 24, tells me that she sometimes takes nudes just for herself, to capture her body as it is when she’s feeling good. “They don’t even need to be sexy, it’s just me connecting with my body,” she adds.
There are all kinds of ways to make taking nudes work for you, if that’s what you choose. “It can be transformational to set up an intentional photo shoot [for yourself], with the setting and lighting you desire,” Munro suggests. “You may even want to do it with close friends, and so you can support each other to find angles that feel good.”
Whatever you feel comfortable with, it can only be positive that a nudes storyline on Sex Education encourages us to reflect on how sending them can empower us, and our relationship with our body, while highlighting the complexities that come with these dynamics and the intimacy that can be built.
And as Cooper says, taking nudes for others or yourself can be an amazing way to broaden your sexual horizons, by “exploring a more all-over and holistic approach to sex than just penetrative sex.”
Sex & Relationships