When Shae Spence set out to write Sex, Worka new web series on YouTube that chronicles the personal and professional lives of a group of sex education workers in Chicagohis goal was to fill a gap.
"I felt that there was a sort of void in the entertainment market for stories that portrayed sex as sometimes not sexy [sometimes it's awkward or uncomfortable], but also I felt that even the shows that did really focus on those stories weren't particularly different, so I wanted to highlight things like exploring bisexuality, people of different colors, and women's issues as well."
The four-episode first season tackles lessons on self-pleasure, hooking up, sexuality and the morning-after pill. We see the twentysomething characters inside high school classrooms teaching students these lessons, and at the same time, we see them struggling with their own related issues outside of work. While there are many scenes in which the characters are teaching in the classroom, we never actually see the students. Instead, the camera views the teachers straight on, positioning the audience so we become the ones in the desks, ready to learn.
Spence, who wrote and directed the series and also acted in the role of Jesse, said he hopes his work speaks especially to queer youth. "I really feel that when I was coming up as queer, a lot of the portrayals of the gay experience were very specific," he said. "Very druggy and very sexy and I thought that was what the gay experience was and, if that's your experience, that's greatbut I really wanted diversity of experiences. I wanted queer youth to have diverse content to pull from."
Spence wanted different kinds of queer youth to have an opportunity to see themselves portrayed. "As a Black, gender non-conforming artist," he said, "I don't really see depictions of myself ever, and when I do I'm generally delegated to being a sidekick rather than a lead, so I wanted to create a show where people could see themselves on screen." Beyond that, Spence added he hopes the educational pieces of the episodes will be helpful tools for youth who are still trying to figure out things.
One major concept the show tackles, through the character Adam, is bisexuality. Adam moves between dating and hooking up with both men and women several times throughout the first season. According to Spence, the intention was to keep Adam's sexuality as far from straightforward as possible. "Even as society has become more liberal," he said, "We still have almost this binary when it comes to queerness and sexuality. You are either gay or you're straight [and] you're either trans or your cis, so I wanted to have at least one character who didn't fit perfectly into any category."
Spence made sure the season didn't end with any sort of answer or label given to Adam's sexuality. "One of my rules as a writer is there are no right answers," he said. "I wanted to portray an honest exploration of what bisexuality or pansexuality can look like. I have a lot of friends who are somewhere in between gay and straight, and I wanted to sort of kill this ideal that bisexuals are 50/50. … Adam is really just trying to figure it out and there is no clear ribbon tied at the end with where he ends up. ... To me, that was more importantto just feel true to life."
The character Jesse, played by Spence, arose from his desire to write a character he felt had never been written for someone like him before. He said he really enjoyed playing a role in which sexuality is not the hardest thing he has to deal with, despite the fact that the character is gay. For Jesse, that main obstacle is intimacy.
Spence may play Jesse, but the character he most identifies with is Banks, Jesse's boyfriend, a man Spence described as "an optimistic person who loves love."
Spence added he hopes he will have an opportunity to make a second season of Sex, Work in which he would further explore bisexuality, race, gender non-conformity and more. For now, though, his greatest wish is that audiences can identify with the four episodes he has already produced. He said, "When we set out to make this show, we really wanted to make something that felt very close to home to people and something that portrayed sex and sexuality in a way that made it feel less romanticized and more realand I hope that's what it does."