"Sex Education" for All

Like many sleep-deprived college students returning to home for Spring Break, I crawled into my bed delirious for sleep. This time, not with my stuffed animal from elementary school or pillow pet from middle school, but instead my...laptop. I binged watch three TV series over break: “You,” “Baby,” and “Sex Education.” All were equally binge-worthy and all satisfied my need to lay in bed, immersed in a fictional world I wish (or didn’t wish for that matter) I lived in. Of the three, the Bridish comedy “Sex Education” produced by Netflix and created by Laurie Nunn, stood out not for its educational purposes -- yes, I a nineteen-year-old girl, learned some new facts about love and sex -- but for the show’s mission to relate to all identities in a real way. The writing was superb, not just for the jokes, but for its realness. Sex is a scary thing, but “Sex Education” demystifies this societal misconception.

The show follows high school student Otis Milburn (played by Asa Butterfield) and his best friend Eric Effoing (played by Ncuti Gatwa) during their sophomore year of high school. I remember that year well and despite my quarrels with this year, Otis’s sophomore definitely tops mine. His mother, Jean Milburn (played by Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist which essentially means their home is filled with phallic symbols -- both literal in penis statues and metaphorical in abstract paintings. Traumatized by his mother’s career and the divorce of his parents, Otis fears sex. A virgin high school male, he fears masturbating and ritually sets up a scene in his room in attempt to fool his mother the opposite -- but she sees right through him as a true therapist would. Eric, a stereotypical flamboyant gay male brings vibrancy and humor to the show that the audience misses after he is beat up for dressing in drag. They enter sophomore year hoping for what most adolescent teens crave: sex. And boy do they get it, but not in the way you may think.

Enter: Maeve Wiley (played by Emma Mackey). Rumored to have slept with various boys over the summer and sucking insert that four letter word we are all thinking on multiple occasions with no strings attached, Maeve spends her time smoking pot in a rundown bathroom on their high school’s campus, paying rent bills for her trailhouse as both her parents are MIA, and writing transcendentalist, feminist essays on As You Like It by William Shakespeare. Suddenly, Maeve and Otis find themselves teaming up to open a sex therapy business at school: Maeve deals with the appointments and money, while Otis deals out advice for students and couples regarding their problems with love and sex. As Otis tackles problems ranging from puking while giving a blowjob, body image, and a girl who just wants to lose her virginity, he begins to have feelings for Maeve. However, her relationship with star swimmer Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling) grows from a hook-up situation into a serious month-long relationship.

While the show focuses on Otis and his ironic new hobby of the school’s therapist -- given his quarrels with his mother’s profession -- the show touches upon the LGBTQIA community, racism, intersectionality, abortion, and family relationships. “Sex Education” is not a show just about heterosexual relationships, but instead also includes homosexual relationships and complex storylines to breakdown sexual norms in society. In this way, the show itself is subconsciously a form of therapy for the viewer. Otis speaks with Ruthie (played by Lily Newmark) and Tanya (played by Alice Hewkin) who have been friends for years, but have recently become a couple after both girls came out a few years apart from one another. This is Tanya’s first lesbian relationship, so she is new to having intercorse with a female. Otis tries various methods to improve the sexual enjoyment of the new women -- upon reflection a bit problematic as why would a man really be able to provide helpful literature on how to have female sex? Nonetheless, Otis is finally able to help the girls when Ruthie reveals that she began dating Tanya after she came out because she thought since they had been friends for so long they would make sense together in a romantic relationship, however such was not the case. In other TV shows, this stereotypical case of man and woman being friends and then dating only to realize they are better as friends is continuously placed onto a heterosexual relationship; however, “Sex Education” defies this norm by applying this trope to a lesbian couple.

Otis’s friend Eric becomes the main spokesman for the LGBTQIA community, as well as, the grander theme of intersectionality. As a black gay male, Eric is compounded with the prejudices against him and his identity, but he does not let this stop him from dressing in the clothes he wants too -- vibrant button up shirts and joggers I would also like to add to my wardrobe -- and displaying his crush on the only other gay (Indian) male in the school. For his birthday, Otis buys tickets for Eric and him to attend a drag show. Both boys dress up in drag in preparation for the show; however, Otis choses Maeve and their “business” over Eric, leaving him stranded at a bus station where he loses his phone and jacket. Eric is then forced to walk home alone at night and is jumped by grown men who kick and punch him for dressing up as a woman. This traumatic scene leaves Eric in a state of depression and causes him to leave his vibrant personality in the closet, opting instead for ripped jeans and a dark green sweatshirt. His sisters and mothers remark that he looks “normal.” My opinion? Normal is overrated. Eventually, Eric finds his true identity once again and embraces his queerness more than ever before, landing him on the floor with an unlikely partner (whom I will not reveal as it is honestly the best moment in the show and I want to save that for you) during detention. Eric is another example of why the best friend in every show or movie is always the best character.

Another moving moment in the show is when Otis comes to pick up Maeve at the clinic after her abortion. As much as I am rooting for the two together -- which *spoiler alert* doesn’t happen at the end of this season -- I love their friendship. When Maeve finds out that she is pregnant (after having sex with Jackson, who she does not tell about the pregnancy), she schedules an appointment for an abortion. At the clinic she is informed that she must have someone there to pick her up after the operation; stranded without parents or any real friends, she asks Otis if he may pick her up somewhere at 6:30 PM. She will send him the address. Thinking its a date, Otis dresses up in a suit and tie to the address Maeve gives him: an abortion clinic. He doesn’t lose face. He deals with the pro-life protesters outside the clinic, even helping them with their dysfunctional relationship, buys Maeve flowers, and promises not to tell anyone about the abortion. Otis puts on a brave face for Maeve; which is not to say that Maeve doesn’t do the same. She is only 16-years-old and alone in the clinic as she goes under for the operation. Being abandoned by her parents and older brother throughout her life, Maeve does not expect Otis to be there after the operation is done, but there is: waiting for his friend.

While “Sex Education” is very much about romantic relationships between teenagers, there is also a focus on family relationships. Of course their is Otis and his mom, but more interesting is Jackson and his two moms. As a competitive swimmer, Jackson wakes up every morning at 5:30 AM to go on runs with his mom, drinks protein smoothies for breakfast, and trains constantly all the while dealing with severe anxiety and panic attacks which he has been taking medicine for since he was 12-years-old. The weight of the school’s reputation and his athletic and academic future rests on his (toned) shoulders each time he jumps off the diving board into the swimming pool. The stress mounts to a peak towards the end of the series when he finally lets loose and gets drunk at the school dance, not arriving home in time for his curfew. He and his parents break into an argument in which Jackson declares that swimming is their dream, not his own. Although this is a typical child-parent dynamic, especially with helicopter parents, “Sex Education” again places this stereotype on a cross-racial lesbian couple and their son who suffers from anxiety. Another important parental relationship is between the Headmaster (played by Alistair Petrie) and his son, Adam Groff (played by Connor Swindells). Adam is not the brightest nor smartest student in his grade, in fact he pays Maeve to write his English essay which ironically wins a prestigious award (Otis ends up stealing this award from the Headmaster’s office which yet again demonstrates their strong friendship). The Headmaster, a white, veteran, married to a stay-at-home mom, believes in normalcy and the status quo, is depicted as the villain of the show. Although Adam acts out, ruthlessly bullies Eric (although it eventually becomes clear why...pulling that old school heterosexual move where the boy picks on the girl because he likes her), and is constantly in detention, one cannot, but help feel sympathetic for him given the strict and stifling environment he must go home to at the end of each day. Environment really does make the person. The show ends with Adam being sent off to a military boarding school. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say this: I unfortunately do not think Adam’s dad would support his son’s true identity, but maybe he will surprise us. The Headmaster becomes a symbol for a generation which suppressed non-heterosexual and white identities in society, but I hope that he, along with others, will come to realize that we, gay, straight, bisexual, caucasian, African American, male, female, are all in need in some sex education at some point in our life. Some more than others. The Headmaster being at the top of the list. Fortunately for us, there will be a season 2 of “Sex Education” coming* our way in the future.

*Did you get the pun?