Sex Education: The Show We Didn't Ask For But Needed the Most

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Netflix’s Sex Education debuted on January 11th, 2019. In its opening trailer, we get exactly what it wants to present to you. We have a mother and a son, sitting on a couch. Innocent enough. Then, unexpectedly, we get the first line: “I’ve noticed you’re pretending to masturbate, and I was wondering if you wanted to talk about it.”

Sex Education is a show about a loner and a social outcast who come together to offer sex therapy to their high school classmates. It is unapologetically frank about the things we wonder deep inside. It shows us the sexy side of sex (as seen in the many, many, sex scenes) as well as the embarrassing and scary side of it too. It gives exactly what the title entails: sex education to its very core; the kind we wished we had in grade school but unfortunately never got. While it is true that the show oftentimes gets caught up in teenage rom-com stereotypes (of course the star athlete falls in love with the social reject), it offers something much bigger to the table: a real conversation about sex. Here are some ways it does just that.

It doesn’t just talk about the birds and the bees; it showcases the problems that may come with it

Sex Education shows the things we don’t disclose to our friends about our ‘amazing’ hookup. In the very first scene, we witness seemingly steamy sex between Adam (Connor Swindells) and Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood). Things seem to be going great. Aimee is acting very performative (to a cringy extent) and Adam, well...can’t seem to get there. In fact, it gets so bad that he has to fake getting there, which Aimee notices. Adam becomes so distraught over not being able to stay erect or finish that he ends up taking Viagra, a drug for erectile dysfunction, that leaves him with a painful boner in a bathroom.

The show also discusses Lily’s (Tanya Reynolds) insistent need to lose her virginity just because everyone else is, and finds she cannot do so because of vaginismus (which means the vagina contracts during sex, making it extremely painful). These two examples do have a comedic effect in the way they play out, but they also show the normality in these things, especially for teenagers. Sex Education shows that having sex is less likely, or probably never will be, like what you see on TV shows and movies (ironically). It might be messy, awkward, embarrassing or painful, and these things should not make one feel less than or alone by any means.

The way it treats sexual trauma

This is a very, very real thing, and is something the main character Otis (Asa Butterfield) experiences. Despite his ability to therapeutically guide his classmates through their sexual problems, he fails in combating his own. Throughout the show, we see him trying to stage a masturbation session just to either please his mom or make himself feel more normal. He tries to get over his fears by actually masturbating, which often leads to a panic attack. And when he finally decides to have sex, he has a (rather serious) anxiety attack that leaves him paralyzed. Sexual trauma is usually something that isn’t ever really discussed, especially regarding teenagers. This is why I am very glad Sex Education made this a forefront in the show because it shows people who do suffer from sexual trauma that they are not alone, they are not weird, and there are healthy ways to cope with it.

There is an episode about abortion

Yes, there is an abortion episode. It comes after social outcast Maeve (Emma Mackey) finds out she’s pregnant by the star athlete Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling). This may seem cliché at first. Trust me, I thought so too. There are scenes where Maeve looks longingly at Jackson from across the hall, all sad and sulky over her situation. However, instead of telling him, she has sex with him one last time before making an appointment to go to the clinic, which both shocked me and made sense to me at the same time.

She became less of a stereotype and more bitterly human as the episode went on. She braves pro-life protesters at the clinic doors when she goes in. She asks Otis to pick her up from the clinic since she has nobody in her life to do so. And right before the procedure, she has a very sweet, chilling moment with two other women in the waiting room as they prepare. At first, I was ready to get a bit uncomfortable as the episode rolled. But as it progressed it became so painstakingly real to the point where it drew tears out of my eyes. As someone who has never experienced an abortion, the episode’s lack of sugarcoating shows exactly how difficult and traumatizing that decision is to make, especially for someone as young as Maeve. And quite frankly, it is something I am unable to forget. However, if this is an extremely sensitive topic for anyone reading this, I suggest skipping episode 3.

Eric’s entire character arc

Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is by far one of my favourite characters in Sex Education, mostly because of how far and how well he grows. Eric is Otis’s best friend. At first, I was a bit upset that Sex Education chose to go a stereotypical route: loner guy and his gay best friend. Oh, wait. Black gay best friend. However, as the show progresses, Eric’s whole story goes a whole lot deeper, arguably deeper than Otis’s story (yeah, I said it). Although Eric is openly gay at school, he does seem to shelter himself a bit in his home life. In one scene, we see him putting on makeup, but then quickly removes it when his father comes to see him. In his closet are lines and lines of women’s clothing. His father, who perhaps only smiled twice (at most) during the whole season seems to be homophobic at first. “Don’t let your mother see you like this,” he often says, then abruptly leaves his son who is obviously happier just being himself. However, as the show progresses, we learn that his father isn’t homophobic at all. He is just scared.

As a black man, especially a black man in England, Eric’s father tells him how difficult it was for him to fit in, and all he wants is for his son to have an easier time than he did. With this information, it’s easy to understand why he has a hard time accepting that his son may like to wear makeup once in a while or paint his nails. Eric at first does not understand this until he gets assaulted while dressed in drag out in public (perhaps one of the most heartbreaking episodes I’ve watched in a long time). Because of this, he completely shuts off, and only embraces his true self when he comes back to religion. He faces off with his bully, gains confidence in wearing makeup and traditionally female clothing at school, and tells his dad that they must be strong together.

At the beginning of the show, Eric’s only character trait was that he was Otis’s best friend. But when he is left out of Otis’s sex therapy operation, he is left to his own devices to find out who he is without Otis. I believe this was one of the smartest decisions Sex Education made, and their representation of gender-queerness and fluidity was better than most.

There is so, so much more that I could talk about when it comes to Sex Education, but that might make this a thirteen-page article. All in all, I think Sex Education is an honest, raw, awkwardly real show about teens and their experiences with sex and sexuality, and as someone who lives in a society where sex education is at serious risk, I couldn’t thank Netflix enough for their timing. You can still catch Sex Education on Netflix.

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