When I saw that Netflix was coming out with a show called “Sex Education,” I was immediately curious. What aspects of sexuality would they focus on? Would any of my friends and colleagues be on it? It turns out my expectations were entirely off the mark, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the show. In fact, it was mostly excellent. Warning, some spoilers ahead.
“Sex Education” is based in the U.K. (which made me giddy, because I love British accents) and focuses on the lives of a group of high school students. Otis, the protagonist played by Asa Butterfield, is 16 and lives with his mother, Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, a sex therapist who operates her practice out of their absurdly large house and, like most sex therapist portrayals in media, has horrifically bad boundaries which cause issues in her familial relationships. Otis’ best friend, Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, is an openly gay character who regularly feels out of his place within his religious family. Maeve, the school’s tempestuous outcast (played by Emma Mackey) witnesses Otis giving sex advice to a fellow student and decides that this could be a lucrative business opportunity.
Here are some themes in the show I noticed; some I liked, some frustrated me. Vaporizing Galactic Jack in my VapeXhale at the beginning of each episode made it that much more enjoyable.
Sexual Bullying Among Teens
The first episode opens on high school students Aimee and Adam having sex. Aimee is talking dirty and asks Adam if he’s going to cum. He proceeds to unconvincingly fake it. She demands to see the evidence in the condom, realizes what he did, becomes enraged and leaves. I found this symptomatic of a trend I see all the time — the pressure to orgasm (at all, plus the greater pressure to orgasm simultaneously), and it was somewhat surprising that the show’s creators decided to have a guy fake it, rather than feeding the stereotype that only women fake orgasms. There’s clearly a lot of pressure to appear “normal” with regard to sexuality, and this show highlights it brilliantly.
The next example came almost immediately; Otis deliberately sets out a porn magazine, wadded-up tissues and lotion to suggest that he’s been masturbating (apparently, he wants his mom to find them when she predictably snoops in his room, which it turns out she does with some frequency).
Slut-shaming is demonstrated as Maeve deals with painful taunts from her peers due to having rejected a boy’s kiss at a birthday party four years prior; he made up horrific rumors about her (that she “bit his cock”), which have only grown in absurdity and cruelty over time. She later reveals this piece of her origin story to Otis as she’s explaining why she wants to help one of the mean popular girls who is dealing with a revenge porn situation.
Sex and Cannabis
This one made me happy. Adam and Jean end up smoking a joint together in the first episode, and Jean tries to be the “cool mom” by remarking on the health benefits of cannabis. She quickly follows that information up with a warning that overconsumption can cause ejaculatory issues, however. She’s not wrong. I have to admit, as someone who speaks and writes extensively about sex and cannabis, it was validating to see a sex therapist smoking weed and talking about sexual side effects on a Netflix show. It would have been neat to hear more information on the various ways sex and cannabis can be combined(without smoking or getting high, per se), but I imagine that’s probably a bit outside the scope of the show.
Lack of Reliable Sexuality Knowledge for Teens
One of the reasons Otis’ knowledge is so in-demand is because the teens in his school have no reliable source of sexuality information. There’s an awkward “SRE: Sex and Relationships Education” lesson in one of their biology classes with a vulva anatomy diagram (which sadly lacked the internal clitoral structure), and there is a condom application exercise, but even that is limiting because it’s so heteronormative. Where’s the lesson on how to convert a condom into a dental dam? What about gloves for hand sex? What about making sure students know to use barriers for oral, because STIs can be transmitted to the throat, too? This could have been an awesome teachable moment for a captive audience.
In episode six, there’s a whole arc on revenge porn and an iconic “I am Spartacus” moment among all the women in the assembly hall; they all say “It’s my vagina” instead of “It’s my vulva,” however, which would have been more technically accurate. There’s another moment where Aimee admits to Otis that doesn’t know what she wants sexually, because no one ever asked her. She doesn’t masturbate because she “always has a boyfriend,” and Otis reminds her that masturbation is crucial. She masturbates for six hours and then asks for exactly what she wants. I dream of a world where people are empowered to seek genital self-awareness and practice masturbation as a form of sexual self-discovery.
Fixation on “Virginity” and Chastity Pledges
Oh my goodness — if we could just retire the whole “virgin” trope, that would be fantastic. I’ve been hearing about how much cis hetero guys hate being virgins since the “American Pie” franchise was popular. When will we as a society finally internalize that virginity is a social construct? It is not a biological fact about a person. Hymens are not a closed membrane of skin, they’re more like an inner tube or a donut (with a hole!) just inside the vaginal opening for most people with vulvas. They rupture for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with being sexually penetrated. Penises show absolutely no physical signs of where they are in their sexual debut timeline. Focusing on “penile penetration into a vagina” as the standard for “virginity” leaves out trans folx, queer folx, gender non-conforming folx, oral sex, anal sex, hand sex and masturbation. The concept of virginity has been used historically to devalue and commodify those who identify as women, shame those who identify as men and erase literally everyone else. It’s time to let that shit go.
All in all, I enjoyed and appreciated Netflix’s “Sex Education.” It raises some excellent points, provides fodder for discussion among friends and romantic partners and does a pretty comprehensive job of showing the struggles today’s teens are navigating.