When my son was in middle school, his school sent home a permission slip about The Sex Talk. Instead of just teaching sexual information as a normal part of their health class, the school had to make it into an event. Not that I blame them. This is Texas. Each parent had to sign off on whether their child could attend the presentation. I seriously considered saying no, not because I don’t believe in good sex education, but because I do. The proposed program was mostly fear-based, showing kids the horrors of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and, of course, heavily promoting abstinence. It was in no way comprehensive or even very helpful. If only the kids could have watched the Netflix series Sex Education instead. Then they might’ve come away with some real knowledge.
I didn’t initially want to watch the series. I mistakenly thought it was an American show (it’s British) and would follow in the usual tradition of male-centered desire and raunchy situations entirely devoid of emotion or substance. That’s generally what we get in the USA where we’re obsessed with sex while simultaneously being afraid of it. Thankfully, a colleague recommended it, telling me that it was mostly about kids figuring out sex. She was right but the show is about a lot more than that. Sex Education follows Otis, the 16 year old son of sex therapist parents, who discovers that he too is good at giving sex advice to his peers. While Otis is ostensibly the star (and Asa Butterfield is amazing), the show is really about relationships and acceptance.
The show had to be British in order to be as awesome as it is. For one thing, they’re not afraid to show sexuality in all its forms. That’s not true of mainstream American shows in which teenagers have sex. They tend to shy away from certain aspects, like communication about sexual pleasure, abortion, and sexual dysfunction to name just a few. We have a problem dealing with adolescent sexuality. Sex Education doesn’t and it takes these topics head on. For example, they centered an entire episode around abortion. While American shows would’ve turned it into a deep moral dilemma, Sex Education presented it as being a part of women’s reproductive health. Any controversy around the procedure was presented with humor. I cannot tell you how refreshing and helpful that was!
On American shows, other parts of normal sexuality — birth control for example — are either avoided (there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about safe sex on The CW’s Riverdale) or turned into Big Deals. This is ridiculous, of course, because that’s not how most teenagers make decisions about sex. They’re way more impulsive than that. And since only about half of American adolescents ( 57% of girls and 43% of boys) received formal instruction about contraception before they first had sex, this refusal to provide realistic depictions about birth control on teen shows is actually harmful. Thankfully, that’s not how Sex Education rolls.
The teenagers on that show are all of differing sexual orientations, races, body sizes and beauty (when was the last time a Hollywood show about teens cast actors who actually looked like them?) and easily interact with each other. There isn’t an oh-look! emphasis on all kinds of diversity; it’s just there. Sexual activity and body parts are talked about casually. It’s not only normal that young people want to and do have sex, it’s almost expected. Masturbation is presented as necessary and birth control is front and center. Contrast that with American depictions of teen sex in which sexual activity is hidden, almost shameful, and girls in particular get punished for having sex, much less wanting it.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Americans in general have a weird connection to sex and that weirdness spills over into how we teach — or more likely don’t teach — our children about relationships. There’s a pointless “if we don’t talk about it, they won’t do it” societal attitude towards teenage sexuality. Common sense and a basic knowledge of hormones debunk that idea but still we persist. It’s no accident that only 24 states mandate sex education in public schools. And whenever sex education does cover more than just abstinence, it’s usually an organ recital (the basic heterosexual how-to) and general information about safe sex practices. We don’t discuss much beyond that.
Sex Education has no such hang-ups and gleefully gets into the dirty details. Otis helps his fellow students conquer their fears about pubic hair, excessive masturbation, whether they’re good at sex, disgust at certain sexual activities, and performance anxiety. Otis even talks about consent with a fellow student, emphasizing that it’s mutual feelings and not grand romantic gestures that truly matter. Otis points out that, regardless of how much a certain partner is desired, no means no. That’s definitely information more teenagers, especially boys, need to hear.
But Sex Education doesn’t cover just sex. It goes even further when it gets to the heart of the matter. While some of the sex in the show may be casual, the feelings are anything but. Without being preachy, we see the sting that lack of acceptance brings, whether it’s from desperately trying to fit in, being different or just misunderstood. Even the popular kids and the bully are presented sympathetically while not getting passes for their poor behavior.
And it’s not just the kids. The show makes a point of revealing just how much parents factor into how their children view sex and relationships. Here again, the show goes deeper by presenting parents as people also trying to figure out. They’re not villains or idiots, they’re people struggling with how to parent their teenage children in a world where sexuality is complicated, confusing, scary and joyful. In other words, it seems real.
They get the therapy part of the show right too. Although a teenager dispensing sex advice isn’t based in reality, Sex Education understands that relationships are the very foundation of good therapy. Otis first attempts to do his “clinic” work without seeing his clients face to face (because, you know, embarrassing) or getting to know them but he quickly realizes that won’t work. In order to help people, he has to understand their perspective and that means knowing more about their lives. This revelation — that therapy works best when it’s about building relationships — parallels the discovery that good sex is also about the relationship between partners.
Unlike other lesser shows, this one stresses that sex is not this thing that’s divorced from who we are or how we feel. Whether or not we have good sex is almost totally dependent on the biggest sex organ of them all: the brain. They underscore how the merging of body parts isn’t enough for a true connection; thoughts and feelings matter too. One of my favorite moments was when one an odd young woman, someone who typically would be considered an outcast, was told that she’s sexy. She replies confidently, “I know.” It’s funny because she definitely didn’t look sexy in the moment but she thought she was and good for her! We all should consider ourselves the way she did, as a sexual being.
I could go on all day about other awesome aspects of the show — its humor, excellent soundtrack, a true valuing of friendship, wonderful acting, the matter of fact depiction of awkward situations — but you get the point. Sex Education stands out for its’ realistic look at relationships and sexuality. For many Americans in particular, the show will provide more knowledge about sex in only eight episodes than most sex education classes or presentations ever will. As such, Sex Education really should be required viewing.
Originally published at http://www.thepsychologicalhook.com on October 21, 2019.