The funny, sex-positive Netflix drama is one of the first great new TV shows of 2019.
At first glance, Netflix’s new television series Sex Education is a bizarre, uncanny-valley kind of watch.
Where is it set? Sweeping footage of Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his single mum Jean (Gillian Anderson) in their cabin perched on the edge of a forest makes it look like the Pacific Northwest, but the accents are pure English and the series was filmed in Wales.
What era are we in? The clothes – like the felt football jacket worn by head boy Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) – are straight from an Eighties John Hughes movie, but the teenagers all carry iPhones. They watch Nineties Julia Roberts romantic comedies but they read Roxane Gay. They’re getting their lunch money stolen and hiding out in unused toilet blocks, but they’re also worried about leaked sexts and a high school hierarchy fuelled by social media.
It’s a series deliberately out of place and out of time that, if it weren’t for the ever-present smartphones and the overwhelmingly sex positive tone, could be the story of anyone, anywhere. Which is what makes it work. Sex Education is the tale of teenagers learning about their bodies and themselves through sex, which is to say, it’s the story of us all.
The series is told mostly through the eyes of Otis, a 16-year-old virgin whose severe performance anxiety has arisen in large part because of his hangups about having Jean, a successful sex therapist, as a mother.
Jean spends most of the show have a series of thrilling and empowering casual sex encounters – which is, in a word, a mood – and in this respect she and Otis couldn’t be more different. But Otis has managed to learn from his mother the quality that makes a good therapist: the ability to listen without judgment.
It’s this quality that draws him to Maeve (breakout star Emma Mackey, who has shades of the fierceness of Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street). After she observes Otis dispensing advice to a fellow student about Viagra, Maeve encourages him to set up a sex therapy clinic for teens – taking a cut of the cash profits along the way.
Otis’ queer best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) initially comes along for the ride, helping the pair solve everything from a girl whose fear of her boyfriend seeing her naked is impeding their sex life to a lesbian couple who can’t seem to find sexual connection, no matter how much scissoring they try. There are also discussions of vaginismus, sexting, blow jobs, casual sex and virginity as a social construct, all wrapped into the wider narrative of teenagers just desperately trying to make it out of high school in one piece.
Otis’ sex clinic is the McGuffin of the series, a way of getting a diverse group of students – a jock with mixed-race lesbian mums, a queer Asian woman, a gay high school hunk who also happens to be a person of colour – talking openly about sex in one place.
It’s those conversations, and the effortless, unfussy diversity of the students who have them, that makes Sex Education so special.
Pop culture about teenagers – hell, pop culture period – is rarely this sex positive. When can you remember a show that features a powerful (and empowering) abortion storyline, or the character arc of a gay son of immigrants learning how to express his sexuality, or a teenage boy faking orgasms, or a girl who finds intercourse painful but wants more than anything to overcome this hurdle and have a healthy, satisfying sex life? Each different subject put forth on screen by the show’s British-Australian creator Laurie Nunn is treated with warmth and wit.
These frank discussions are particularly remarkable when you consider the dire status quo of sex education in British schools. According to a recent study by the Sex Education forum, more than a quarter of 16 and 17-year-olds surveyed said that their classes did not discuss pornography and a third revealed that they were not taught about sexual pleasure at all.
Also missing were lessons on how to identify an abusive relationship and how to deal with revenge porn or sexts being leaked. Classes rarely gave focus to questions of consent, female pleasure or masturbation. In one lesson a female student, upon discovering that her male classmates had received pamphlets on masturbation and she had not, asked her teacher where the information geared to women was. The teacher replied: “Girls don’t do that, that’s disgusting.”
Although a new compulsory sex education curriculum incorporating a wider range of topics has been greenlit, it won’t be implemented in British schools until 2020. But that could be a good thing, activists say, considering that there are only a few mentions of menstruation and just one of pornography in the entire course, which they call “squeamish about sex and sexuality.”
Not so Sex Education. It’s OK to have sex, this series says, but it’s also OK not to have sex. It’s OK to want it, and it’s okay not to understand it. Sex can be funny, messy, terrible, fantastic, and many more things in between that you need to figure out mostly on your own. What Sex Education does is show how important that journey of learning is, especially for young women.
Yes, there are enough male “nocturnal emissions” – as Jean puts it – in Sex Education to fuel the plots of three more American Pie movies. But the series isn’t a gross-out, horny comedy just for the boys.
Instead, the female characters in the show are on their own paths of self-discovery. We see Lily (Tanya Reynolds) coming to terms with the scope of her desires, and Olivia (Simone Ashley) renouncing the patriarchy and putting her own pleasure first. We cheer as Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) learns when to call time on a bad relationship, and Maeve discovers how to be truly vulnerable with a partner and open herself up to the possibility of something built on the foundation of more than many – admittedly wonderful – orgasms.
In Sex Education, the kids are more than alright. They’re thriving – and it’s a joy to behold.
Sex Education is streaming on Netflix now.