There are many memories from high school that, despite my best efforts to forget, I have accepted I can’t get out of my brain. Despite receiving only one sex-ed class over my five years of secondary education, I can still vividly recall the awkward giggles echoing around our science classroom as my unqualified PE teacher attempted to prepare us for adult relationships. To this day, I’m still having flashbacks of a condom on a banana.
Watching (read: binging) the newest season of Sex Education on Netflix, I couldn’t help but consider the stark differences between this TV smash-hit and my own sex ed experiences.
Over eight episodes, the show covers asexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality, gay sex, masturbation and fetishes – all treated with beautiful clarity and honest truths. These issues are rarely dealt with on-screen, let alone real life, and I realised how much more educational my Friday night Netflix binges are than my schooling ever was.
If you’re reading this now feeling quite confident in your own sexual expertise, don’t fret – this show is not just about horny teenagers. There are several grown-up characters, all of whom you’d typically assume would have their life together, who struggle with their own problems this season, including lonely mum syndrome, a fracturing marriage and even a partner unable to perform dirty talk in the bedroom. Sex Education’s portrayal of a wide range of characters gives it a universal appeal, and importantly for adults, perfectly depicts the high school experience for today’s teens.
With so many new terms evolving to describe and define gender and sexual orientation, Sex Education makes sure to normalise these from the get-go. One of my favourite scenes is when a girl explains to sex educator Jean (portrayed by a feisty Gillian Anderson) that she is not attracted to anybody, and is concerned this means she’s ‘broken’. Jean delicately describes asexuality as a normal part of life where attraction and sexuality is a spectrum, one that many people still do not understand. Jean responds to her; “if sex doesn’t make you whole, how can you be broken?” An absolutely glorious line.
Beyond sex, Sex Education incorporates other real-life issues that many young people in the UK are facing. In recent years, there has been an outcry and even protests outside schools in Birmingham and Manchester that implemented an initiative to include LGBTQ+ topics in its sex education programme. The show includes many LGBTQ+ lead characters in its line up, and never shies from a moment to educate on anything from douching to dealing with homophobia.
While often side-splittingly hilarious, the show also uses its platform to highlight highly sensitive themes that I would never have imagined to be on TV when I was at school. One of this series’ most powerful storylines follows Amy, an unassuming teen at Moordale High, who is masturbated on by a stranger while on the bus to school – a sexual assault that Amy doesn’t quite realise the significance of until she begins to suffer from PTSD later on.
This storyline, while incredibly sad, is critically important – it is a clear statement to younger viewers on what sexual assault is, what is unacceptable and what shouldn’t be tolerated. With a viewership into the millions, it has never felt more timely to see these issues discussed so openly on our screens. Sex Education explores the experience of a sexual assault victim with care and consideration and highlights how common these assaults have become. In one bleak scene, a group of girls exchange stories on how many times they’ve been groped, flashed at or followed home.
The Crime Survey for England and Wales found that 20% of women have experienced some form of sexual assault from the age of 16 with 31% of young women aged 18-24 report having experienced sexual abuse in childhood. These statistics are frightening, and even more so when considering that last year it was reported that rape convictions are at a 10-year low.
What makes Sex Education so special is its ability to explore issues – from douching and masturbation to homophobia and sexual assault – in a uniquely, dare I say it, uplifting way. I remember the mood in my sex ed classes, full of shy giggling, rude comments and an unwillingness to participate or ask questions, and this TV show could not feel further from its real-life counterpart. The show’s storylines are vital for making teens feel more comfortable talking openly about sex, and the diverse cast only reaffirms that anyone, of any background, race, sexual orientation can struggle with finding and understanding their identity.
When I was at school, sex education wasn’t taken seriously, not by my classmates or by my teachers. No one believed that we deserved the right to know about sexual assault, LGBTQ+ issues, or even natural urges such as masturbation. It was disappointing then and it’s still disappointing now that a Netflix TV show is teaching people about these topics rather than our government or schools.
Judging by its overwhelming success both critically and with viewers, I’m confident that Sex Education will continue for seasons to come, with the third season already confirmed for release next year. But my real hope is that the success of such an open-minded show will encourage the same experiences in real life – be it conversations between teens, with their parents and as part of their secondary school education.
We can only hope that the next generation of high schoolers won’t have hazy flashbacks of bananas and condoms, but rather a true understanding of all sex, sexual orientations and gender identities, along with an awareness of sexual harassment, assault and abuse, how to know when behaviour is inappropriate and what they can do if it happens. Surely that’s better than a banana, right?
Issy’s article was submitted for publication on BRICKS online. Want to submit your own work? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org