As a sex educator, I dread onscreen depictions of teen sexuality. Too often, they provide us with implausible situations, bounce between raunchy humor and melodrama, and rely on stereotypes and dialogue that is clearly written by adults.
In the usual depictions of television adolescence, teens are lithe and horny. They own remarkable collections of lingerie and engage in soft-lit, well-choreographed sex scenes. Of course, they’re also irresponsible and suffer post-sex consequences such as a bad reputation, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or pregnancy.
Netflix’s new series Sex Education premiered this week, and it avoids most of these tropes—at least in its first three episodes—and gives us complicated, relatable characters who have genuine concerns about sex.
Everyone at Moordale Secondary, a proper British upper school that’s the setting for Sex Education, is either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or shagging right now.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But as Maeve (Emma Mackey), one of our main characters, points out while explaining her scheme to provide classmates with sex therapy for a price, all this teen sex comes with a lot of angst. There’s the young woman in her first lesbian relationship who is terrified of her girlfriend’s vagina; the girl who thinks masturbation may make her clitoris fall off but does it every day anyhow; and the boy who seems to be at the center of an outbreak of pubic lice.
School-based sex education—which seems limited to condom demonstrations and fill-in-the-blank pictures of reproductive anatomy—is failing them. But Maeve believes that Otis (Asa Butterfield), the son of two sex therapists who shows a knack for the family business, can save them all. And, thus, the plot of this funny, poignant, and, yes, very explicit eight-part series is set in motion.
Stop here if you don’t want spoilers.
Teen Sex as Identity Crisis—But Not How You Think
The students at Moordale seem more like real people than those screen teens of the past who had sex with pies or made pacts to lose their virginity by prom night. Many have rich inner thoughts and fears that are slowly revealed.
The first episode centers around Adam (Connor Swindells), a less-than-average student who bullies other pupils for their money and also happens to be the headmaster’s son. An early scene shows Adam having vigorous sex with his girlfriend, Aimee. She seems to be enjoying herself, but he looks bored. When Aimee climaxes before him, Adam unconvincingly fakes an orgasm, but she isn’t buying it and checks the condom for proof.
I was half-expecting to find out that he’s gay. But the truth is something we haven’t heard before. Adam has a well-deserved reputation for having a huge penis—and internal pressure to be really good at sex. That worry adds to his overall identity crisis as the underachieving son of the man in charge and his feeling that he doesn’t fit in at Moordale or anywhere.
We learn all of this during an impromptu therapy session that starts when Otis and Maeve find him moaning in pain in a decommissioned bathroom. Adam has taken three Viagra and now has an agonizing, embarrassing erection. Otis, who has his own issues with sex but knows more than many of his peers due to his mother, finds himself remarkably good at talking Adam down (literally, I suppose) by encouraging him to own his identity, big penis, headmaster father, and all.
I will say that what Adam does with this advice—climbing onto a table in the cafeteria and exposing himself proudly to his classmates—is the only cringe-worthy and thoroughly implausible scene in the episodes I watched.
Nonetheless, through helping Adam, the sex therapy scheme is born.
They All Think They’re Doing It Wrong
Otis’ first formal sex therapy client is a popular girl who threw up all over her boyfriend’s penis during a blow job and now gags every time she tries to go down.
The conversation goes poorly when Otis tries too hard to sound like an adult professional.
He finds his own voice, however, during a party when he encounters Katie hiding in an upstairs bathtub with a bottle of booze. She is in a neck brace after a disastrous attempt to have sex with her boyfriend ended with them both falling out of bed. She tells Otis that she was trying to turn the lights off because she didn’t want her boyfriend to see her naked: “I’m disgusting.” When the boyfriend arrives in the bathroom, arm in a sling, Otis points out that they aren’t listening to each other and rightly identifies Katie’s low self-esteem as the core of their problem, “If you don’t like yourself, how can you believe that Sam does?” Cue the kissing.
Word of his therapy prowess spreads, and random classmates begin sharing their secrets and asking for advice. There is the guy who worries because he thinks of the Queen every time he orgasms and the out gay man who reluctantly admits that he’s squeamish about “bum-holes.” These questions are both comical and entirely believable. Every sex educator knows that 98 percent of questions boil down to “Am I normal?”
Otis knows about not feeling normal. He is struggling with the fact that he can’t masturbate. He knows he should and goes as far as to pretend he has by leaving porno magazines and used tissues on his bed for his mom to find. He just can’t bring himself to touch himself, and he’s horrified when he has a wet dream about Maeve. But he does not want to discuss it with his mother.
Abortion Is Part of Teens’ Lives
Sex Education teetered on the edge of cliché territory when Maeve, who has been labeled a slag (the British equivalent of a slut) and lives alone in a trailer park, throws up in the kitchen sink. She’s gotten pregnant from her experience in the backseat of a car with Jackson, a champion swimmer.
Teen pregnancy is a reality of life, but it seems like an inevitability in television and movies. And I hate that it happened to the “bad” girl.
Even worse, when Maeve goes to the clinic to schedule an abortion, she suggests the condom broke and the nurse agrees that they are not always effective. Condoms rarely break and, when they do, it’s often because people used them wrong.
But the writers pull this storyline back from the edge of the morality-tale cliff by treating Maeve’s abortion with sensitivity. She’s alone and she’s scared, though she doesn’t want to admit it. The clinic staff is nice to her. And she meets a loud older woman who is having a second (or possibly third) abortion and tells Maeve it will be OK. She says: “I have three kids, and I feel way more guilty about the ones that I had than the ones I chose not to.”
Even the protestors outside the clinic—a teenage couple—are portrayed as complicated people rather than caricatures. In fact, the girl explains all of the sex that she has had—including fingering and oral sex—but says she firmly believes that intercourse has to be saved for the wedding night. She tells Otis that she’s angry at her boyfriend because he’s had intercourse with other women before he was born again. Otis helps her realize that you can’t change the past, but you can change your perception of it—which seems like good general life advice.
Most importantly, though, Maeve decided on abortion right away and actually went through with it. Too often, television characters drag out their decisions, won’t consider abortion, or schedule the appointment only to have second thoughts or a conveniently timed miscarriage, so the show doesn’t have to appear in favor of abortion rights. I applaud Sex Education for, at least, seeing this storyline through.
If Only They Had Some Adults …
Unfortunately, Sex Education does fall back on the ultimate teen drama trope of them all: There seem to be no decent adults. Maeve’s mom is in jail. Adam’s headmaster-father wishes his son were anybody else. Jackson’s mom doesn’t even congratulate him for swimming his personal best before warning him that he’ll have to do better to make it to the next round.
The adult with the most screen-time is Otis’s sex therapist mom Jean, played by X-Files alum Gillian Anderson, sporting white hair and a British accent. Her house is filled with sex-related art, her home office comes complete with a file cabinet of dildos, and she hosts vagina workshops. She also sleeps with a new guy every night, spies on her son in an intrusive manner, and shares details of his sex life with her clients. While sex therapists can be just as flawed as anyone else, she’s portrayed as someone with no boundaries and no interests outside of sex.
A teen sex therapist makes for an excellent premise for a television show, and Otis improves at doling out advice; he even tries again with the gagging girl and asks her why she feels she “has” to give her boyfriend blow jobs.
If this were reality, however, I’d have to point out the obvious: Otis isn’t a professional. He and his friends would be better served if Moordale hired a well-trained sex educator to share information and help them think critically. They’d also be better off if the adults in their lives stepped up. Of course, that would be far less fun to watch.