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Back To School: Sex (Re)Education

CW: sexual assault.

The long-awaited third season of the hit Netflix series Sex Education arrived on our screens in September. And, just like before, it opens with another sexual montage: something viewers of the show are well-versed in by now. It’s in the name. But the sex is not all ‘for show’, so to speak. It tells so much more about teenage worries, desire and relationships, both sexual and platonic. The well-established mix of humour and honesty that Sex Education brings to these themes is a refreshing approach, and enables an exploration of a huge variety of sensitive issues regarding sexuality, as well as more light-hearted everyday adolescent dramas.

As it says in the name, Sex Education provides an actual education. Or perhaps, more suitably, a re-education from the less than adequate sex ed classes we had in school and the societal expectations that haunt us. Indeed, so many issues that are pervasive and normalised in society are discussed and broken down. Basically, we just need a teacher like sex therapist Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson).

The series is direct in its address of the problems with school provision of sex education, from Jean taking it upon herself to provide advice in season two, to the students fighting back against the seeming promotion of abstinence by the new headteacher, Hope (Jemima Kirke), in season three. The series manages to be educational on a whole number of matters, whilst avoiding forcing it down the audiences’ throats. It reveals just how much the school sex education system, and, more generally, societal expectations of and views on sex, need to change. In order to create an equitable space for everyone, all must feel comfortable and confident in themselves and their bodies.

Let’s just say it. Masturbation. Especially for women, this is a topic often avoided, viewed as something dirty. I remember being in school and girls saying, “urgh, no, I would never do that”. As Otis (Asa Butterfield) points out to Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), “women do tend to feel more shame surrounding masturbation than men. Feeling that it’s sort of taboo…You should probably figure out what works for you, and your body.” The show accurately represents how many women feel about this subject, and yet it actively works to break down these preconceptions. As per usual, it combines a more serious message with a familiar sense of playfulness; Aimee replies “so you’re prescribing a wank?”. This point, figuring out “what works for you”, is carried throughout the show. Ironically, whilst Otis advises others, he also needs to hear this himself. After testing his “clock technique” on Ola (Patricia Allison), he realises he is doing something wrong. He asks for help from a classmate, Ruthie. She says “there’s no magic technique that works for all women…but you shouldn’t be asking me, you should be asking your girlfriend.” Here it is assumed that Ola herself will know what she enjoys, thus implying that she has discovered it. As with Aimee, the show points out the importance of self-discovery and that, yes, it is fine to wank. It’s crazy how innovative it feels for a show to be addressing female pleasure and how important it is to communicate personal preferences.

Societal expectations and pressures are part of the problem, and series like Sex Education is one example of fighting against these and encouraging a different outlook for current and future generations. It opens up conversations that perhaps we’ve been too embarrassed or afraid to discuss before, making us question what we’ve been told from a young age. I remember the first sex-ed class we had in school, in our last year of primary, preparing us for what happens during puberty. Looking back on what we were taught made me angry about the implicit sexism that is perpetuated. We were told that as girls we would have periods and be able to have babies, and told that the boys would wank and have wet dreams. This only continues inequalities in society, when, from a young age, pleasure is an expectation for men and a matter not discussed for women. As a society, we can change this narrative. I personally feel like these matters are becoming a much more open conversation. Just as Jean and Otis show the students at Moordale and then, by the third season, each other, talking about these things is essential.

And let’s not even start on the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ relationships in the school education system. In my school, anything other than heterosexuality was never mentioned in class. By refreshing contrast, Sex Education celebrates diversity in sexuality, gender and identity in ways that are often so neglected in school. Of course, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) is an absolute fan-favourite of the series. He is unapologetically himself, and also one of the funniest characters. Yet he is not reduced only to this. He is another complex, multi-layered character, and the exploration of his church community, and, especially in season three, his Nigerian family heritage, creates much more nuance to his identity. Particularly when the representation of queerness on screen is mostly reserved for white characters, it’s so important to see sexuality not being stereotyped. 

The series also sees the journey of characters to self-discovery and acceptance of their sexuality. Ola and Adam (Connor Swindells) provide two distinct examples of ‘coming out’ stories; the audience is able to see the series’ different approaches to this. Ola embraces her pansexuality after breaking up with Otis and realising that she has developed feelings for her friend Lily (Tanya Reynolds). Her self-acceptance happens relatively quickly. In contrast, Adam is shown to struggle with coming to terms with an understanding of his sexuality. Sex Education, therefore, depicts a wide range of sexualities, and yet also delves into how people do not always feel entirely comfortable with their identity. Hopefully, more and more representation on screen will help us work towards a culture in which queerness, in all forms, will be celebrated by everyone.

Departing from previous seasons, season three sees societal gender constructions explored and also challenged. We are introduced to Cal (Dua Saleh), a non-binary student at Moordale. As a cis woman especially, I feel that this is a hugely important storyline for educating viewers about gender identity. The inclusion of a non-binary character enables the series to expose everyday issues faced by non-binary teenagers, including ignorance from others, especially teachers. Hope, the headteacher, is extremely intolerant to Cal for supposedly not wearing the ‘correct uniform’. Yet for Cal, refusing to wear the ‘correct’ uniform is not merely ignoring the rules (as Hope assumes and punishes Cal for): it is an essential expression of identity. Yet again, this is another aspect of sexuality that has failed to be discussed in school, and often in society more widely too. 

One of the series’ darker storylines is Aimee’s; she is one of the most lovable characters on the show, but one who has to deal with the impacts of sexual assault. Sex Education approaches the matter with care and empathy. The storyline also demonstrates the power of female friendship – a group of the leading female-identifying characters bond together to support Aimee. Importantly, the series pays attention to not only the event itself, but the aftermath and the effects on Aimee’s mental health, and season three only explores this further. It highlights that trauma is something that can be worked through, providing hope, without downplaying its difficulties. Part of Aimee’s journey to work through the effects of the assault involve talking to Jean, who gently reminds her that, “you may never be the old you, Aimee, but that’s okay…And by processing this trauma, you may gain clarity on the event itself and we can move you towards healing the relationship with your body again.”

Therefore, beyond being an entertaining, funny series, Sex Education addresses many important topics, including female pleasure, LGBTQ+ identities and sexual assault, amongst others. The different experiences of such a wide range of three-dimensional characters on the show mean that there’s always something relatable, while also teaching viewers about the experiences of others. Sex Education doesn’t create an ideal of what sex, or identity, or relationships should look like, as there is enough diversity to be able to recognise something in everyone. Instead, it proposes: be who you want to be. This is the message that teenagers, and indeed anyone of any age, should be hearing, not the narratives constraining their sexuality and pleasure.

Image Credit: Sex Education/ Netflix Facebook

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