Do you remember Sex Education in school? If you were lucky, you got the standard condom-on-a-banana treatment. Or a singular health class in school that involved passing around laminated photos of genital warts and herpes. Most of the time, boys and girls would be separated, with the boys being taught about self-pleasure, while the girls were often lectured in no uncertain terms that they should not have sex, or they would get pregnant and die. The only thing I remember from my sex ed is a horrifying giraffe puppet that would routinely try to ‘bite’ me.
Either way, Sex Education at schools is rubbish. Crap. There’s no way around it. Young people are being let out into the world at an age where they’ll likely want to explore their own sexuality, armed only with a vague idea of what ovaries look like and a huge dollop of shame.
With even the best TV series using teen pregnancy or infidelity as a plot device, generations of young people have been left adrift without any realistic guidance on what sex is actually like, how it intersects with your identity, and how to explore all of this without feeling like a freak. This is why, when it burst on the scene in 2019, Sex Education was so revolutionary.
Unlike countless teen drama series, Sex Education doesn’t involve impossibly beautiful twenty-somethings pretending to suffer through the epic highs and lows of high school football. In fact, a lot of the time, these characters were profoundly uncool — especially when it came to sex. Each episode of Sex Education usually begins with some kind of sexual mishap that is slowly unraveled and worked through during the course of the episode.
Sure, embarrassing teen sex moments are a big part of shows like The Inbetweeners and comedy movies like American Pie. Still, while these other examples play off these moments for laughs, Sex Education treats them with compassion, assuring these characters that they aren’t freaks, and have nothing to be ashamed of, and giving them the tools they need to overcome their hang-ups instead of making them feel like an alien for having them in the first place.
And do you know why these characters aren’t treated as freaks for these hang-ups or mishaps? Because they’re normal.
The series also isn’t afraid to completely eschew the comedy when it comes to sensitively navigating more serious issues relating to sex. Maeve’s abortion storyline in season 1, especially, made it clear that the series wasn’t messing around when it came to educating their audiences about reproductive health.
As I said before, teen pregnancies are often treated as a source of dramatic tension, and abortions are scarcely ever seen as a viable option on-screen. So, the Netflix series really went a long way toward demystifying abortion and treating the subject with the kind of tenderness and compassion it deserves — especially in a world where reproductive rights feel more contentious than ever.
Aimee’s sexual assault storyline in season 2 is a further example of this. Sexual assault can take many forms, but TV shows scarcely explore this, nor do they properly delve into the ongoing psychological impact these kinds of attacks can have. This is another way Sex Education holds a mirror up to the experiences all too many young people have had to go through and, in giving them someone to relate to, allows them to feel more seen.
These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of topics Sex Education has explored over the years, and while their treatment of these topics is certainly an education, it never feels preachy. This is because the comedy series never deviates away from its fundamental message: sex is normal. Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has sex and deserves to have a healthy sex life. (Even your super-old teachers or parents.)
While ‘sex positivity’ is a well-trodden buzzword in 2023, it was less so in 2019. And I think we have Sex Education to thank for making our culture just that little less puritanical. So, thanks Sex Education. It’s been a pleasure.