Is Sex Education the Most Accurate Representation of the Teenage Sex Experience?

Netflix’s original series Sex Education already has two successful series under its belt and has begun production on a third; quickly become one of their most popular series to date. With a fantastic cast including the likes of Gillian Anderson, Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey and Ncuti Gatwa; Sex Education explores the ups and downs of adolescence and the total minefield that is sex. 

From the gross-out classics like American Pie to the glamorous world of Gossip Girl; adolescent sexuality has always been vastly explored within film and television with varying degrees of realism and salacious entertainment; but what is it about Sex Education that audiences have found so enjoyable?

Series creator Laurie Nunn delves into the minds of horny teenagers with such wonderful wit and honesty. She writes their misfortunes and adventures with such clarity that it is almost impossible not to physically cringe with the memories of one’s own hapless sexual experiences in high school. 

Nunn doesn’t shy away from the grim truth that is puberty and sex in your teens. She writes candidly about the kinds of things that made you wince as a teenager. Subjects including masturbation, peer pressure, the terror of not being ready to have sex, gay sex, a-sexuality and female sexual pleasure are all explored with tenderness and humour.

This kind of approach hasn’t always been available to audiences though. In the early 2000s, television that looked at the teen sex experience tended to fall into two categories; cheesy soap storylines that leaned too far into stories of morality or farfetched dramas that portrayed a sex life that any eighteen-year-old was desperate to have. 

In 2007 the trailer for E4’s hot new show Skins promised a debauched and erotically charged depiction of Britain’s youth culture. Skins explored everything that keeps your parents up at night including sex, unplanned pregnancy, eating disorders, drug usage, mental health crisis and underage drinking. 

While Skins had elements of humour and the token virgin character, it’s fair to argue that entertainment came before realism and this hyper-sexualized look at adolescence just doesn’t reflect the truth; no matter how badly sixteen-year olds might want to be the mysterious but essentially unwell Effy. 

Because who’s adolescence was honestly like a gritty music video? My own Saturday nights as a seventeen-year-old were filled with lame house parties and cheap cider, far more like that shown in Sex Education. Where sex advice was embarrassingly sought after in the corners of kitchens and hands were fumbling to unhook bras in your mate’s parents’ bedroom. 

The Netflix series is also possibly one of the most inclusive contemporary television series we’ve seen and that has certainly aided to its popularity. Britain’s youth culture is filled with a beautiful and complex spectrum of different genders and sexualities and as ‘different’ becomes more widely accepted by society; teenagers today are charging ahead with this progression. 

Not only does Sex Education celebrate all these differences but it works hard to normalise them. Despite the progress in representation on screen, we’re still so accustomed to seeing heteronormative narratives, dominated by white characters, that anything outside of that is seen as, at best different, or at worst controversial. 

Thankfully, that just isn’t Britain’s reality. Britain is filled with diversity, whether that’s culturally, racial or through gender and sexuality. That’s our reality, especially for today’s youth. They’re growing up with same-sex parents, multiracial couples and more freedom to be sexually expressive.

Of course, there is still resistance to this progression and that reflects in the media we consume. Where other texts have been accused of shoehorning in token LGBTQ+ characters with damaging stereotypes, Sex Education attempts to offer a broad and honest representation of a community that is filled with glorious differences. 

They still tackle the tough stuff and explore themes of shame, fear and guilt in regards to sexuality and lifestyle but the ‘different’ is met with celebration or the friendly shrug of someone who only cares about your happiness.

One of the best examples of effortless inclusivity is Jackson’s family. Played by the brilliant Kedar Williams-Sterling, Jackson’s family is made up of him and his two Mums. This is already a step in the right direction in regards to representation but actually the brilliance is in its simplicity. Jackson’s family dynamic is never a core part of his story, the gender of his parents is not acknowledged as anything different because that is his reality. That is his normal, just like many other families around Britain. 

Sex Education has its audience hooked and fans are already keen to see what season three will bring. Perhaps its popularity is down to just good old-fashioned entertainment but one would argue that its target audience are finally starting to see themselves represented on screen in ways they haven’t before.

Whether you’re filled with memories of awkward, happy days at school or your own struggled are reflected within the narrative; it’s not hard to find yourself somewhere amongst the Moorfield High students.


Updated: Feb 24, 2020

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