This post contains spoilers for both seasons of Netflix’s Sex Education.
Nearly every episode of Netflix’s series Sex Education begins with a sex scene, but none of them are particularly sexy. The first episode begins with a shot of a shaking lamp as the camera pans over an older couple. As the camera moves up to the second floor, the shaking is revealed to be caused by a young couple. Having trouble with his performance, the boy, Adam, pretends to orgasm, to the indignation of his girlfriend.
Sex Education follows several students as they attend a small high school. While the show is set in Britain, the show will feel very familiar to American audiences. One student, Otis Milburn, is the son of a renowned sex therapist and begins an unofficial sex therapy with the help of Maeve Wiley, a social outcast. The show also follows Otis’ best friend, Eric Effiong, an out gay student, Adam Groff, the trouble-making son of the headmaster, and Jackson Marchetti, the school’s star athlete. Each episode delves into new sexual conflicts in the school and among the characters.
Showing sex without the sexiness is a new approach to teenage romance. Shows like Gossip Girl and Riverdale focus on steamy scenes and ignores the often embarrassing details and questions of teens’ sexual development. In short, teen romances usually add to an unrealistic expectation when it comes to sex. Shows like Sex Education are trying to change that narrative.
Shows that depict teenagers in sexy scenarios often toe a dangerous line. While usually the actors are of legal age, the stories focus on high schoolers, or children between the ages of 14 and 18. Glee begins with sophomores and freshman, making the characters in those sexual scenes about 15 years old.
Watching these shows puts the audience in a strange position. While the scenes are meant to evoke some form of sexual pleasure, the subjects of the audience’s gaze are underage. While some shows get around this by using older actors (Cory Monteith was 27 when Glee premiered, despite playing a sophomore, and Riverdale’s Cole Sprouse is 28), the narrative is still asking the audience to be titillated by teenage sexuality.
Sex Education breaks from this pattern by making its many sex scenes very unsexy. While sex scenes serve a sexy purpose in other teen romances, Sex Education’s sex scenes are there to educate.
The driving purpose in Sex Education is to educate its audience. Each episode delves into different issues in teenage sexual health, from performance anxiety to divorce to asexuality. While the plot makes the shenanigans of its characters entertaining and humorous, the show is not there only to entertain. Most sex scenes have a conflict that causes embarrassment or shame. For one girl, she is afraid she looks ugly when she orgasms, and so hides her face from her boyfriend. Another episode shows the school fall into anarchy when some students develop chlamydia and none of them know how it spreads. The show both argues that teens need education on sex and provides some of that education.
While each character has their own issues and conflicts, the headmaster, Mr. Groff proves to be the obstacle between the students and receiving quality sex education in the second season. When the chlamydia outbreak causes chaos, he assures the school board that the education they have (delivered by a rather awkward science teacher) is enough. When Otis’ mother, Jean, is put in charge of revamping the sex ed curriculum, he directly tries to prevent her from educating the students. In the climax of the second season, Mr. Groff disrupts the school’s very sexual retelling of Romeo and Juliet to exclaim, “You have all been corrupted by this woman. She’s giving sex advice to your children and filling their heads with dangerous nonsense… They’re children, for God’s sake! They don’t know what they want!”
Mr. Groff here is meant to stand in for those who argue that teens shouldn’t have access to sexual education. Mr. Groff’s preference is for the “children” to just stop having sex and stop risking pregnancy and STDs. Essentially, Mr. Groff wants everyone to be abstinent.
It is an accepted notion in Gender and Sexuality Studies that abstinence-only sex education is pitiful; instead, many scholars and educators argue for comprehensive sex education, which “should be guided by the broader goals of supporting young people's sexual health and well-being and helping them grow into sexually healthy adults.” Comprehensive sex education covers “information and skills [adolescents] need to navigate relationships, understand sex and sexuality, and find the resources they need for obtaining additional information and relevant health services” (Kantor and Lindberg).
This is the crux of Sex Education’s argument. Teen sexuality is often framed as teens stealing the pleasures of adulthood, but Sex Education argues that sexual and romantic development is important to the experiences of adolescents. Romance is a part of the full human experience, and it does not suddenly begin once a person has turned 18. This is why Sex Education is so unsexy. Those sex scenes are not there to provide pleasure, but to provide insight on a common part of the adolescent experience.
Sex Education | Netflix Official Site. https://www.netflix.com/title/80197526. Accessed 13 Mar. 2020.
Kantor, Leslie M., and Laura Lindberg. “Pleasure and Sex Education: The Need for Broadening Both Content and Measurement.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 110, no. 2, Feb. 2020, pp. 145–148.