Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ is the feminist show young viewers need
The first scene of Netflix’s newest young adult series, Sex Education, depicts a teenage boy faking an orgasm while having sex with his girlfriend. He looks bored and distracted despite his partner’s enthusiasm. After he pretends to finish, his girlfriend insists on seeing the condom, and despite his refusal, she takes it to see for herself. The scene ends with her disappointedly holding up the empty, shriveled latex to the audience.
Every subsequent episode of Sex Education, which debuted in January, begins with its own equally awkward sex scene, each tailored to the specific sex-related issue that episode will tackle. Each issue is primarily tackled by Otis, the socially awkward son of a sex therapist, who, after accidentally giving successful advice to the boyfriend who can’t orgasm, falls into his own career as a sex therapist to his peers at school — despite never having had sex himself. Rather than follow the longstanding social script that young people should feel shame about, and never openly discuss, their sex lives, Sex Education normalizes the concept of teens asking questions about their bodies and relationships — like how they can be good sexual and emotional partners for their own benefit as well as the benefit of the people with whom they are having sex.
Sex Education does this by taking on the kind of personal issues that are crucial to healthy sexuality and relationships, but which are rarely discussed in actual sex education classes. For example, in the seventh episode of the season, a classmate asks Otis for help: He’s made many grand gestures to ask a girl he likes to the dance, but she continues to say no. “Well, I know it’s hard, but if you’ve asked her and she said no, then I think you’ve got your answer,” Otis kindly tells his client. “No means no.” Typically, movies and TV shows would have their male protagonist convince this character that if he keeps persisting the girl will eventually say yes. Instead, Otis essentially explains what consent is: that continuing to ask someone out after she said no is wrong. In the second episode, Otis comes across a couple at a party who are fighting because the girlfriend refuses to have sex with the lights on. Otis pushes them to remind each other of what they like about the other person, ultimately revealing that the girlfriend doesn’t have to feel so embarrassed of her body that she can only have sex in the dark.
Not only does the show acknowledge that sex is about so much more than the physical act itself, but it even goes a step further by accounting for how intersectionality, or the many different parts of people’s identities, affect their sex lives. The show accomplishes this first and foremost by focusing on a range of diverse characters. The show’s female protagonist, Maeve Wiley, lives in a trailer park with her older brother. The school’s resident popular guy, Jackson, is a black swimmer with two moms. The school’s meanest clique is racially diverse as well. But diversity goes deeper than just casting in this show — it permeates the very stories it tells. When a lesbian couple asks Otis for advice, he does research before giving them any, admitting from the beginning that as a straight, cisgender man he doesn’t know how lesbian sex works. This transmits the message to the show’s young audience that they must be aware of both the privileges they have and the privileges their peers do not — in terms of sex and beyond.
All of these aspects of the show are perhaps best embodied in the storylines surrounding Otis’ best friend, Eric, a gay black boy who is constantly bullied and misunderstood by his religious African father. In one episode, Otis surprises Eric with tickets to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but when Otis misses the bus to the show, choosing to help his crush instead. Eric ends up alone in another town — a tall, black boy dressed up in heels, lipstick, and a wig. Eric’s phone and wallet are stolen and he’s forced to walk home alone in the dark. On his way, he is assaulted by some drunk straight men who call him “a gay fuck.” Eric is clearly changed by the incident: He stops wearing flamboyant clothes, begins to fight at school, and isolates himself.
Eric’s experience asks the audience to confront the reality of being a young, gay, black man in a society that sees multiple aspects of his identity as less than. While Eric eventually finds himself again — he goes to the school dance in makeup and colorful clothes — he goes through a lot to get there. Even Eric’s dad is treated with empathy and complexity; his disapproving attitude is revealed to be concern that his child would stick out and get hurt, an ideology shaped by his immigration experience. “I’ll be hurt either way,” Eric explains to his dad. “Isn’t it better to be who I am?” In the end, Eric’s dad tells him that he’s brave, and Eric confidently walks into the dance as the real person he is.
Given that sex has been historically censored in the media, especially media geared toward young people, it is refreshing to watch a show in which sex is discussed honestly, openly, and in a way that is funny and entertaining to watch. Sex Education does this by recognizing that sex is as complicated as is a person’s identity, and encourages its audience to consider the identities of those around them as so much more than just a classmate, friend, or even a family member. Sex Education has already been renewed for a second season, and its fans are already eager to see what Otis can teach us next.
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