What Netflix's 'Sex Education' Gets Right About Sex In High School
It’s no secret that high school sexual education gets a lot wrong. But Sex Education, a Netflix series that premiered on January 11, gets plenty right about sex in high school. The show — starring Asa Butterfield of Ender’s Game as the nerdy Otis Millburn, a teen boy who can’t figure out masturbation, and Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame as his sex therapist mother — tackles the sexy, the awkward, and the hilarious aspects of teenage sexuality. And as a sex educator myself, I found their take incredibly refreshing.
The show unfolds in an amalgam setting of time and place. Otis has a very vintage-looking porn mag — but the school bully, Adam, also references internet porn when they’re working on a school project together. Otis listens to records, but he also texts on his smartphone. Everyone is speaking in British accents and there’s a “head boy” — but they’re also wearing letter jackets and playing American football. Their clothes are like a weird mashup of mid-‘90s, ‘80s prints, and ‘70s t-shirts and the music seems to be primarily late '80s hits. This “Nowheresville,” as Butterfield calls it in an interview with the AP, lets the show explores teenage sex and sexuality in ways that just wouldn’t fly in a contemporary American or British high school.
And they nail it. Here are nine things Sex Education gets right about sex in high school.
1. Performative Sexuality Is In
The first episode opens with a teenage girl riding a teenage boy. As she rocks on top of him, she asks if he likes her “tits.” Then, with basically no encouragement from him (he’s really just lying there) she offers to let him come on them. Her performance is porn pitch-perfect and his presence is barely needed, except as an audience.
On the other side of the spectrum, Otis stages a masturbation scene, presumably so that his sex therapist mom thinks he's developing sexually the way he should be. It's a totally different kind of performative sexuality, but performative nonetheless.
Not to say that only teens fall into performative sexuality — I’d say it’s something that’s done at all ages. But I will say that it makes a lot of sense to perform sex when you’re still figuring out how to do it.
2. Sex Rumors Are Rampant
On the first day of school, Otis and his best friend Eric walk up with their bikes and nerdy helmets and run down the sex rumors of the year. There’s the one about the girl who bit a guy “on the scrote.”
“And now it’s all wonky,” Eric says. “Like a discount avocado.”
Then there’s the rumor about the school bully having a penis “the size of two coke cans, one on top of the other,” according to a friend of a friend who saw it IRL. As Eric so succinctly puts it, “Everybody’s either thinking about shagging… About to shag… Or actually shagging.” Or, at least, that’s how it seems.
3. Girls Can Be Interested In Sex Too
Girls who are interested in sex are almost always treated like freaks (think Michelle and her flute in American Pie) but one of the girls in Sex Education who's interested in sex is one of the cool girls. She waits in lingerie in her boyfriend’s bedroom, pounces on him when he gets home, and then dumps him when he can’t perform sexually. Sure, this is silly. But it’s refreshing for a show to let a popular girl be clear about what she wants — and what she doesn’t.
4. Casual Sexual Harassment Is Standard
Sometimes when I look back at my teen years, I truly can’t believe the sexual harassment we all put up with — and dished out. In Sex Education, this super fun part of high school is illustrated when a bro-y looking dude says, “Nice rack, Wiley,” to the school’s bad girl. When she ignores him, he says again. But Wiley does something in response that makes 16-year-old me stand up and cheer: She punches him in the balls.
5. Girls Who Are Different Get Slut-Shamed
The same bad girl, Maeve Wiley, is the subject of gossipy slut-shaming. Perfectly coiffed cool girls comment on her hair being dirty, link it to her being poor, and then call her a slut. There's also the rumor that she “sucked off 12 guys in 10 minutes.” That combination of being different/being lower class/being accused of aberrant sexual behavior rings all too true for anyone who chose to stand outside the norms in high school.
6. Teens Will Always Be Embarrassed When It Comes To Their Parents And Sex
The set up of the show is that Otis’ mom is a sex therapist — but even Otis is extremely embarrassed when his mom tries to talk about sex with him and his friends. Granted, Otis’ mom clearly has a limited-to-nonexistent understanding of boundaries. But they also seem to have a a pretty strong relationship despite (or maybe because of?) her unconventional approach to child-rearing.
Moral of the story? No matter how sex-positive you are, kids will always feel weird about talking about sex with their parents.
7. Random Boners Happen
Eric’s nickname from the school bully is “Tromboner.” Can you guess why? One hint: Random boners happen.
8. Sex Ed Often Misses The Point
There’s one actual sex ed scene in the first episode of Sex Education and it’s brilliant. In this made up universe these kids exist in, the sex ed teacher gives the kids what looks to be a strap-on dildo to practice rolling down a condom — no bananas in sight. They’re also given an anatomically correct picture of a vulva and asked to label it, which is equally awesome.
The only problem? This emergency sex ed class is in response to the fact that the school has had an outbreak of pubic lice. Neither condoms nor anatomically correct diagrams can do anything to prevent that. So even here, in a land where students aren’t asked to pretend bananas are penises in order to practice with condoms, sex ed still doesn’t address the problem at hand.
9. Sometimes You Have To Do It In Random Places
Like cars. And the science room at school. And, honestly, isn’t this one of the more fun aspects of sex in high school?
Ultimately, Sex Education promises to be an entertaining, cringey, slightly fantastical romp through the murky waters that is teenage sexuality. Personally, I can't really ask for anything more.