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Second Take: Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’ offers what many schools fail to

(Courtesy of Sam Taylor/Netflix)

By Jordan Wilson

Jan. 22, 2020 11:23 p.m.

Netflix is providing the “Sex Education” that traditional television wouldn’t dare attempt.

The adolescent dramedy dropped its second season on the streaming platform Friday. With an eight-episode run, it managed to explore a cornucopia of issues – both sexual and romantic – better than most secondary schools could ever hope to. The show manages to both entertain and enlighten, shining a light on sexual topics typically labeled taboo and avoided altogether. It’s simple in concept, but revolutionary in execution; no scripted television show has attempted to address the breadth of sexual nature that “Sex Education” does, from asexuality to vaginismus.

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Despite the show’s United Kingdom setting, its frank conversations about sexuality seem squarely aimed at American audiences. Abstinence-only sex education is pervasive in the U.S., with 11 states requiring only abstinence to be taught in schools. A September 2017 report from the Journal of Adolescent Health illustrates how ineffective and unethical abstinence-only sex education is. The report specifies that most Americans begin to have sex around age 17 or 18 regardless of what sexual education they’ve received; some studies showed that areas with more comprehensive sex education reported fewer sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies.

If only “Sex Education” had premiered sooner. The show presents itself as an almost idyllic utopia where everyone feels comfortable speaking about their sexual problems. Though the show is centered around Moordale Secondary School student Otis (Asa Butterfield) and his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson), the student ensemble seems endless, and that’s precisely the point. Issues pertaining to sexuality affect everyone in a community, and the cast of “Sex Education” is no different.

Every pairing of teenage lovers has its issues, and the show doesn’t shy away from showing teenagers in bed, fully engrossed in sexual acts that would otherwise be severely censored. For once, the problems, concerns and shame surrounding sexuality are put front and center – a vast difference from real-life sex education. Unlike an average TV show or movie, these scenes are used as opportunities to frame a piece of sexual education, not as a steamy moment between two characters or a farcical scene meant to humiliate. Sex isn’t a plot point; it is a starting point for conversation.

This is where the show best manages to weave together education and entertainment. Through Jean, sexuality is seen as a fact of life. One teenager wonders if he masturbates too much, another is worried about the length of her labia and even a teacher seeks advice about encouraging her boyfriend to talk dirty in bed. It is through these secondary characters and their relationships that the show puts the “education” in “sex education.”

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But beyond these simple questions, the Netflix production tackles sexual preferences unlike any other show on air. Rather than using sexual orientation as a mere plot device for characters to work around, sexuality is normalized as these teenagers struggle through internal confusion and external stigma. Asexuality in particular – often portrayed as an issue characters have to overcome like in “Sirens” or “House” – is treated with dignity in the Netflix show. Jean, in fact, tells a minor character that her lack of sexual attraction is completely normal – no further plot point required.

The show also continues to normalize sexual mores in its handling of virginity. Whereas there are any number of comedy films that portray teenage boys in their unyielding pursuit of their first sexual intercourse, Otis’ first time is not triumphant or joyful, but neither is it somber and punishing. It is not “American Pie,” in which four teenagers vow to lose their virginity and then do so in wacky, bombastic ways by the film’s conclusion with little to no consequence. It’s a testament to a shifting TV culture that 20 years after “American Pie,” there’s a show that doesn’t treat virginity as something sacred and cherished or a prize to be won.

Instead of a big climax, Otis has sex with fellow classmate Ruby (Mimi Keene) in a drunken haze at a party. Taking a careful and realistic approach, Otis doesn’t bask in the glory of achieved manhood but is actually concerned over the issues of consent and protection. When Ruby confirms her consent but worries about the condom, the pair ventures to a pharmacy to buy the morning-after pill. It’s a simple story that illustrates the reality of intoxicated sexual activity and neither endorses nor decries it.

This alone demonstrates the ability of “Sex Education” to tread upon new paths when it comes to sex in media. Only the Netflix show doesn’t stop there, as it continues its stellar portrayal of bisexuality with Adam’s character (Connor Swindells). Portrayals of bisexual men in general are few and far between. More often than not, if a man describes himself as bisexual in a TV show – think “My Name Is Earl,” “American Dad!” and “Nip/Tuck” – he is accused of being a gay man in hiding. But not in “Sex Education.” If Adam says he’s bi, every other character takes him at his word.

And therein lies the reason why “Sex Education” lives in the realm of some of television’s most groundbreaking shows. It’s undeniable that most traditional films and TV shows center around heteronormative ideals or feature characters who exist solely within straight or gay stereotypes. The gay best friend. The man-hating lesbian. The closeted jock. None of these stereotypes are welcome within the world of “Sex Education,” which succeeds where poorly produced educational videos fail. It gives teens a myriad avatars to learn about sex through arcs of dramatic character evolution. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that these two seasons alone could replace the sex curriculum of a high school health class.

Simply put, Netflix’s “Sex Education” is inclusive, enlightening and bingeable. No protection required.

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Jordan Wilson
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