why you need to watch netflix’s ‘sex education’
"Everybody's either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging".
Apparently, on Pornhub you can watch a CGI demon fuck a horse. This is according to Adam, one of the main characters in Netflix’s new comedy-drama, Sex Education.
The spectre of porn looms large over the adolescence and education of the characters in the show, as the awkward, virginal Otis (Asa Butterfield) opens a clandestine sex and relationships therapy practice for his sixth-form contemporaries.
Tapping into many prescient topics for teenagers, the show plays on themes of masculinity in crisis, the ways LGBT inclusivity has moved forward, and the progress that still needs to be made. This simple premise -- sex therapy for teens by teens -- sets up Sex Education as a show that is more than willing to speak with refreshing candour about everything that can go right, and wrong, when teenagers begin trying to articulate their wants, desires and needs.
While Otis might not use the internet to watch demon/horse sex, he does use it as a way of dipping his feet into the waters of lesbian desire. Not for personal gratification -- something that is truly lost on him; as he’s often reminded by his best friend Eric, he “can’t even wank” -- but as crude research to try and help a same-sex female couple in his class understand why nothing seems to go quite right when they have sex.
Eric, unapologetically out of the closet, watches a lot of porn too; he says so himself, almost proudly. While Eric accepts himself and his identity with open arms; dressing flamboyantly, going in full drag to a screening of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the same can’t be said for those around him. From school bully Adam to his religious family, Eric’s sexuality still seems to exist on relatively thin ice, especially for a contemporary show. There’s an understanding here not only of the nature of self-acceptance, but how simply accepting yourself doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be accepted by those around you. There’s a gap there, between self and other, that Eric fumbles through as best he can, complete with foibles like his dad walking in on him while he’s watching gay porn.
The gap between the expectations of porn and the realities of actual human relationships is a difficult one to navigate. Porn builds up certain myths around sexual performance, anatomy, and what it’s quote-unquote normal to want. When Aimee, a victim of a toxic friendship with the school’s most popular triumvirate, is asked by a partner what it is she wants, she rushes to Otis’s guerrilla clinic in distress, confiding in him “I don’t know what I want.” She says that she’s “always fake”, performing and projecting the things that she thinks a partner will want, instead of knowing what she wants, or what her body responds to.
All of these things might make Sex Education sound like heavy going, but it approaches even some of its serious themes, from the relationship between Otis and Jean, his sex therapist mother (Gillian Anderson, as wonderful as ever), to the anxiety of falling behind your peers when it comes to sexual experience, with a certain lightness of touch. The show never forgets that it is about, and for those who are in the throes of the problems that the characters are facing.
The show has an incredibly sensitive ear for the ways in which teenagers talk, how they process their emotions, and sidestep the things that they feel they aren’t ready to deal with. Otis is told by Maeve, his co-conspirator in their sex and relationships clinic, to talk about these things like “a normal 16-year-old”. One of the great strengths of Sex Education is its ability to do this, showing the differences in how Otis and Jean talk about such matters -- the former awkward and fumbling, the latter a literal font of knowledge. It’s an important asset in a show that isn’t afraid to be didactic, offering reminders of simple, necessary things like “no means no.”
Maeve might just be the most interesting character in Sex Education; living alone in a caravan park, far more intelligent than her peers might assume, she leaps onto the idea that her classmates need therapy, and isn’t afraid to have them open their wallets as they walk into sessions. Maeve seems to exist as two different people; one of them is the person that she actually is, and the other is the person that she’s become based on misinformation, and a vicious sixth-form rumour mill. That’s why the nickname “cock-biter” follows her around the school halls, why Aimee keeps their friendship a safe distance away from the rest of her social life. In school, Maeve is a bizarre amalgamation of myths and rumours, trying to navigate who she is compared to who everyone else thinks she should be, fighting to be heard, come what may. The mythology that comes with certain things in sixth-form is deconstructed; Sex Education has a powerful understanding not only of the archetypes of the coming of age story, but also the things that go on underneath them, the people that turn into these archetypes when they walk through the school gates.
Exploring the divisions between truth and rumour, porn and reality, sex and intimacy, is where Sex Education is at its best and most powerful, its funniest and most earnest. The show is thankfully unafraid to be crass -- when Otis and Eric talk about the (im)possibility of platonic male and female friendships, Eric loudly declares that “their genitals can be friends”, and that male and female friends share things, “like bodily fluids”. But at the same time, the show understands when physical attraction can become wound up in other issues, or how intimacy can exist without a sexual act. Late in season one, two characters in an unlikely relationship reveal some of their baggage to each other. They are close, holding hands, foreheads touching, but nothing else happens. The show allows them to experience a closeness that is more emotional than physical; given the importance that Sex Education places not only on bodies but emotional honesty, it demonstrates a powerful understanding of the things that go on beneath the surfaces of those bodies, the desires and needs that aren’t just physical.
What makes Sex Education such a refreshing show, so honest in its humour and depiction of fumbling moments towards desire and understanding yourself, is that is isn’t only about sex. Instead, the show uses sex and sexuality as a way to explore other things. It becomes the vessel through which Otis channels all of his anxieties about being in a relationship. Eric’s sexuality is at once irrelevant and a point of urgent exploration. Maeve is more than just the sex that people ascribe to her. Jean’s relationship with sex is informed by divorce as much as desire. Sex Education is about so much more than just the title, and well worth taking the time to explore.