The Inconsistent Sexual Ethics of Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’

High school-centered media is always incredibly tricky to get right. It’s a time in our lives when we are incredibly vulnerable, as we come into ourselves socially, professionally, and sexually. So it makes sense that it’s such a popular genre. People want to see their experience mirrored, in a relatable fashion, on screen. So many films and television shows seem to miss the mark when it comes to this time period, especially when it comes to sexual exploration. Many sexualize teenagers to an uncomfortable degree, others disregard issues of consent and respect outright, and many works seem to make a joke out of a character’s understandable inexperience around sex. It is no exaggeration to say that this odd, uncomfortable depiction of sex can be harmful, especially to the developing young adults consuming this type of media.

So, as we near the end of the first month of 2019, we clearly have an evolved sense of sexual respect. We are coming off of a year where much popular conversation surrounded sex and respect, or lack thereof. So clearly we should have art that reflects our new, mature sensitivities around sex. We should hope so, at least.

A lot of the discourse around the recently released Netflix original miniseries Sex Education has been about just this: the show’s treatment of sex. Rightfully so, as the show makes no illusion that it has something to say about sex in high school, as its title would suggest.

Sex Education does a lot of things right. The show has been rightfully applauded for its healthy view and depiction of really difficult topics like abortion, sexual identity, and mental health. The show could serve as a model for how to handle some of these topics, and I hope it does. However, some of its maturity and message becomes confusing and unclear as the show progresses. Unfortunately, Sex Education’s forward-thinking attitude about sex is undercut by the same shameful humor we see in so many high school television shows.

In the interest of minimizing spoilers, let’s take the first episode as an example. Asa Butterfield’s character, Otis, talks to his mother Jean, played by Gillian Anderson, over breakfast, as they sit across the table from Jean’s most recent, and much younger, sexual partner. Otis pokes fun at said sexual partner, asking if he has an Oedipal complex. Jean, a sex therapist, responds as someone of her profession should, with a calm but direct explanation that stigmatizing someone’s sexual desires is harmful. This is a welcome breath of fresh air, as a lot of shows would just make fun of this man and his attraction to a much older woman.

Jumping to later in the episode, a significant motivation for the plot is Connor Swindells’ Adam, and his struggle with his large penis. He is ashamed of himself, both personally and sexually, and goes through a lot of stress because of it. Otis offers him advice, and pretty good advice at that. What results after is something of an ethical mess. Adam exposes himself in front of the whole school, in an effort to gain confidence in his body. We watch Adam’s girlfriend, Amy, observe this public act of nudity in horror and decides in response to end the relationship. She then goes to have sex with him, “one last time,” only to break up with him at the end of the encounter. This is a traumatic series of events, culminating with literal sexual exploitation. But the show doesn’t treat it that way. Amy faces no repercussion for her actions, nor does the show suggest she should. Adam is instead punished for his act of exhibitionism, but it is almost seen as an unfair punishment, as he was just acting on the advice of Otis. All of these acts are depicted behind a blanket of comedy, as if waiting for laughs from the audience.

This sequence seems to contradict the show’s entire message. The show seems to want us to treat sexual insecurities seriously, as it presents an incredibly mature portrait of sexual discourse in the form of Otis and his mother. However, the source of a lot of the comedy can boil down to the ancient gag of “Ha-ha, this guy has a large penis,” and jokes to that effect. It is confusing and unfortunate, to say the least.

There are many examples of a mixed message surrounding sexual respect and confidence in Sex Education. And it is a shame to have so many great moments surrounded by stereotypical exploitative comedy. I hope that media in the future can draw on the aspects of Sex Education that are healthy and well-explained, and build on some of the more immature and harmful ways the show talks about the sex lives of high schoolers.

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