How ‘Sex Education’ Gets Modern Sex Ed Right

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Sex Education stands out for focusing on the emotional impact that sex can have on discovering yourself, over and over again.

I’ll admit: When Sex Education first aired on Netflix back in 2019, I was skeptical that they were going to get it right. Long before the show aired, media portrayals of sex education were shaming at best, and most commonly exaggerated to make the extreme point: sex is something that should be politicized, scrutinized, and reserved for only special occasions. There were images of bumbling gym teachers using fear to try and discourage their students from fooling around, or straight up shaming students for even having a (natural) curiosity. 

And the few models of sex education that were available always showed someone who couldn’t exist further from my experiences leading the conversation — a white, middle-aged, straight person who had no idea of what young people really need. Betty Dodson and Dr. Joycelyn Elders were pioneers of this work, but their lives didn’t reflect the struggles that I and so many others had in trying to find sex education that made space for us to fit into.

Even my own experience mirrored this. In high school, my first encounter with sex education came from my gym teacher going over the health curriculum, remarking, “well, most of you are having sex anyway, so we don’t have to spend a lot of time on that section.” This later became fuel for me when, many years later, I became a sex educator myself. 

Sex education — one that highlights the possibility of sex as a route to freedom and pleasure, and encourages celebrating of one of many modes of human connection in ways that are safe, healthy, and supportive — is something that everyone needs to have access to. That’s what led me to seek out certification and even go on to support other sex educators in building online businesses to do this work on a deeper level.

Everywhere I turned, there were messages that sex education isn’t important… despite the constant pressure of how much the act itself seemed to matter. This is exactly what makes Sex Education such a breath of fresh air.

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Otis (Asa Butterfield) is an awkward high-schooler living in a quiet England countryside town with his sex therapist mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson). A series of events leads him to start a “sex clinic” for the students at school with classmate-turned-romantic interest, Maeve (Emma Mackey). Hijinks, outrage, and surprise televised sweetness ensue.

Sex Education’s emergence comes at a time when media is beginning to rectify its relationship with the role sex education plays within the coming-of-age genre. Other shows like Big Mouth and PEN15 explore sex education topics for a larger audience, but the delivery influences the impact of the topics covered. Big Mouth, for example, relies on animation and humor that often leans into the outrageous to make its points, weaving education with jokes. On the other hand, PEN15 sees sex education as a backdrop to its overall plot, centering on the characters’ middle-school awkwardness to drive the story forward. 

While there’s room for humor as a teaching tool, most shows often use it as a distraction away from the topic of sex education itself. And while this isn’t to say that Sex Education doesn’t also involve some of these things, it’s the impact of the show overall that fills a much-needed gap in modern discussions of the subject. This is how it’s able to hit a chord with audiences and resonate in a way that feels more authentic than over-the-top animation or relegating the message to only the background.

Unlike other shows that attempt to modernize the conversation of sex education, Sex Education itself connects to an aspect that has been long-overlooked: the emotional. The plot is centralized not on sensationalism or following more aggressive sexual themes as a footnote in the plot, but as a way to connect viewers to the reality of how sexuality connects to their entire life. In fact, season 3 of the show dives deeply into this as one of the characters, Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) continues to navigate her new identity as a survivor after a sexual assault. The key is the focus on the subtle connection rather than the shock value — in a space where shows are quick to dive into more traumatizing content to be “edgy,” Sex Education stands out for focusing on the emotional impact that sex can have on discovering yourself, over and over again.

Season 3 is unique in how it explores this. Because the show focuses on teenagers, much of the main arcs center on traditional teen coming-of-age narratives. The classmates that seek out Otis’ “sex clinic” services (and later, his mother’s counseling when she takes a role at the school) range from insecurities about genital size to asexuality, and more. In season 3, however, these topics continue to be explored without the backdrop of the clinic. 

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In season 1, we see much of this through Otis’ friendship with his best friend, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a Nigerian-British gay boy who has his own share of awkwardness and emotional growing pains that differ greatly from Otis’ own. In Season 3, his relationship with former bully-turned-boyfriend Adam (Connor Swindell) continues to evolve. However, when Eric visits family in Nigeria for a wedding, he gets to explore community with Oba (Jerry Iwu), a photographer he meets at the wedding who takes him to a party with other queer folks in Lagos where the two kiss. Eric’s exploration of this in both what it means to be out and in community (“it felt like coming home,” he explains later about going to the party) but also in grappling with being so unafraid of himself while having to navigate spaces where he cannot talk about being gay, due to it being “illegal” in Nigeria to be so. The experience deeply shifts Eric, who returns from his trip challenged by Adam’s own journey in not being out, ultimately leading to the two breaking up.

This season introduced its first Black, out non-binary character, Cal (Dua Saleh), who explores an intimate friendship and brief romance with Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling). Cal and Jackson’s friendship turns romantic when they kiss on a school trip, but after an awkward hookup occurs between them — in which Jackson leaves entirely after Cal asks them if they would be okay with the fact that a relationship between them would be queer — the two later have a discussion that leads them to decide to be better off as friends. The navigation of Jackson’s coming to terms with his own sexual identity and how that runs alongside the challenges that Cal faces as an out non-binary person and their own boundaries in having a relationship with a cisgender person who “wants to learn”.  

We also see insights of this with other subplots: Maeve’s romance with her neighbor, and her learning to see sex in a new way; Aimee’s dwindling interest in sex as a result of her assault; Otis’ romantic relationship with Ruby (Mimi Keene), only for the two to break up after Otis ultimately rejects her confession of loving him; navigating differing sexual interests via sexting and roleplay. The show doesn’t shy away from the awkward, comforting, cringy, and heartwarming parts of discovering yourself. But this also isn’t limited to the students. In fact, part of what Sex Education gets right is acknowledging what so few other resources do: that quality, inclusive sex education benefits adults as well. Throughout the three seasons, we see the teachers and parents understand sex and intimacy as ways to connect with new identities and each other as well. It even allows for a connection to their children through thoughtful, realistic discussions. 

The need for inclusive sex education has never gone away and it never will. There will always be a need for people to feel seen, heard, understood in all spaces of their identities. That’s why this work and those who choose to do it are such powerful leaders. And as that need only increases over time, media has a stronger obligation to get it right. That’s why when shows like Sex Education get it right, even if done imperfectly… it matters. It makes a difference. It saves lives because it allows those who feel pushed to the margins—too “different” or outcasted to feel that they are normal or accepted or loved—to see that their experiences matter, too. It’s less about the mechanics of the act itself, and more about how we can better support the emotional connections that come along with it. That’s what truly matters.

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