Asa Butterfield as Otis in Sex Education.

Sex Education Is Great, but One Relationship Is a Huge Problem

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This weekend, I started watching the Netflix show Sex Education. It’s really fun and stars Asa Butterfield as Otis Milburn, with Gillian Anderson as his mother, Jean. (They will always be baby Mordred and Agent Scully to me).

Jean is a sex and relationship therapist. and Otis has grown up with a lot of sexual anxiety due to his mom constantly attempting to analyze what he does, and her inability to respect his boundaries. At the same time, her knowledge has rubbed off on him and made him knowledgeable about relationships and a “woke” little dude. He ends up teaming up with the school cool girl/outsider, Maeve Wiley, to create a sex clinic, and the series deals with him assisting his fellow youth in sex and relationship issues.

The show is really good, with one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen on abortion, and I while I do think it would have been great to make Otis ace, it is also nice to have a look at how people can be sexually repressed. However, the biggest issue I have with the show surrounds the characters of Adam Groff and Eric Effiong.


Connor Swindells in Sex Education (2019)

Connor Swindells as Adam Groff in Sex Education.

When the first episode of Sex Education begins, one of the character conflicts we see is that Adam, the son of the Head Teacher, is not just a bully, but very violently targets Eric. Adam calls him “Trumboner,” “f*g,” and also makes racial remarks about him. Sitting in bed, I saw this and instantly knew that, eventually, Adam would be revealed to be gay, and this would lead to some relationship with Eric.

My homodamus senses were correct.

In episode eight, both Adam and Eric are in detention together. They get into a verbal spat over their task, which turns physical. As they fall to the floor, Adam overpowers Eric and Eric spits up at Adam in defense. Eric quickly apologies, but Adam spits at Eric back. They have another quick exchange and then the music picks up and the wide shot pulls out to show them leaning in to kiss one another.

The kiss is passionate and surprisingly tender. We’ve seen Adam have sex before, and he wasn’t nearly as engaged as he is when he passionately kisses Eric’s lips, neck, body, and then starts to give Eric a blow job.

This made me very uncomfortable, especially because I know that ten years ago, this is something I would have actively shipped.

Back in my Glee days, I was a big fan of the ship Kurtofsky, which was a relationship between Kurt Hummel and Dave Karofsky. In season two of Glee, it was revealed that Karofsky, the football bully, was a closeted gay man, and part of why he targeted Kurt was a mixture of attraction and jealousy.

As a late teen who was not out myself, I was drawn to the drama of the incident. Having shipped het couples with that kind of enemies-turned-lovers drama, it seemed simple to transpose that into a queer narrative. Now, as an adult and someone who lives a queer life, I am more aware of how (a) cliché and (b) problematic that type of storyline is.

In my desire to see Dave Karofsky redeemed by the power of his love for Kurt, I was completely ignoring the trauma that he inflicted on Kurt, and that Kurt was happy with his own (boring) relationship. People speculated that Karofsky came from an abusive household, but it was quickly shown that his dad was a nice, normal dude, and Dave was responding to the homophobia around him from his peers. It was compelling, and just rewatching the clips, I remembered the sympathy I felt for Dave, but that doesn’t excuse his actions.

Sex Education is a show that teenagers will have access to, that is about teens, and honestly, has a lot of really good things about sexual health, abortion, and consent that teenagers should see. That’s why, in that type of fiction, we should not perpetuate the idea that it’s “okay” or “forgivable” that a closeted bully who torments his gay peers can be redeemed easily through the power of his sexual attraction toward the person he targeted.

Because that is abuse.

Ncuti Gatwa in Sex Education (2019)

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong in Sex Education.

Adam has tormented Eric for years, stolen from him, assaulted him daily, and is a figure of fear for Eric. Why would Eric want to be with that person? Adam needs to deal with his own issue and his own abuse before he can be in a healthy relationship. Him being in the closet is not an excuse for his behavior, nor is having an emotionally abusive dad.

We have seen Eric hazed and beaten, yet when he hurts another gay character, he realizes what he did was shitty. Eric proves that Adam’s behavior is not only wrong, but that in a thoughtful person, even if you are feeling that kind of pain, taking it out on another gay person is not going to heal you.

After having sex, Adam tells Eric not to say anything or he will “end him,” but then, when they’re in class together, Adam keeps on reaching out to Eric with this body.

I get it. The drama is what makes it sexy, and if people wanted to write fic about Adam and Eric meeting up years later and whatnot, I’d be like, That’s fandom. Do your thing, whatever. We don’t always ship things that are healthy, and it’s better to work out those things through fiction than in real romantic relationships. It’s the fact that this is a canon potential relationship that makes me uncomfortable.

We spend a lot of time trying to understands why bullies bully rather than focus on the victim. We especially love to give white boys excuses for their behavior, even when they are blatantly horrible. One of the things I loved about Harry Potter, in the later books, was that it was made very clear that Draco Malfoy came from a loving household. A lot of fan fiction I’d read (fueled by the films) had this narrative that Lucius Malfoy was abusive to his wife and son, but the truth is they all love each other. They are just bigoted—end of discussion.

You can ship whoever you want, but don’t ignore things that are blatantly wrong because it makes it easier to enjoy your ship, not to mention certain relationship dynamics are different when we consider race and sexuality. No matter what the “subtext” is, Draco/Harry, Draco/Ron, and Draco/Hermione are all stories surrounding canonically white, straight characters.

We all have kinks and not all kink is reflective of what we feel, but making excuses for bad behavior within fictional relationships isn’t helpful. Also, for the writers out there: This dynamic is really harmful and reductive, because it clouds the main fact that what the bully is doing is abusive.

Gay teens have killed themselves over being bullied, have stayed in the closet longer, and live in fear because of their sexuality. To turn their tormentor into their paramour turns the focus away from that pain. It’s not healthy, and we should have better ways of dealing with closeted people than this. Overall, I still highly recommend Sex Education, with this being one of the more cliché elements in an otherwise really thoughtful show.

(image: Netflix)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.