Netflix’s Sex Education Explores Sex Positivity in a Refreshingly Nuanced New Series
The “horny teenage boy” narrative is a well-worn staple of the coming of age genre. Films and television series have mined humor and pathos out of hormone-riddled young men unable to keep it in their pants who are on a mission to lose their virginity by any means necessary (even/especially at the expense of their female counterparts).
Sex Education takes a refreshingly different tactic with the story of Otis Milburn (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield) a tightly wound teen who can’t even masturbate without having a panic attack. Otis’s affliction is made all the more ironic because his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) is a renowned sex therapist. This leaves Otis with an extensive knowledge of human sexuality, if zero personal experience.
Otis is content to spend his days at school as a fly on the wall, palling around with his openly gay best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa in a scene-stealing role) until resident bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) recruits him to offer sex advice to the fellow students. The duo quickly set up a sex ed clinic where teens willingly pay money to solve their sexual problems.
Each episode brings a different teen couple struggling with different sexual issues, and this is where the series soars. There’s easy humor to be found in the sexual foibles of youth, but Sex Education tackles sex positivity with empathy and unexpected sweetness. A girl doesn’t want to have sex with the lights on because she’s insecure about her body. A lesbian couple can’t find the right rhythm because they lack chemistry. Each issue is treated with sensitivity and understanding, providing a delightfully nuanced look at sexuality and intimacy. The show understands that sex isn’t just about the act itself, but the emotions and insecurities that go along with it.
What makes the show so unique is its unwillingness to stick to stereotypes. Otis is knowledgeable about sex but can’t connect with his own body. Eric is flamboyant but he also struggles with his conservative family and his connection to his church. Maeve is a rough girl living in a trailer park, but she is a brilliant writer and is wickedly smart. The series cleverly subverts the classic teen tropes by allowing its characters to have depth and complexity. Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) may be the head boy and the swim team star, but he also has issues with anxiety. Gillian Anderson’s Jean is a sex expert but shies away from real intimacy.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this smart series, which takes place in present day but has a timeless, John Hughesian quality to it. The teens listen to vinyl, ride their bikes, and often dress like they’re from decades past. But unlike Hughes, the ensemble is diverse and consent is emphasized. Otis and Eric’s friendship is genuinely moving and delightful, which is still rare to see onscreen between straight and gay men.
Perhaps what sets the series apart from other teen dramas is the vulnerability it allows the characters (especially the male characters) to experience. For the teens of Sex Education, sexuality isn’t just a physical urge but an emotional experience.
Sex Education is currently available on Netflix.
(image: Sam Taylor/Netflix)
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