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Netflix’s Sex Education gives the progressive portrayal of teenage sexuality I wish I had when I was younger

By:
Jeevan Sangha (@jeevanksangha)

When Season 3 of Netflix’s critically acclaimed series Sex Education released a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but shirk all of my responsibilities to buckle in for a weekend of binge-watching. 

The show, set in the fictional British town of Moordale, is centered around a gawky teenager named Otis Milburn, played by Asa Butterfield. Milburn begins to provide sex advice to the confused teens at his high school—inspired by his mother Jean, who is an actual sex therapist. 

While these two characters anchor the show, the people around them are what makes Sex Education one of the most vibrant and refreshing shows on Netflix.

Sex Education is a scintillating watch, even as an adult. But as I binged Season 3, I couldn’t help but think about how revolutionary it would have been for me to have this show as a teenager. 

Coming from a community where conversations about sex simply do not exist (especially for young girls and women), it would have been empowering to see what other people were experiencing. 

While conversations about sex are neglected in many South Asian households, children absorb a slew of implicit messaging about what expressions of sexuality are acceptable and unacceptable.

We’re expected to be heterosexual. We’re expected to get married. Sex is taboo, and is only to be expressed behind closed doors, and after marriage.  

These rigid expectations of sexuality are harmful in so many ways. They prevent young people from learning about safe sex practices, exploring the spectrum of sexuality, and even just having fun. When individuals don’t fit the bill for what our culture expects our sexuality to look like, many spend years unpacking all the guilt and shame associated with simply being themselves. 

Through Otis’ makeshift counselling sessions, the audience takes a journey through the humorous and sometimes sympathetic plight of teens who are trying their best to navigate their sexual awakenings. The show is fearless in its portrayal of coming of age. 

It’s for this reason that a show like Sex Education was so valuable for someone like me. It opened me up to a world where sex can be talked about in a healthy, accepting way— one that seemed so foreign from my own. 

The characters in Sex Education are high school students navigating it all; from academic stress to coming out, abortion, sexual assault, and so much more. In their sex lives, the students are still learning about what they like, what’s okay, and what isn’t. 

Still, the writers manage to display the teenage-ness of it all without being too heavy-handed in their writing. The writers aren’t telling us what to think or how to feel, they let the experiences of the characters speak and let it evoke compassion.

Sex Education also dives into the nuances of racialized students. A prime example of this is Eric Effiong (played by Ncuti Gatwa), Otis’ bestfriend and a Black, gay character whose presence lights up the screen in every frame. Eric is fiercely confident in himself, and the show traces his journey of coming out to his Nigerian family, and even goes on to portray the risky realities of being queer in Nigeria (my favourite episode in the whole show).  

We watch Eric embrace the underground queer scene in Nigeria, a fusing of his Africanness and his queerness.

I rarely see nuanced depictions of South Asian queerness on screen. Ones where the character has the screen time to see their queerness and South Asian expression merge. Watching Eric’s experience in Nigeria feels beautifully imaginative, and gives me hope for queer representation in television.

The breakthrough performance in Season 3 comes from Dua Saleh who plays Cal, a Black non-binary student, who catches the eye of the charming headboy Jackson Marchetti (played by the pitch-perfect Kedar Williams-Sterling). Cal exudes a calm coolness around their classmates, and still shows what it’s like to be worn down by a school that becomes increasingly militant about reinforcing the gender binary. 

Cal struggles to find where they feel safe to change their clothes, is harassed by the new principle to adhere to the girls’ dress code and fears that others do not perceive them as non-binary. The show takes time in building Cal’s character, rather than relegating them to the sidelines to seem progressive. 

Season 3 of Sex Education also tenderly explores the aftermath of a sexual assault portrayed in the first two seasons. After being sexually assaulted on a bus to school, Aimee suffers from PTSD and struggles to be sexually active with her boyfriend. 

This season brings Aimee to therapy with Jean as she validates her emotions and gently reminds her that her assault was not her fault. Sex Education does a great job of exploring the range of emotions that a survivor can experience, while refusing to making Aimee’s assault her only trait.

Throughout the show, the audience sees Aimee seek advice from Otis, abandon popularity and toxic friendships for her now best friend Maeve, and even adopt an emotional support animal to salvage her relationship with her boyfriend. Aimee is ditzy at times, but tenderhearted, fiercely loyal and giving to the people she loves. 

She’s magnetic on screen, and has also experienced sexual assault. We see all parts of Aimee, and love her because of it. 

There is so much to love about Sex Education, but the friendships are what I love the most. The show is anchored in deep, unabashed platonic love. As they go through the trials and tribulations of teenage life, the students of Moordale derive their strength from their best friends. Romantic love is important, but platonic love is enduring. 

If I think back to my high school experience it was the friendships that anchored me, too. My friendships are the great love stories in my life, deserving as much, if not more, screen time than romantic love. 

I wish I had known the beauty of that at 17 years old, the same way I do now. 

Sex Education gives characters of all backgrounds a chance to grow on screen. If anything, the show is a radical act of embracing the range of sexual experiences faced by teens and reminds us that education is always better than suppression. 

I’m so glad that the teens of this generation have the gift of this show. If you haven’t watched it yet, let this be your sign to do so.

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About the author: Jeevan is a UBC Sociology student, writer and self-proclaimed cinephile (to annoy the film majors). An aspiring journalist, she loves writing silly little articles about pop-culture, media, politics and the South Asian experience while balancing her job in community-engaged learning. When she isn't having an existential crisis, you can find her over-caffeinating, binging a new show or trying to prove that she's a much cooler, brown Rory Gilmore Instagram: @jeevanksangha

5X Press is a forum for opinions, conversations, & experiences, powered by South Asian youth. The views expressed here are not representative of those of 5X Festival.

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