Netflix’s new YA series ‘Sex Education’ can give much-needed education about teenagers
I filed a leave today to look after my grandmother, and I didn’t have anything significant to do while I’m home, so I did what every bored 25-year-old would do.
I’ll be honest: part of me has this strange fascination with Brits. On one end they act so primly and refined. But on another, they’re so crass and sarcastic — it makes them such beautiful people to watch. Plus they have this idiosyncratic charm. I can’t put my finger on it.
And Asa Butterfield’s eyes.
But I’m digressing. So I chose Netflix’s new coming-of-age series Sex Education to watch, and just a few minutes in, I’m reminded of why I love British shows and how they deal with sex.
A UK series tends to be unapologetic with its subject matter, and rarely is it afraid to plaster all the nitty-gritty on screen. If you need breasts, you have breasts. If you need cursing and violence, you’ll see the beating of a lifetime. If you need family dysfunction, it’s going to throw in the ring a drunkard Swedish father plus his androgynous estranged daughter.
It is very comparable to a previous series on the streaming platform, The End of the F****ing World. Both deal with adolescent desires, except Sex Education does not really talk about desires to kill people.
Rather it eases its viewers into quite the eye-opening complexities of human sexuality, especially those of teenagers. Teenagers are so sexually charged now, with the advent of pornography and actual sex education in schools. And most of them have a hard time dealing with their own sexual issues since talking about it would turn them into social pariahs.
Kathryn Merteuil’s character in Cruel Intentions (1998) puts sex succinctly: “Everybody does it. It’s just that nobody talks about it.” It’s true. We’re so afraid to talk about how sex can be, but Sex Education is not.
Butterfield’s Otis Milburn tries to give after-school sex and relationship therapy to other 16-year-olds in their quaint British town. The problems range from pubic lice to discerning between attraction and desire for companionship, and from viagra misuse to abortions. Some may think that teenagers don’t think about these, but the series perfectly illustrates that they do. They get really stressed over it, and adults talk about sex in such clinical ways that it doesn’t help them — so they go to a better option: someone whose mother is a sex therapist.
The thing is, Otis is a teenager too, and he isn’t spared from the sexual issues he should address. But the teenage concern of eluding your parents to avoid having your problems scientifically dissected is compounded by the fact that Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist. Anderson’s Jean has a problem separating her outlook on sex from her parenting skills, and she couldn’t help but be a mother.
As the series progressed, the characters developed deeper motivations in such ways that were both predictable and fresh. But the predictability isn’t because they are tropes. It’s because we were once these kids, and we know exactly what they were talking about.
Their social media campaign is also worth applauding. It escapes me that even with the internet, teenagers (like me, once) can be really stupid when it comes to making sexual health decisions. And the information we read just passes before our eyes. But this teaser of a 21-year-old actor who looks like a high schooler spewing out sex terminologies helps in ways grown-ups have forgotten to understand.
Sex Education has a lot of heart to talk about teenage sexual health at a time where younger people are having more sex. It sheds light on adolescents being able to say, “Hey, we’re horny too and we get stressed over it.”
Teenagers feel peer pressure to get banged up at a point in their life when they are just configuring their bodies and sexualities, so a series unapologetic enough to show how messy it can be to figure stuff out is good. And messy can be really beautiful.
But really, this is more of an Asa Butterfield appreciation story, and I am not ashamed of it.