At my sister’s urging, I watched the new British series on Netflix, Sex Education. The show revolves around Otis, a nerdy kid whose mother is a sex therapist (played by Gillian Anderson, IMO the only good reason to have watched The X-files); his best friend Eric, who is black, gay, aspiring to join the Swing Band and from a religious immigrant family; Maeve, a self-reliant almost-orphan who has been tagged as the school slut. Adam is the local bully whose father is Headmaster; Lily is a musician desperate to lose her virginity. The premise cleverly takes a thing that teenagers do – give each other sex advice – and draws it out to a likely conclusion. Except in this instance, the advice is well-researched, considerate and correct.
When Maeve discovers that Otis’ mother is a sex counselor, she intimidates him into setting up shop at school. She manages the bookings and money while he doles sex advice to their peers. His first triumph is in enabling the school bully to reach satisfactory completion. The writers do a masterful job of exploring teenage sexuality – this is not American Pie. The rushes of desire, the crushes that neither go anywhere nor end, the insecurity about their bodies, the sexual judgements of other kids as well as adults. Otis helps his classmates figure out the real source of their hangups and deal with them – maybe they won’t have to wait until their marriages fail twenty years later.
The show also deals with revenge porn, coming out, violence and other themes. Otis himself has a problem too, and it’s gratifying to see whether he will overcome it.
The most moving storyline for me was Eric’s. Played by the bright new talent Ncuti Gatwa, who I predict will be the breakout star of this show, he begins the series as a cute scamp, full of jokes and seemingly self-confident but goofy. I almost stopped watching. Why does the gay, Black kid have to be the clown of the story, I thought. I was certain that Eric’s family would be homophobic and he’d have to move in with his white, liberal friend Otis. I hate spoilers, so I will only say that the show surprised me, and it is a joy to watch Eric come into his own self.
Sex Education also includes a lovely moment of solidarity between students. Are the scenes of such solidarity (ie, the climax scene in In and Out when everybody in assembly fesses up to being gay) realistic? Maybe not, and maybe such events are far less spontaneous than depicted, and maybe things are more complicated than we see on TV. But sometimes seeing an event, even in fiction, gives our brains the message that such a thing might actually be possible.
The show’s big takeaway – sex is easier when you know and love yourself, and much harder when you don’t.
I’ll end with a shameless political note. In the United States, only 13 states – yep, less than a third – require medically accurate sexuality education. The Trump Administration is once again pushing abstinence-only sex ed, despite data showing that it has not reduced teen pregnancy or STDs. We’d better handle that if we don’t want the kids to rely entirely on real-life versions of Otis to figure out how to handle their all-too-natural desires.