The horrors of teen sex are a universal experience. And Sex Education feels like the extended therapy session we needed to work through all that buried, mortifying trauma.
At first, you might be quick to put the new Netflix series in the same category as other racy teen British shows like The Inbetweeners, Skins, or even Misfits. But while Sex Education mines in a similar brazen youthfulness, it strikes closer to home with a realism more akin to Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.
Otis starts off as your average, introverted, loser high school “everyboy.” A virgin who’s paralyzingly uncomfortable with his own sexuality, his phobias run counter to the openness of his sex therapist mother, played perfectly by Gillian Flynn. But Otis experiences a spike in relevancy when popular bad girl Maeve capitalizes on his untapped skills as a psychologist’s son and turns him into the school’s sex guru.
But that stereotype-laden summary fails to communicate how Sex Education brilliantly subverts the assumptions made through labels like jock, mean girl, dunce, weirdo, therapist, popular, loser, gay, lesbian, slut (or slag), and virgin.
Each character’s journey, whether a main plot or side story, is an amalgamation of quietly unexpected revelations. Sex Education knows which trope you expect to play out, and instead delivers a story about real people and the complex mess of contradictions that we are.
Sex Education knows which trope you expect to play out, and instead delivers a story about real people and the complex mess of contradictions that we are.
This largely traces back to how it uses physical intimacy as a way to explore rather than exploit its characters. Despite its title, the sex scenes are decidedly unsexy. The most graphic, like the opening scene with a guy faking an orgasm, are cringe-inducing fiascos of mundane reliability. In another, a lesbian couple tries frantically to get off while scissoring — before conceding to just watching Blue Planet instead.
Without ever erring into the Forced Wokeness of other Netflix Originals (**ahem** Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), the show effortlessly depicts the broad spectrum of humanity that is sex. And that means doing much more than just dropping progressive buzzwords and aphorisms, or showing non-heterosexual couples.
Because ultimately everyone, even the sex therapist, is trapped by their own narrow definition of what their own sexuality should or shouldn’t be.
Otis is disgusted by his own debilitating celibacy, unable to see it as the gift that makes him so good at helping others accept their sexual dysfunctions. His show-stealing best friend, Eric, is one of the few openly gay kids at school. Yet while unapologetic about his sexual orientation and even accepted by his religious father, even he struggles to show himself the same self-love.
A boy with a “big, massive elephant cock” can’t bare the weight of the pressure that comes with it. Meanwhile the extremely horny band geek desperate to lose her virginity through elaborate fantasy roleplaying scenarios forgets the reality of who she is.
The same questions haunts every one of them: Why can’t I be normal? Why am I not like everyone else?
But watching such a wide breadth of people struggle to figure out their different sexualities reveals how not being normal is normal. The only commonality to be found in our bedroom experiences is the certainty that we’re grotesque weirdos doing it all wrong. And if we all feel that way, then that’s the definition of normal.
In Sex Education, sex is both everything and nothing. It’s everything in so far as it’s all anyone seems capable of thinking about. But the actual act itself is nothing when compared to the whole person you’re doing it with, and all the baggage they bring with them.
It’s a different kind of nudity than we’re used to seeing on TV, laying bare our humanity rather than a bunch of tits and cock (though there’s that, too). Sex is rarely the answer or solution to the problems each character is dealing with. But it does make it harder to hide from their problems. And when you can’t hide it, you have to find a way to face it.
Almost no one grew up with the sex education we needed. School taught us to view it as a list of potential STDs, while porn taught us to see it as an unrealistic performance.
But in Sex Education, it’s a raw display of human failures and flaws. And that’s what makes it so beautiful.