Netflix’s “Sex Education” shows how learning to have good sex can make us better people

“Sex Education” on Netflix finds the sweetness in the awkward parts of human sexuality.
“Sex Education” on Netflix finds the sweetness in the awkward parts of human sexuality.
Image: Netflix
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Sex can be a lot of fun. It can also be weird—confusing, disappointing, embarrassing, or emotionally fraught.

Most adults are aware of these variables. And yet movies and TV shows often depict sex in simplistic terms, particularly when it comes to stories about teenagers. Some focus on transcendently romantic young love (Endless LoveTwilightSay Anything). Others suggest teens are single-mindedly obsessed with losing their virginity (Sixteen Candles, American PieSuperbad, Blockers). And dramatic accidental-pregnancy plot lines serve as go-to cautionary tales (The Secret Life of an American Teenager, Degrassi, The OC).

But when it comes to the trials and tribulations of sexual discovery—let alone the challenges of building a caring, mutually fulfilling sexual relationship—pop culture tends to be strangely silent. The most important thing about sex, it seems to tell young people, is whether or not you’ve had it.

This kind of portrait is decidedly unhelpful for the real-life young adults who look to culture for cues about what to expect from sexual relationships. As Richard Weissbourd, director of Harvard University’s Human Development and Psychology master’s program, says: “I think we’ve failed epically to prepare young people for the tender, subtle, courageous work of learning how to love someone else.”

An exception to this rule is the new Netflix series Sex Education, a show that finds the sweetness in the awkward and under-discussed parts of human sexuality.

The British show’s first season follows Otis (Asa Butterfield), a high-school student whose mom (Gillian Anderson) is a sex therapist—a background that has imbued him with some personal hangups about sex while also making him emotionally intelligent far beyond his years. When rebel-girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) accidentally discovers that Otis has a knack for coaching his peers through their sexual problems, she proposes that they go into business together, with Otis offering his fellow students counsel on everything from erectile dysfunction to body-image issues, unrequited crushes, and how to figure out what you like in bed.

Gentle without being treacly, and insistently progressive in its nonjudgmental depiction of a range of sexualities and preferences, Sex Education is the rare romantic comedy that also offers an honest depiction of sex and relationships.

Among the things that Sex Education gets right, according to Weissbourd, is its portrayal of teenagers at a range of levels of sexual maturity. Otis, the show’s first episode makes clear, not only hasn’t had sex yet, he’s still working up to trying out masturbation. Maeve, by contrast, is sexually active and quite comfortable with that; her struggles are more around believing herself to be worthy of love. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), Otis’s best friend and one of the few gay kids who’s out at their high school, is better-versed in the theory of sex than the practice. Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), the one nice kid in the popular “Untouchables” crowd, is always eager to please a boyfriend, but remains mostly unacquainted with her own sexuality.

This rainbow of experience, and comfort levels, with sex is far more realistic than the media’s constant obsessing over hookup culture would suggest. “Hookup culture is wildly exaggerated,” says Weissbourd. Indeed, as Kate Julian explained in a recent story for The Atlantic, young people are waiting longer to have sex: In 1991, 54% of American high-school students said they’d had sex; by 2017, that number was down to 40%.

Julian points to a range of contributing factors that can help explain what seems to be a decline in sexual activity among young people, from the influence of porn and online dating to a rise in sexual inhibition. There’s also the simple fact that teenagers mature at different rates.

As Paul Feig, creator of the cult-favorite 1999-2000 TV series Freaks and Geeks, said in explaining the inspiration behind his show: “I got tired of every teenager being portrayed as horny and completely cool with sex, because that was not my experience.” Nor are teens immune to the problems that we often associate with older adults’ sex lives; as Weissbourd points out: “There are issues around sex and performance, being overloaded with expectations, and also issues around intimacy and closeness.”

Sex Education is equally attuned to the importance of communication in friendships. One of its most nuanced plotlines follows the evolving relationship between Otis and Eric, childhood pals who are accustomed to expressing their love for one another through tussles and constant ribbing. As Otis’s crush on a girl begins to interfere with their friendship, they must each rise to the challenge of finding words to express trickier emotions. The baseline assumption on Sex Education is that most teenagers are decent people who want to love and be loved; they just need some help figuring out what it means to treat each other well.

While the kids on Sex Education are certainly interested in sex, their early ventures into that realm are accompanied by an endless list of anxieties. (“My pubes are out of control,” one girl declares.) The parade of insecurities is both realistic and ultimately reassuring. If we’re all convinced something is deeply wrong with us, the show suggests, the most likely possibility is that we’re all basically fine.

Sex Education also offers a refreshing focus on sex as an interpersonal, rather than individual, experience. Whatever the initial physical problems that its teenage characters are grappling with, most of Otis’s sex advice is centered on honest self-reflection (“You can’t choose who you’re attracted to,” he tells one character) and respectful communication.

That’s one front on which a lot of real-life sex education falls short, according to Weissbourd. Parents and educators tend to focus on how following certain guidelines about sex will be personally beneficial for individual teenagers: It’s important to use condoms if you don’t want to have a baby at 16, say, and important to establish clear consent with your sexual partner in order to avoid getting in trouble. But we often forget to talk about how sex affects other people. Consent, Weissbound says, is “a fairly low bar ethically speaking …  A much more important and ethical bar is to engage in activities that your partner feels really good about and gratified by.”

That’s what Sharon Lamb, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, was hoping to address when she developed a curriculum on sexual ethics that aims to engage teenagers in philosophical and moral discussions about sex and society. “When I looked at what sex ed was doing, it wasn’t only a problem that kids weren’t getting the right facts,” Lamb tells the Harvard Graduate School of Education publication Usable Knowledge. “It was a problem that they weren’t getting the sex education that would make them treat others in a caring and just way.”

Sex Education makes the case that developing strong romantic relationships can also help us become better people. As the show acknowledges, the risks of  practicing compassion and vulnerability are high—especially amid the casual cruelty of high school. But the rewards are enormous too: better sex and relationships. “In terms of human flourishing,” Weissbourd says, “there’s nothing more important we can do to than help young people prepare to love.”