Something to Talk About: Sex Education on Netflix
If you’ve ever wondered whether sexual content on TV glamorizes—or even encourages —young people to have sex, the following might surprise you. As sexual content in pop culture became more explicit and more prevalent over the last twenty-some years, teen pregnancy and birth rates dropped by more than half. In fact, popular media is one key factor credited with helping to drive this public health miracle. Not by showing less sex; but by normalizing open conversations about sex, portraying birth control as a regular part of sex, and spotlighting how characters feel about their decisions to have sex (or not).
Netflix’s original series Sex Education holds nothing back when it comes to sex, in all its awkward glory. But at its core, the show is a heartfelt testament to honesty, respect, and trust as the keys to satisfying relationships at any age. It’s an ode to the power of open conversations—and a reminder that it’s easier to talk about being honest than it is to actually be honest. Otis, the wise-beyond-his-years virgin whose mom (Jean) is a sex therapist, starts an underground sex therapy clinic at school with classmate/crush/mysterious Maeve. Otis, Maeve, best friend Eric, and the many vibrant characters in Sex Education are figuring out who they are, what they want, and who they want to be. While Jean is a talented therapist, her professional training doesn’t prepare her to learn how to let Otis grow up.
Despite his lack of sexual experience, Otis is a skilled listener who helps his fellow students get beyond the mechanics of sex and into its deeper meaning in their lives and relationships. At 16, Otis feels self-conscious about being a virgin–but as the series unfolds, he and his fellow students come to realize that we all have the power to decide what we’re ready for and when; and that true comfort lies in going at your own pace. One example of many: when a “client” is frustrated by her many failed attempts to have sex for the first time, Otis points out that most people their age haven’t had sex yet either, and perhaps her heart is trying to tell her something.
The show delivers on its promise of honesty and informs without being heavy-handed. The school sex ed class alone ends up being as hilarious as it is informative (thanks to Otis) and we see that real sex education is happening all around us, all the time. Sex Educationrips band-aids off everything from virginity to abortion to mother/son boundary issues to the need for better LGBTQ sex ed—with heart, pain, compassion, and humor. This is how actual people experience all things sex.
Another reason Sex Education is a great conversation-starter: we’ve all been there. Maybe not in these exact situations, but the doubts, heartbreak, thrills, and panic these characters experience are deeply relatable at all ages. Fact: 7 in 10 young people 12-24 say they have learned something useful about sex, love, or relationships from TV shows/popular media; 2 out of 3 say that when there are teen/unplanned pregnancy stories in popular media that they can relate to, it makes them think more about their own risk; and more than half have had a helpful conversation with their parents about sex because of something they saw in popular media. TV shows rank 3rd, after friends and parents, as the source where teen girls say they’ve learned the most about romantic relationships.
Each episode of Sex Education is packed with beyond-the-basics sex questions that everyone—adults and young people alike—thinks about, but few people have the guts to ask. If you have a young person in your life, this show will make you more motivated than ever to be clear that you’re trustworthy (but not intrusive!); to start talking with them now; and to point them to good information about sex, relationships, and birth control. For those who worry that these conversations will encourage sex, research shows that the opposite is true: providing accurate, comprehensive sex education doesn’t hasten sex, it helps young people have safer sex when they’re ready. If there’s one takeaway from the show’s mix of sweetness and spice, it’s this: Talking is power.
Watch the full season of Sex Education on Netflix here. Tell us what you think!
—Marisa Nightingale, Senior Media Advisor