While every adolescent story has its brushes and run-ins with sex, Sex Education does a remarkable job of tackling the inelegant topic of sexual growth with equal nuance and distinction for every character. It is not, as the title suggests, a show about one subject, but a masterfully interwoven narrative that mirrors the messiness of human sexuality.
As Mashable’s Jess Joho put it in our review of the show, “everyone, even the sex therapist, is trapped by their own narrow definition of what their own sexuality should or shouldn't be.”
I was 23 when I first heard the word demisexual – a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a strong emotional connection with someone. It is a curious sensation, to hear a new word and realize that not only do you know it, but you’ve connected with it deeply for years. It took me too long to find that word and the validity of its definition because there were no examples of it in mainstream media.
Sex Education is the first instance I can recall of a protagonist not constantly preoccupied by the need for validation through sex and love, but whose journey is even more fundamental than that. Otis (Asa Butterfield) knows who he is – his life’s status quo includes finding different men emerging from his mum’s bedroom every morning and dressing in drag every year for best friend Eric’s (Ncuti Gatwa) birthday.
Otis’s difficulty with sex and relationships operates completely independent of his other interpersonal relationships or his work and school life. He is the remarkable case of a sexually inactive fictional character who isn’t immediately dismissed as asexual, confused, or ailing in some way. He is, like everyone else on the show, on his own journey – and the show, to its immense credit, lets him be.
We are in an age of sex-positive entertainment, and it’s brilliant. Depending on what you watch, there’s always been some degree of it, but a sea change can ostensibly be traced back to Lena Dunham’s Girls, which premiered in 2012. Girls was known, among other things, for explicit and often messy sex among its young millennial characters, who relate to physical intimacy in starkly different ways from their Sex and the City or Friends ancestors.
But an easy failure of sex-positive media is the assumption that it applies to everyone. The teens in Universal’s Blockers were on a quest to do something that everyone else was ostensibly doing. Even Sex Education opens with this thesis: “Everybody’s either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging.”
That does apply to a lot of people, but this mentality in movies, television, and society at large can be extremely alienating to young people who don’t into any of those categories at what mainstream media would tell me was an acceptable time to feel this way. For Otis, and for other characters, their school and culture’s casual attitude toward sex creates an additional layer of shame, that they are somehow not part of this movement and can’t figure out how to be.
We’ve seen fictional characters want to have sex just to “get it over with.” In Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan’s character is told immediately after her first sexual experience that she’s “going to have so much un-special sex” in her life. Otis (and multiple peers) resign themselves to this credo, to getting the un-special sex out of the way so they can be prepared for the special sex.
But Sex Education is the first time I can recall someone being physically unable to go through with it; other shows or movies have characters change their mind because they want to wait or to have sex with someone they care about. Their bodies are ready even though their minds and hearts are not, but in this show it is the body that betrays the truth. Sex Education reminds us that sometimes it is the libido, the sex drive, that thing that Freud and HBO took as a given, which does not comply.
The belief that we all have some latent and charged sexual instinct is the kind of assumption that leads to miscommunication between partners. As we talk about affirmative consent, we need to talk about different levels of sexual desire and the fact that someone not wanting to have sex does not mean they are being rude or feel disgusted – they may, quite simply, not want to have sex.
Otis only starts to explore his sex drive after significant emotional moments with someone he cares about.
Sex Education never uses the word demisexual, but Otis struggles to negotiate his sex drive from the outset. His mother’s professional outlook is that he’s sexually repressed, and we learn that he has childhood associations of sex with guilt and shame, which supports this. He can’t even bring himself to masturbate (though he dutifully lays out tissues and porn to make it look like he has), and the few times he gets close are because of significant emotional moments shared with someone he cares about.
Every character in this show represents someone in the audience. There will be Maeves feeling empowered by her character's confident sensuality; there will be Erics defining their own bold identities; there will be viewers of all ages and orientations who see themselves in the many patients of Otis's underground sex therapy clinic. And there will be Otises watching who realize that their feelings and desires – or lack thereof – are equally valid. That is, in eight episodes, more sexual diversity than most of the television landscape combined.
As television continues to expand its world of stories, we find inclusivity extending; Sex Education’s diversity includes race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender, and a skillful study of sexuality and sex drive itself. The show's title refers as much to its characters' sex education as to its audience's. It is a testament to the lofty task of television trying to represent everybody; perhaps, with more stories like these, we may actually reach that goal.
Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix.