“She touched my eyebrows and now I have an erection.” Otis Milburn, Sex Education
THE SEX PART: NEXT GEN SKINS
It’s been said that if Millennials were generation ‘selfie’ that Gen Z are generation polyamory. Indeed, there’s been a significant cultural shift spearheaded by young people, around the ways in which healthy relationships are defined. One reason for this is that, for digital-first youth today, romantic connection, it seems, has never been more accessible. There are more options on the table when it comes to what’s possible, and society is generally more accepting.
But in reality, teen sexual encounters rarely live up to picture perfect expectations. The matter-of-fact way that Sex Education openly addresses the (perfectly) imperfect teenage sex and dating experience is reflective of a more progressive society and healthier attitudes toward dating. This makes the show a unique triumph in the eyes of youth (teens and older!):
“I think it reflects a more open society in terms of talking about sex in a realistic way with young people. It’s like 2019’s version of Skins, except with Skins it felt like it was shocking, whereas in ‘Sex Education’ it feels like it’s just a normal, realistic sitcom. It shows that sex and sex education is normal and actually can be good! It’s an example of how sex is becoming less taboo to discuss - especially between genders and generations. It’s still a TV show, but it feels more real than anything I’ve seen. There’s nothing else that’s really like it. I think other teenage shows brush over young people’s sex lives too much - it’s like writers don’t know how we talk or think about sex these days - or they don’t want to.” Grace, 26
It’s treatment of sex (and everything it comes with) in a realistic, sensitive and modern way, reflects how, despite navigating sex and relationships with the support of technology, youth still struggle with a dance of elusivity around dating - from learning how to interact with one another in real life situations to asking awkward questions.
“It opens up the conversation about sex and what it means to be sexually active in your teenage years. It allows them to use scenes from the show to explore things that they may have been hiding from their peers. For example, laughing over the 'prescribing a wank' scene allows young women and girls to have the conversation about masturbation. Or, vaginismus is huge in women and yet no one even knows it's a thing!!!” Toni, 25
In the spirit of changing for the better, #MeToo era youth are pushing the popular understanding of relationships beyond traditional monogamous values, in a bid to tackle historically problematic communication habits around sex and cultural or societal norms. This doesn’t necessarily mean having more than one romantic partner - fundamentally it’s about figuring out what’s right for you, rather than following a set of rules laid out by others. Sex Education is both entertaining and informative for young viewers while challenging what ‘normal’ narratives around relationships should be. In its essence, it reflects how youth themselves are reassessing codes of conduct passed on by previous generations - and on a modern, imperfect journey of discovery all of their own.
THE EDUCATION PART: LEARNING TO LOVE
While Sex Education has a lot of sex in it, it’s also got a lot of heart. This comes across in the essence of how it deals with sex and dating, but also in the way the narrative challenges stereotypes:
“...jocks have anxieties; nerds have lusts; mean girls and bullies have sympathetic backgrounds. Maeve, in particular, is exquisitely drawn - she’s smart, tough and outcast both for being poor and for being a girl who has sex and likes it.” James Poniewozik, NY Times
Just as the story is inclusive of sexual behaviour and attitudes, it is inclusive of individual identities. Sex education is inclusive of all race and class - reflecting a ‘no normal’ approach to living. This is significant to its success, especially considering young people’s rejection of stereotypes - we found in Youth Culture Uncovered 2018 that 92% of young people claim that “being true to myself” is important, while 49% said that they don’t feel like part of a generation but are just themselves, an individual.
To sum up, as one young viewer pointed out, Sex Education is fresh, hilarious, dark, youthful and heartfelt “...all while being crude af. All the characters are so fucking relatable, endearing and multi faceted.” Simply put, the content feels more raw and real than glossy rom com (and less clever or witty) alternatives, while showing you a good time and teaching you how to open up. This is something youth crave, especially in the context of navigating love lives.
Whether they are having lots, a little, or none, when it comes to sex and dating for youth the ‘new normal’ is that there is no normal (except for acceptance).