Netflix’s sex education does better than most schools sex education
Netflix’s Sex Education comedy, now in its third season, is set among a group of students and teachers at a UK high school. In describing sex education, he teaches viewers about sex and sexuality, often doing a better job than school-based sex education classes.
In the first episode of season three, Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) is interviewed on the radio about his new book, Uneducated Nation: A Sex Education Manifesto for Our Youth.
When the host asks her to tell her about the book, she replies that she was “shocked by the incompetence” of sex education classes at school. So she created “this easy-to-read manual to help empower our teens and their parents as they become sexually active young adults.”
He replies, “It looks a bit racy.” Jean retorts, “Well, if by racy you mean highly sought after and completely essential to the health and well-being of our children, then, yes, I guess it is.”
Jean’s answer could easily apply to the racy but essential TV series itself. It could also be seen as a commentary on how school-based sex education programs might improve their communication of relevant information to curious adolescents.
We are part of an international research team working with academics from Greece, Ireland and Norway to interview adolescents and their parents about their perceptions of the harms associated with accessing sexual content.
As researchers with expertise in the fields of sexology, communication and media studies, we value the knowledge that young people share about their own needs and wants.
Our research with adolescents – and stories that represent their experiences – shows that these are sexual beings who want and deserve sexually positive information. Too often this positive side of sex is overlooked in the classroom.
Sexually provocative, yet educational
Sex education is an example of how stories in popular culture can positively portray adolescent sexuality.
For example, the opening scene of this season three premiere episode is upbeat, playful, and sexy.
It cuts between at least 13 different moments of sexual pleasure: straight sex, gay sex between young men, gay role play between young women, masturbating while watching porn, online sex, virtual reality sex and the pleasure of reading a book while eating cheese puffs.
This sequence is sexually provocative, but also educational. It shows a range of desires across ages (yes, teachers and parents have sex too), races, sexualities, and body sizes.
There are none of the abstinence and fear messages often associated with adolescent sex representations, and no shy curtains substitute for sex.
The premise of the show is that the teens at Moordale High don’t get proper sex education classes, so Jean’s son Otis (Asa Butterfield) and classmate Maeve (Emma Mackey) set up a sex therapy service for their peers.
These young people are looking for information on how to overcome sexual difficulties and become better lovers. They (usually) find correct – and always candid – information from Otis and Maeve, who offer resources and advice.
Teens and porn
As we argue in a recent essay, this TV show complicates the idea that pornography is only harmful to teens.
Watching porn can be “a little fun,” to quote one character, but it can also be a source of misinformation about sex. Sex education debunks this misinformation, for example when one character mistakenly believes that a large penis is necessary for sexual satisfaction, and another thinks his lips should be tucked in.
Adolescents as consumers and producers of pornographic and erotic stories can use these stories, and the stories from sex education, to develop an understanding of sex and sexuality and supplement the information provided in the school curriculum.
This apparent contradiction about pornography corresponds to a report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies on the effects of pornography on young people.
This report highlights the lack of information on how young people access sexual content (unintentionally or intentionally); on the content of the pornography they are viewing; and the ability of adolescents to distinguish between the fantasy of pornography and the reality of their sexual experiences.
The report also found very little testimony from teenagers themselves about their experiences accessing sexual content online and any perceived harm from it. This highlights the need for further research, which includes the voices of adolescents.
Dr Jacqui Hendriks, who coordinates sexology classes at Curtin University, believes sex education should include discussions about pleasure rather than focusing primarily on reproduction.
Currently, the quality of sexuality education varies widely across the country, but in Western Australia, a group of researchers identified the “need to focus more on positive sexuality and relevant contemporary issues” in the classroom.
Sexuality education challenges a widespread perception that adolescents should be protected from the harms of sex and sexual material. The stories told by adolescents and about adolescents can be essential tools in opening conversations between children and adults about sex.
The conversation started by shows like Sex Education highlights the need for more comprehensive sex education not only in schools but in communities and in the family home itself.
Young adults say porn is their most useful source of information on how to have sex
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