Kofo Ajala reflects on the issues raised in the latest season of Netflix’s Sex Education. Trigger warning: Sexual assault and self-harm.
The coming-of-age genre has been reimagined through the unmatched efforts of Sex Education. This Netflix original series has recently debuted its second series to its eagerly waiting fanbase, and just as the last season did, Sex Education has set the tone for the conversations that need to be had. The small screen has been utilised as a breeding ground for reimagined world: one where conversations surrounding sex and intimacy are open, honest and inclusive. And with that vision in mind, we as fans can strive to transform this world into that reality. Never before have we been able to reap the benefits of envisioning what such an inclusive space may even look like; where the broad spectrum of sexualities is discussed unapologetically and shows push their audience to do the same. Topics such as asexuality and pansexuality are discussed without hesitation because sex doesn’t define us. And if sex “doesn’t make us whole” then how can we possibly be broken?
In this article, I will be exploring some of the storylines that stayed with me the most. Spoilers and trigger warnings ahead.
Dr Jean Millburn (Gillian Anderson) introduces the concept of the three t’s – trust, talking and truth. Throughout the season we see these themes tried and challenged by our protagonists as they attempt to find their feet in the world. To trust in their feelings and support systems, try their best to talk openly about their desires and be honest in their pursuit of what will leave them truly fulfilled. Unsurprisingly, this is not an easy task. We are not only invited into the characters’ vulnerable physical spaces but also into the most intimate parts of their minds. Where some of the questions cannot be so simply answered, and they face terrifying thoughts that they may not want to address. Sex Education does not simply ask us to follow these young people on their journeys, but also to take the mantras of this fabricated world and apply it practically into our real one.
In episode one, we take a deeper dive into the personal world of Moordale’s swimming champion and resident heartthrob, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Sterling). Burdened by the weight of his mother’s expectations, the rapidly deteriorating stability of his home life and his continuing battle with his anxiety, Jackson resorts to crushing his hand at the gym, stopping him from being able to swim. Through him, the show discusses the realities of self-harm and anxiety. That poor mental health is unapologetic and indiscriminate. It doesn’t care whether you have the looks, success and popularity that one may assume would make you the happiest person in the world.
Seeing a dark-skinned black boy be the focus for Sex Education’s mental health arch was so important. We rarely see representation of this calibre that acknowledges black boys dealing with anxiety and self-harm. Ncuti Gatwa praised the show for its holistic exploration of the mental health of young black men, saying “these are issues we all face, and they never get discussed.”
We are introduced to Viv (played by Chinenye Ezeudu), a bright and witty overachiever that is tasked with helping Jackson study while his hand is healing. The bringing together of these two worlds forces both of these characters to interrogate their biases and leads to the birth of one of my favourite friendships in the whole series. She helps Jackson to think about what he really wants and helps him audition for the school play in exchange for dating tips.
In episode six, Jackson is forced to be vulnerable and come to terms with the reality of his self-harm. In the midst of a panic attack, he reveals some of the turbulence that has been dwelling on his mind, saying “it’s starting again, and it feels like my head is about to explode if it doesn’t stop. I need it to stop.” Viv not only plays the role of his comforter and grounding force but also as the medium used to educate the audience on the dangers of self-harm. “Statistically, people that self-harm are nine times more likely to take their own lives. You need professional help.”
I cannot begin to pretend to understand the nuances of self-harm and the isolation caused by such a dangerous mental health struggle or what it’s like to see your turmoil played back to you through your laptop screen. But I do believe that Sex Education addressed this pressing issue with sensitivity and decorum. They did not rely on gore and triggering displays of self-harm as other shows have done to talk about a pressing issue for young people and I cannot help but commend them for it.
Season 2 also introduced topics that were a lot closer to home when discussing sex and relationships: such as assault. In episode three, we see Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) assaulted by a masturbating man on the bus. The events that unfold around her are reminiscent of stories girls have grown to know all too well and repress as just one of those things every girl goes through. We watch as hopeless voyeurs as no one comes to her aid. We see her try and make excuses for the man, saying that he just must’ve been “lonely” and that he had seemed so friendly. We reflect on the ways that she minimalises this traumatic experience, maybe even remembering times that we too have done this as to not make a fuss or draw attention. Her anxieties stop her from being able to get on the bus, and she sees the face of her assaulter everywhere she goes. For many young girls, this chilling reminder of our own shared experiences is hard to watch.
In season one we see Aimee reclaim her body and go through a process of un-learning patriarchal ideas surrounding sex. Ideas that deem women’s pleasure as a complete afterthought. Just as we felt pride in her learning to put her pleasure first, so too are we distraught by the reality that this can be so easily taken away in moments.
The bittersweet reality that young women all share in these experiences is explored in episode seven of the series. We see all the girls put aside their differences to come together and help Aimee. Reflecting on all the times that they have been physically mistreated and the everlasting implications of assault, they comfort not just Aimee but the audience also. Watching this episode, I was angry and disheartened by the ridiculously young age at which girls start to think about their bodies negatively and how they conduct themselves around men. Viv (Escudo) could not have been any older than ten in her flashback where a man exposed himself to her in a public swimming pool.
Sex Education does not leave us with a cliche happy ending. Assault and violations happen every day, and they don’t make an effort to pretend that this isn’t the case. After all, that is not for the fictional world to conclude, but the real one. Until then, young girls know that many of us are bound together by “non-consensual penises.”
Coming of age is not a genre that is exclusive to the young. Every day we are revaluating and reaffirming who we are and what we need. With shows like Sex Education looking to take the lead on these discussions, how can the future be anything but bright?
Artwork by Aggie Tait.