There aren’t many places you can get an A* grade Sex Education these days but Netflix has just gone to the top of the class yet again.
Sex Education came early to telly this year, premiering on January 11, but it stoked a fire in the bellies of people young and old who certified it officially ‘Fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes after just eight episodes.
So, prepare to live your best Netflix and chill and take a deep dive into the in’s and out’s – ahem – of Sex 101, courtesy of a young man called Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), who lives at home with his mum, Jean (Gillian Anderson), an esteemed sex therapist and author.
No spoilers; Scout’s Honour. You can start slow, with the trailer:
In the first season, the cast of misfits experience the trials and tribulations of dipping their toes into sexual intercourse – some with more past experience than others – nestled into their sleepy Nowheresville Town.
While each character has their own story to tell, Sex Education follows the reluctant theoretical expert, Otis, and his razor-sharp classmate, Maeve (Emma Mackey), the brainchild of the unlikely pair’s underground sex therapy business.
So far, Otis has helped his peers tackled their own issues of body image, masturbation, foreplay, porn, ‘wankathons’, as well as consent and image-based sexual assault.
Writer, Lauri Nunn, told UNILAD she’s determined to debunk all the other sexpectations in a ‘frank and funny’ way – and there’s a deep well of role plays out there for her to mine.
Episode one starts with the basics. We meet Adam (Connor Swindells), the son of Moordale’s headmaster and toxic masculinity-driven school bully who Nunn says ‘desperately needs a hug’.
Nunn explained she took inspiration from a number of Adam-esque guys she knows in real life:
I often take inspiration from people I know from my own life, and Adam is a combination of so many young men I’ve encountered who have been raised in a toxic male environment.
Showing his erectile dysfunction in episode one seemed like an interesting way to chip away at his macho armour and reveal he’s struggling with the pressure to be ‘normal’ as much as his peers.
Sex Education isn’t the only show dealing with puberty and our fledgling sexual encounters, or changing the narrative for the better – just take a look at Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth, with its hormone monsters and talking vaginas.
But it is one of the only programmes geared at young people which has put E.D. – a ‘massively common but under-reported’ issue – front and centre, according to Emily Burt, the Founder of Fumble, an inclusive non-profit sex advice organisation for young people.
Why? Well, let’s be honest, most of us associate E.D. with the ageing process and assume it’s something which doesn’t often effect young people – especially not a young man like Adam, who seems to define himself by testosterone.
There are so many misconceptions about E.D., one of the most stigmatised sexual dysfunctions, according to Dr Lexx Brown-James, Founder of The Institute for Sexuality and Intimacy.
She cites the medical definition from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, explaining E.D. is ‘the recurrent inability to achieve or maintain an adequate erection during partnered sexual activities’.
Dr Shabina Azmi from Bupa UK chimed in, stating that while impotence is natural form time to time, alcohol intake can also contribute to ongoing dysfunctions of a more serious nature, adding impotence is more common among diabetic men.
The doctor added:
It could be a sign of an underlying health condition which needs treatment. Some possible physical causes include a hormonal imbalance, narrowing of penis blood vessels, high blood pressure, a side effect of a prescribed medication or even excessive cycling!
Male arousal involves the brain, hormones, nerves, blood vessels, muscles and emotions. So if any of these are thrown out of balance, it can impact your ability to get an erection.
Clearly, E.D. has a lot of causalities, one of which relates to pressure and performance anxiety as well as a desire to please which creates ‘a perfect storm’, according to Dr Brown-James.
After all, in sexual relationships involving men, ‘a functional penis is considered a requirement, not a bonus’, says Burt, adding sex education is ‘completely centred around Penis-In-Vagina action’ and encourages most men to ‘place a lot of worth in the penis because it’s their defining sexual feature.’
Perhaps this is why a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found 1 in 4 patients who were newly diagnosed with E.D. were under 40. Almost half of these young men suffered severe E.D.
And, Dr Brown-James has seen it cause ‘tremendous anxiety, depression, self esteem loss, self loathing, and fear all wrapped up in each person’ in every sexual encounter. Dr Azmi agreed.
Yet, in pop culture E.D. is treated as a ‘comedic crutch’, says Burt, an approach which only heightens the taboo and thus ‘the pressure on young men to perform and seek potentially unhealthy solutions’.
While the medicinal manner Adam misguidedly deals with his E.D. does offer a plethora of comic situations, it’s the way his two empathetic classmates treat his insecurities and vulnerabilities which make the moralising tale and give the opening episode – and Adam – its big finish.
Dr Brown-James, a longtime fan of the show from across the pond in Saint Louis, Missouri, told UNILAD not all the sexual frustrations so humorously and heart-warmingly captured in Sex Education are categorically dysfunctions, as such, but ‘each and every one of them are valid and deserved of specialised, individual attention’.
But, sex education is still lacking – it’s still not even compulsory in all schools in England yet and won’t be until 2020.
Although Nunn admits she’s no expert, the writer added:
There’s an urgent need for LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education and active conversations about consent. I also think it would be great if young women were taught about female-pleasure and desire.
The writer speaks from experience, and like many of us ‘watched so many teen-genre film and TV shows when [she] was younger’ because ‘they helped [her] feel like less of a weirdo when [she] was going through puberty’.
I think one of the most complicated elements of sex is talking honestly about it. It can be awkward at any age, which is why encouraging more open dialogue on the subject helps break down damaging stigma.
The heart of a lot of young adult content is self-discovery and acceptance and I hope Sex Education adds to the conversation.
Dr Brown-James believes Sex Education and shows like it will help audiences on the righteous path to ‘unlearn sexuality the way we know it and redefine it for ourselves’.
To help with E.D. and some of the other sexual challenges presented in Sex Education, it’s important to remember, the only ‘right’ way to have intercourse is to ensure it is absolutely consensual and safe – however the folks having sex define that.
There does not have to be an order to intercourse, and it does not end and begin with an erect penis.
The show’s message says the first step to feeling comfortable with your sexuality and sexual function is talking with friends, family, therapists; anyone who’ll listen, really!
Nunn shared one final message – above and beyond the work she’s doing through Sex Education to make young adults and old adults come to terms with their sexual hang ups – adding, ‘It’s okay to run your own race, and do things in your own time, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships.’
As one anonymous male, who has experienced E.D., told UNILAD:
I’m not saying a TV show can cure E.D… You need proper expert help for that. But it certainly feels good to laugh along with some of the crackpot solutions I think we’ve all considered trying before.
Anything which preaches talking about a problem made worse by taboo is okay by me.
Meanwhile, as Nunn looks forward to seeing ‘where the characters are heading, both on their emotional journeys and in terms of their sexual development’ if they get another series, the writer encourages ‘open and honest’ conversations…
And if you’re lucky enough to not have any sexual hang ups to chew over, maybe you can just talk about Maeve, Otis, Adam, Eric, Jean and the gang at the water-cooler come Monday.
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