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Old-fashioned parents and teachers needed a wake-up call, and Netflix’s Sex Education has provided just that.
The hit series, which recently blessed our screens once more for its third – and not final! – series, should act as a bible for all teachers and parents who are still stuck in outdated views about sex and relationships.
Parents and teachers no longer have any excuse to slut-shame, be judgemental or show anger or discrimination towards young people’s sexual endeavours – it’s 2021, and as Sex Education says, we should be ‘f*cking [that] pain away’.
Some parents and teachers, despite living in the modern age, have continued to project old-fashioned, restrictive and damaging views surrounding sexual relationships and activities onto the younger generation.
From measuring girls’ skirt lengths in school to make sure they don’t sexually provoke men, to tight-lipped or non-existent conversations between parents and their kids, not talking about sex or projecting the idea that it is, in some way, wrong is in itself wrong. The older generation needs to take a leaf out of Sex Education‘s book.
The show puts forward the idea of sex being an educated, open and honest conversation, involving school, parent and child. It encourages both parents and school teachers to not be embarrassed about initiating such conversations with young people and most importantly, not to shame them when they do engage in sexual activities that perhaps stray from their view of what is the ‘norm’ or acceptable.
In not speaking about sexual health, or condemning it, parents and teachers can have an extremely damaging effect on young people’s mental health and even impact whether they practice safe and consensual sex.
The overall relationship between the adult and young person can also be affected. According to AboutKidsHealth, ‘discussing sex is also part of starting open communication’ with a child.
The ‘best sex education strategy’, according to the site, is to start speaking about sex and relationships early on, before the child turns into an adolescent and the conversation becomes even more ‘uncomfortable’, running the risk of the child being misinformed.
While parents should be a ‘first source of information about sex’, has this always been the case?
Speaking to UNILAD, Sophie* spoke about how her mother’s strict and old-fashioned views on sex has been detrimental to her mental wellbeing, her relationship with others, and her view of sex.
Sophie was raped in her first relationship. Upon telling her mother, she was told that, because the man was her partner, she was expected to ‘put out for him’. ‘She blamed it on me having been sexually promiscuous at a young age. She said how it wasn’t possible to get sexually assaulted in a relationship,’ she said.
‘The fact that I have been raped more than once, and never put it forward to the police, is because my mother said no one would believe me because I was in a relationship. She believes that as a woman you have to be submissive to your partner and have sex with him when he wants.’
Sophie notes how her mother’s view of sex is heavily impacted by her coming from a family of colour. ‘My mother is fully Indian, and was raised in a very particular way,’ she explained.
Sophie noted how she grew up surrounded by people who had been in arranged marriages from the age of 14, including her grandmother. She said she was taught that ‘you stay with the man forever and do exactly what he wants’ and that it’s ‘a very patriarchal system’.
Sophie was told by her mother at a young age ‘no one would love her if she just slept with them’ and that she ‘wouldn’t be loved’ because she lost her virginity aged 16. ‘Her attitudes as a woman of colour are just very, very different,’ she said.
Sophie admitted that she still doesn’t tell her mum when she’s going on dates because she finds it ’embarrassing’. ‘I would be shamed for sleeping with them and not seeing them again.’
Darrius had similar experiences after growing up with a mother who is very religious and who believed that sex should be saved for marriage.
To this day, he still finds it a ‘confusing’ concept to navigate in his own sexual relationships. But he believes he should be able to make his own choices in relation to his own body.
As long as he and his sexual partners are ‘both consenting adults’, that’s ‘all that matters’ to him.
Sophie believes some of her mother’s views on sex have contributed to her forming a quite damaging relationship with sex. ‘Sex can be used as a weapon by men to get things from you, and I’ve taken that idea and used sex as a weapon on myself to be self-destructive. It is a definitively self-destructive act for so many women and it’s not talked about enough,’ she said.
She recalled how many ‘issues’ she has had in her life since, due to ‘sleeping around’, off the back of a lack of education into safe sex and having to slowly ‘educate herself’ instead.
Despite the awkwardness of such conversations, AboutKidsHealth suggests ‘children who receive sex education at home are actually less likely to engage in risky sexual activity’.
Sophie’s father’s side of the family had a very different approach compared to her mother’s. ‘They were much more like, ‘Do whatever you want’,’ she said. However, despite being able to talk about sex and relationships more openly with her dad, Sophie noted it was still difficult due to her father not understanding ‘how it affects women to be considered ‘sexually promiscuous’ in this day and age’.
Because of her mother’s cultural and religious beliefs, Sophie believes her mother’s ‘attitudes were using shame to scare’ her. The US Department of Health and Human Services urges parents to be open to listening to their children’s opinions, even if they don’t agree with them.
From views on casual sexual relationships to sexual orientation, parents and teachers should not discriminate or punish children for expressing themselves, their sexuality and being sexually active, which Sex Education heavily promotes.
Sophie also attributes her continued difficult relationship to sex as stemming from a lack of education in school, and an extremely negative culture perpetuated specifically from having gone to an all girls school.
Sophie recalled not really having sex education ‘at all’ at school. ‘But as an all girls school, there was very much a culture and kind of race to lose your virginity. It was something that was cool in a way. You’re in a cycle of girls hyping you up for your self-destructive behaviour, boasting about who’s f*cking who,’ she said.
‘What a child learns in the schoolyard, from friends and from social media will be incomplete and may be incorrect. It may also be demeaning or even dangerous,’ AboutKidsHealth states.
Due to a lack of education and openness on the topic of sex between herself and an adult figure, whether that be a parent or teacher, Sophie expressed how little she really knew about sex, which has often led her to practising it unsafely. She described knowing what condoms were, but not understanding other factors, such as the ‘ramifications of sex, for example STDs’ and how ‘some, like Herpes, never truly go away’.
Darrius agreed that there was a similar lack of education at his all boys school, noting that sex education lessons ‘ended prematurely’ and often only consisted of the odd ‘Embarrassing Bodies episodes’ on STIs, without much actual ‘structure’.
The conversation around sex education also desperately needs to reach further than just talking about protection, STDs and the physical act itself. Young people, particularly women, are sexualised well before the age of 16, so to not be taught about sexual assault, grooming and what to look out for, is dangerous.
‘None of that ever came up in sex education – for example, how you can help protect yourself from being forced into things you don’t want to do,’ Sophie said.
She described the lasting advice she remembered from her days at school:
Mainly just, ‘Don’t get pregnant or else you won’t be able to complete your GCSEs and you know, our statistics will then go down and we need you to get A*’s’, or, ‘If you’ve got an STD then you’ll have to take the day off and it’ll affect your studies.’
Sophie questioned why more discussions around ‘the harrowing mental health effects of sexual assault that happens to girls and children everywhere, and women of all ages’ are not instead raised more. Darrius agreed with how important it was to include conversations around sexual assault and harassment in the curriculum, which his sex education lessons had similarly lacked.
On the other hand, the fulfilling and pleasurable sides of sex are also often not discussed enough. Specifically, the pleasure that can be found for women as well as men, which Sex Education highlights.
Sophie recalled the ‘shame’ she has been made to feel by society if, as a woman, she sleeps with a lot of people. ‘Sex doesn’t have to be about loving someone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this amazing, beautiful thing that you share with someone that you do to procreate,’ she said.
‘It’s like food. You can eat something that’s a bit sh*t, but it’s going to fill you up. But then you can also have a nice meal and really enjoy it.’
Sophie believes women are still not taught that sex is about them and their needs too, rather than just a man’s, ‘You should be able to want to have an orgasm as a woman and be able to communicate those feelings.
‘That was never taught to me at a young age when it should’ve been and when it could have been ingrained in me that sex isn’t just about men and their desires,’ she added.
Sophie went on to stress that women ‘can actually say no, this doesn’t work for me’, and suggest trying things a different way, which she thought Sex Education did a really good job at highlighting.
Sophie believes that education in schools ‘definitely’ needs to be increased and that it’s currently a ‘big joke, because it’s not taught properly or regularly enough’, though on-screen entertainment can play a really significant role in aiding teachers and parents in the education of young people too.
On the other hand, depictions of sex and relationships in the media can also be ‘sensational’ and ‘superficial’, which can lead to young people being misinformed, having damaged self-esteem or mental health, or feel encouraged to engage in risky behaviour.
Sophie agrees that young people can be ‘easily swayed’ by viewing certain topics, such as sex, alcohol and drugs on television, but that shows such as Sex Education instead promote really positive, but also realistic, images of becoming sexually active and exploring one’s sexuality safely.
Sophie particularly appreciated the portrayal of Aimee’s character in the Netflix series, as it reversed the notion of girls being sexually assaulted as having ‘asked for it in some way’ or by being ‘sexually promiscuous’.
Darrius said the series touched on important aspects of education, including the impact of ‘heritage and culture’ on teachings about sex. However, he believes the intersectionality between race and sexuality should be addressed by the right communities too, and not just schools.
‘I can be an ally, but I feel like it is a case where we need to speak with generations that have come before about not demonising their children if they identify within the LGBTQIA+ community. Teach it in school and back it up with the communal aspect,’ he concluded.
Sophie also valued the show portraying a broad range of sexual relationships and included representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, which she considered to be better than any other show she had seen before.
Sophie believes that from a young age ‘you should be able to have sex with as many people as you like, as long as you’re doing it safely. That’s all that matters’. By safely, Sophie clarified that she meant not just by using protection such as a condom, ‘but in making sure people know where you are, making sure you trust the person and know them well enough and are both consenting to whatever you end up doing’.
‘It comes from our parental generation, who need to explain that it’s alright and that as long as we are safe that they love us the same and see us as the same person’, she said.
Due to the Indian side of my family, it makes me have to keep secrets. If my mother knew about my sex life, she’d lose all respect for me and that’s difficult to know.
However, Sophie does have hope for the future. She believes that her generation and what they’ve been through will ‘raise children to have better sex education’.
Sophie concluded that her mother would ‘hate’ the show, as she is ‘set in her ways’. ‘But she may find it funny and that may subconsciously filter the messages in,’ she said.
Darrius jokingly agreed that the series should be a sort of ‘bible’ for teachers and parents in how to conduct education about sex with younger people.
The US Department of Health and Human Services also notes using issues or events that come up in television programmes, films, books or on social media, can be good ways to start conversations.
However, have the messages promoted within the series actually filtered into attitudes within society? Have teachers or parents who have seen the show had their views on sex education changed?
UNILAD spoke to Liz*, a mum who has been watching the series and who also works in a school. Aged 53, Liz spoke of how she thinks there are ‘definitely outdated views’ in not just her own generation, but that of her parents’ generation too, who she labelled the ‘old school’ ones.
Liz said she ‘wasn’t really educated very much’ herself, so it was somewhat easily ‘passed down onto the next generation’ because she hadn’t known ‘any different’.
When I was younger there was a lot of scaremongering – I was told if I got pregnant I would be kicked out of the house, there was no ‘the talk’, so that absolutely terrified me.
While she noted that her own generation isn’t perfect, Liz said she definitely took a ‘different approach’ with her child after her own experiences growing up.
However, despite taking a different approach, and not ‘threatening or trying to put fear around the topic’, Liz still wishes she ‘had a proper talk’ with her child, ‘instead of putting so much trust in the school’.
‘I actually feel like I let my daughter down with that – it shouldn’t have been such a hush hush topic. I have been ignorant towards it, but I think a lot of parents have been if they are really honest,’ she said.
For Liz, Sex Education highlighted the fact there ‘isn’t enough done in schools’. She felt that if there was ‘more support’ from schools to aid parents in knowing how to ‘broach the topic with their kids and what topics to cover’, it would have made a ‘huge difference’ to her.
Liz said she thinks the younger generation often ‘just laugh at how prehistoric some of these views’ from her generation are. But she admitted, ‘that’s not to say damage hasn’t been done’.
Since becoming more educated myself, I’ve realised just how many holes there are in the curriculum – even if you think about sexual assault, consent, LGBTQIA+ relationships and even stereotypes surrounding it always being the woman’s fault if she gets pregnant by accident, or slut-shaming women when men get patted on the back.
Liz views these issues as being a direct result of ‘outdated views’, which are still projected in classrooms.
What shocked Liz about the Netflix series was ‘how sad it was that Otis had to set up a sex clinic in the first place’. ‘It definitely highlighted a problem with sex education that I hadn’t really given a lot of thought to previously,’ she said.
At first, Liz thought it was ‘just made up and a storyline’, but then ‘when you think about it, this is a real life issue and the show did shine light on that’.
Liz said she had ‘no clue’ about ‘sex positivity’ before watching the show, and while she admits her views ‘haven’t done a massive u-turn’ – she didn’t consider herself ‘old-fashioned in the first place’ – Liz said her eyes have been opened to the ‘scope of the issue’.
Liz, similarly to Sophie, noted the importance of Aimee’s storyline in season two, which depicted her being sexually assaulted on a bus.
We put so much into safeguarding young people but they have to come to us in the first place. If they haven’t been educated on sexual assault and consent, they might not speak out at all. This is something I sadly hadn’t even considered before watching.
Liz concluded that the series showed society has a ‘lot to learn’, and schools need to do better to ‘guide parents through how to communicate such topics to their children’. She said the curriculum needs to be ‘more inclusive’ and that by breaking down such barriers, the relationship between parent and child and school would be much more comfortable.
While it’s important that children don’t grow up too quickly, young people need to be informed about sex for their own wellbeing and safety. For young people to be allowed to experiment with their sexuality in a safe way and without judgement is crucial. Considering we’re in 2021, more should have been done sooner.
Sex Education subsequently highlights the stark need for a complete reform of the educational system in relation to not only teaching about sex, but sexuality, consent, protection and so much more.
*Some names have been changed for the purpose of this article.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article and wish to speak to someone in confidence, contact the Rape Crisis England and Wales helpline on 0808 802 9999 between 12pm–2.30pm and 7pm– 9.30pm every day. Alternatively, you can contact Victim Support free on 08 08 16 89 111 available 24/7, every day of the year, including Christmas
Male Survivors Partnership is available to support adult male survivors of sexual abuse and rape. You can contact the organisation on their website or on their free helpline 0808 800 5005, open 9am–5pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 8am–8pm Tuesdays and Thursdays; 10am–2pm Saturdays
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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