Words: Tim Heap
This article was first published in Attitude issue 305, February 2019
Through the mainstream media, the UK’s relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum, and awkward talks about the birds and the bees with embarrassed parents, straight people are more likely to fare better when it’s time to do the deed.
Netflix's hit original series, Sex Education, taps into the conversation and hopefully answer some common questions that teenagers might have about sex and sexuality — in a funny, accessible and, most importantly, real way.
Set in Wales, the eight-part series stars Asa Butterfield (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) as socially and sexually awkward Otis.
Spurred on by his best friend Eric (played by Ncuti Gatwa) and streetsmart school rebel Maeve (Emma Mackey), he doles out sex advice that he’s unwittingly, and, perhaps unwillingly, learned as the son of a liberal, over-sharing sex therapist, brilliantly played by Gillian Anderson.
Asa Butterfield as Otis and Emma Mackey as Maeve from season one
Sex Education was created by upcoming writer Laurie Nunn, who was invited to come up with it in response to a seed pitch from production company, Eleven Film.
“They’d watched a [Channel 4] programme called The Joy of Teen Sex, where these teenagers basically just went and talked to sex therapists about things such as their anxieties regarding losing their virginity or about body image,” she explains when I meet with her and Ncuti at a press junket in London.
“That sparked the idea to pose the question of what would happen if there was a teenage sex therapist on a school campus.
“I read the pitch and thought, ‘I have to get this job’, because I was Otis at school: I was so awkward and such a slow starter. I was the biggest loser.”
But Laurie was able to take all that schoolbased trauma and embarrassment and channel it into Sex Education. She admits that the show takes a lot of tried-and-tested teenage tropes, but then attempts to subvert them.
“We take characters that you’ll be familiar with — the school bully, the loser, the popular girl — and we dig into them and find the things that are really surprising about them.
“Then you’re like, actually they’re all the same, they all just desperately want to fit in and be accepted.”
Ncuti’s character, Eric, is gay, and it’s refreshing to watch a queer teenage character who’s so comfortable with his sexuality, and, for the most part, accepted by those around him.
In the first episode, he’s pushed up against a locker and has his lunch taken by bad boy Adam, but this stems more from the fact that Eric once sprung a boner while playing the French horn in assembly than that he’s gay. Mortifying.
Ncuti, originally from Rwanda but raised in Scotland, says it was the writing that drew him to the role.
“I’d never read a script like it, or heard of a concept like it,” he says. "It was very funny, it had a lot of heart and all the characters were well-rounded.
"I didn’t want to play a stock character, and you have the danger of making Eric a stock character: the gay, black best friend. But he goes through so much and represents so many different intersections that I just fell in love with him.
"He’s a minority within a minority, and I was really attracted to the opportunity to show that.”
Eric is one of two openly gay kids in Sex Education, the other being Anwar, who’s part of a Mean Girls-style clique of the coolest kids in school.
The Mean Girls troupe
I ask Laurie about other LGBTQ storylines featured in the series.
“We spend time in [head boy and school jock] Jackson’s home life, and his mums are a lesbian couple,” she reveals.
“It’s not at the forefront of that storytelling, but it’s just something interesting about his home life that we discover, and like all the other characters in the show, he’s totally cool with it. We also have another story that centres on a gay couple.
“Fingers crossed, if we get to keep doing the show, those LGBTQ storylines are something we’ll be able to explore more and more.
“We feel that the show has quite a queer heart. The message is to talk about sex in an open and honest way and not to keep things bottled up, to express it however awkward and uncomfortable.”
Jackson's parents from season one
Although written with a teenage audience in mind, both Ncuti and Laurie don’t see why it couldn’t be the type of show teenagers watch with their parents.
“The themes are universal,” says Laurie, “we’ve all been teenagers, whether you are one now or not.
“People can tap into that and take a trip down that painful memory lane.”
Ncuti agrees, adding: “It’s really funny and you’re going to crack up, once you get over the awkwardness. You enjoy the awkwardness of Sex Education because we all remember that messy, teenage time.”
Despite its blunt title, the series isn’t just about sex. It deals with issues of love and intimacy, and hopes to teach young audiences how to have healthier sexual relationships.
Eric drags up for Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It’s intended as an “antidote to porn” and the glamorised depictions of teenage sex that we see in other shows aimed at similar audiences.
As Ncuti puts it: “It’s a very real and relatable depiction of your school experience and sexual journey. It’s educational; before the show, I had no idea what vaginismus was!”
Of course, there will be parents who may not think it’s suitable for their children.
To them, Ncuti’s message is simple: “If you’re going to try to stop someone watching it, fuck off!"
Sex Education season two arrives on Netflix on January 17. Watch the trailer below: