The Unicorn Scale: Sex Education

By Zack Dusedau

January 16, 2020



Photo credit: Image/Netflix

Sex Education is a British Netflix series centered around the main character, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), a high schooler whose mom, Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), is a sex therapist. Let's take a look at the first season through a bi lens!

Otis and Maeve looking at eachother intently during a chemistry class. Meave has her hand on her chin.

In the first episode, Otis uses what he's gleaned from his mother's therapy practice to help the headmaster’s son Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) after taking Viagra because of his performance anxiety. Otis agrees to keep Adam’s secret on the condition that he stops bullying/harassing Otis's best friend, Eric Effoing (Ncuti Gatwa). After seeing Otis successfully help Adam, Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey) convinces him to set up a business offering sex therapy to fellow students. 

Warning there will be MAJOR season one SPOILERS ahead, so if you want to watch the show, come back to read this review after binging the first season. Also, if you are unfamiliar with how the Unicorn Scale works, here's a quick refresher

What I Liked:

I don’t know where to begin with this show. There was so much I loved about it. This is one of the first openly sex-positive and educational shows I’ve ever even heard of. It normalizes relationship and sex issues that are often sources of shame and rarely discussed (productively) among teenagers. 

Some of the issues covered include difficulty masturbating, masturbating too much, pain during sex, lack of orgasm, erectile dysfunction, and plenty of others. Often there's a tendency in media to turn these issues into a punchline, or they are portrayed as profound character defects. Showing that these things are a natural part of the human sexual experience and that there are solutions is revolutionary and delightful to see in popular culture.

Otis in the middle of climax floating on top of his bead with an intimate/funny expression.

What really stands out in the show is how it presents the LGBT characters. They are just people, like any other character, with their own struggles and stories. Sex Education even gave us that rarest of creatures, a male bi character! It's unusual for a show to deal with bi men at all, let alone in a realistic way. In the show, Adam struggles with his sexuality, and that struggle, unfortunately, turns to anger. His internalized homophobia/biphobia is projected towards a gay character in the show, Eric, whom he bullies for most of the season. 

While not the best bi representation, it felt true. I dealt with similar issues of internalized homophobia/biphobia before I understood my own sexuality, and the experience is not uncommon. It seems like Adam's envious that Eric is so comfortably out and free and that envy turns into something ugly. Early in the show, Adam talks about struggling with his image and the pressure to maintain that image as the headmaster’s son. His desire to fulfill his father's expectations clearly makes it hard for him to be honest about his sexuality. 

The cast of Sex Education with their colorful clothing sitting bored in the school theater.

As the show progresses, Adam lets go of this and becomes more and more open about who he is. A positive transformation for sure. I respect that, unlike many shows, this one doesn't just focus on the bully but explores the psychology of why he is a bully.  

What I Didn't Like:

As discussed in the previous section, Adam spends much of the first season bullying Eric, so it feels wrong when they finally hook up in the last episode. It doesn't come from nowhere, though, as there is some clear sexual tension in a few scenes and the bullying was a symptom of Adam's attraction, but the hook-up was still jarring. Adam's slight redemption arc was insufficient to make up for his previous cruelty.

If they do end up in a relationship in season two, I worry this could lead to an abusive relationship for Eric. Eric needs a healthier partner, and I hope that he gets to find that in season two. Or Adam, who is shipped off to military school, manages to do some serious healing. In many coming-of-age stories, the gay guy ends up with the only other gay guy in school, maybe because the writers are too lazy to have more than two queer characters. It still feels a little like the same old trope when Eric chooses Adam. 

Ruby, Aimee, and Olivia sitting at a lunch table with shocked expressions on their face looking at someone off camera.

The Rating:

Some scenes definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth. Rather than just solving problems, it would be nice if the show exemplified healthy relationships within the school. There has to be at least one, right? It seems Otis and his love interest at the end, Ola Nyman (Patricia Allison), could become that healthy relationship example in season two, or maybe Eric could get a new healthy, happy boyfriend.

Season one was a strong beginning, but there were still some significant issues in it for me. I'm hoping that season two can help this show earn its fourth unicorn.

3 unicorn head emojis with purple mane


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