In-Depth: Netflix’s “Sex Education” invites comparison to US sex education programs

Bridget Levesque and Katie Bartlett

*This article was intended for publication in our March print issue, which will no longer be distributed due to Covid-19 school closures. 

Let’s Talk About It…

The Netflix series “Sex Education,” which aims to de-stigmatize the topic of sex, just aired its second successful season, prompting a discussion about the effectiveness of sex education programs.

By Bridget Levesque

The British Netflix series “Sex Education,” which was recently renewed for a third season, features an engaging and vibrant cast of characters, all dealing with somewhat exaggerated day-to-day happenings within their lives. While there are plenty of TV shows out there depicting a fictionalized high school experience, this show in particular hones in on the characters’ sexual activity. Like many teenagers, the characters harbor plenty of misconceptions about sex, which at some points in the show lead to mass hysteria and chaos—all with a comedic touch, of course. No, you cannot get pregnant from performing a handjob. No, chlamydia is not spread through the air. No, condoms are not a 100% effective form of contraception. In order to remedy shortcomings of their school’s sex education program, the series’ protagonist Otis Milburn, played by Asa Butterfield, teams up with fiery Maeve Wiley, played by Emma Mackey, to provide sex advice to the confused student body of Moordale High. And there is just a hint of irony because Otis is a virgin, which really emphasizes the saying “coaches don’t play.” 

The series has received critical acclaim due to its “wisdom” and “heartfeltness,” according to Rotten Tomatoes, stemming from the show’s diversity and inclusiveness, with LGBTQ+ characters such as Eric Effiong, played by Ncuti Gatwa, Adam Groff, played by Connor Swindells and Ola Nyman, played by Patricia Allison. These characters represent the gay, bisexual and pansexual points of the sexuality spectrum, respectively. With another character, Lily Iglehart, played by Tanya Reynolds, the series delves into female bisexuality, as well as masturbation and fetishes, topics that are all not typically explored in a classroom setting.

“I like how open and natural all of the scenes are,” Sophie Disney (’22) said. “The show portrays a diverse range of actors, and I like how it opens up about taboo topics.”

Many of the topics introduced in “Sex Education” are often considered “hush-hush” within both the British and American sex education systems. For instance, the health teacher in the show, Mr. Hendricks, is unable to answer questions about gay sex due to it not being part of the foundational curriculum and also due to his own ignorance on the subject. Some believe this adds to the dimensions of the show and makes it more “real.”

“Since the show is from the teenager’s perspective, the content is much more relatable than the lessons we learn in FLE,” Haley Kim (’22) said. “While the FLE curriculum may be more informative with data and facts, I think that the show is more real and relatable.”

Thus resurfaces the question of what schools should and should not teach about sexual health in school. According to a recent survey of 236 Madison students, 45.8% agreed that the Madison Family Life Education (FLE) program has been informative and has prepared them to make informed decisions about sex. However, 74.6% of students say that they have learned more about sexual topics outside of the classroom. 

“While I think that FCPS’ FLE program is better than nothing, it’s really lacking,” Kaileigh Proctor (’21) said. “FLE leaves students with an outdated and incomplete understanding of the content.” 

However, the health teachers at Madison contradicted this statement. The curriculum within FCPS has specific lessons for each grade, and according to Derrick Rauenzahn, department chair of Madison’s Health and Physical Education department, new lessons are “constantly changing and being woven in and out.”

“Changes are made annually,” Rauenzahn said. “We implement current events and ‘hot-button’ issues into our curriculum. There is an approval process through FCPS and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). In recent years, there has been a big emphasis on emotional and social issues.”

A prime example of this, Rauenzahn reported, was the spike in opioid abuse in Fairfax County within recent years. To address this, a lecture about the dangers of drug abuse was presented to students within the first week of school. 

One of the key elements of the series “Sex Education” is the display of unique relationships and the dilemmas that sprout from them. Otis must communicate to his first girlfriend, Ola, that that he has never had sex and is initially very uncomfortable with the idea. Healthy communication between partners is also an important lesson within Fairfax County’s FLE program. 

We discuss what goes into healthy and unhealthy relationships,” Rauenzahn said. “This includes signs of abusive or unhealthy practices and ways to go about conflict resolutions within any relationship.”

Despite the program’s reported changes, many students believe that there are still inadequacies within the curriculum. While Rauenzahn states that these topics have shifted within the past ten years, some students believe that the curriculum still provides a more neutralized idea of sexual topics and does not prompt discussion related to specific sexualities or genders. For example, when teaching students about contraception methods, information is provided on safe sex that applies to all. While some may believe this more generalized approach is up to par, other students have expressed their desire of having more specialized lessons about topics pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community.

If someone feels strongly about having new material added to the curriculum in Fairfax County, they have the ability to present their case in front of a committee. 

“There is an FLE Curriculum Advisory Committee that holds meetings open to the public,” Rauenzahn said. “[These proposals are then] reviewed, altered and finalized by committees from FCPS and VDOE before each school year.”


Opinion: Sex Ed Programs Lack Inclusivity

The Netflix series “Sex Education” highlights the inadequacy the FLE program’s LGBTQ+ objectives.

By Katie Bartlett

U.S. sex education programs lack LGBTQ+ education. It is a paradox. The programs that are supposed to educate the youth on sexual health and understanding do not educate a significant portion of their target audience: the LGBTQ+ youth. This can cause harm by aiding discrimination against gay youth. Discrimination, whether intentional or not, tends to stem from misunderstanding and/or ignorance, and by encouraging accurate LGBTQ+ representation in school curriculums, we can begin to remedy that. As society’s understanding of human sexuality expands, so should our acceptance of gay rights. Sufficient sex education programs are a right, no matter your sexual orientation or gender. Gay marriage rights and legislation against LGBTQ+ discrimination demonstrate the progress we have made, but though we have come far, it is not enough. 

The Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Family Life and Education (FLE) program addresses sexuality and gender by merely defining four terms: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and transgender. I have seen this both in the classroom myself, and in the FCPS curriculum. These four terms are not representative of the LGBTQ+ community; they barely cover the letters of the acronym (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). The only gender identity mentioned is transgender, without an explanation on those who identify outside of the male/female gender binary. Simply defining these few sexual orientations and gender identities is inadequate and does not include any information about safe sex practices for those who identify as LGBTQ+. According to the FCPS FLE curriculum, “Students with questions or concerns about their sexual orientation or gender identity will be advised to talk with a parent or other trusted adults such as members of clergy or health care providers. Emphasis will be placed on tolerance and nondiscrimination of all people.” By restricting open and honest conversations about sexuality and gender identity, FLE sends the message that this topic is not something acceptable to talk about. 

Madison FLE stresses the inclusion and tolerance of all, but nothing about closed doors screams inclusiveness. LGBTQ+ youth already routinely face a societal stigma that suggests they are unworthy of respect, and when this stigma is reinforced by the FLE program during a time when they are trying to figure out who they are, it can have severely detrimental effects—especially on their mental health. 

According to a 2016 Centers for Disease Control study, LGBTQ+ youths are at a significantly higher risk for self harm and suicide, which isn’t hard to believe considering the challenges they face. Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school security organization, states that school is one of the safest places you can be, in terms of physical safety, and is a place to reach out to trusted adults if home is not a place where you can do that. If students feel that they cannot be themselves at school either, it becomes another confining space, instead of a place to learn and grow. The FLE program should help students realize that gender expression and sexuality are not set in stone and that you have time to explore and figure out who you are.   

In addition to the misconceptions surrounding “the gays,” the taboo on discussing sex multiplies the stigmas that work against the LGBTQ+ community. Sex education programs exist to provide education on safe sex practices because they know that some teenagers are sexually active. When it comes to providing information about safe hetero sex practices, these programs barely scrape the surface–conception, contraception, and STI’s,–but gay and lesbian sex are often not addressed at all. If teenagers are not educated in school about safe practices, chances are they will turn to less reliable sources for information, or worse, no sources at all. 

FLE discriminates against LGBTQ+ youth; it preaches acceptance and does not accept. By bringing awareness to the issues of the FCPS FLE program, we can begin taking the steps to full equality in order to bridge the gap.