Web series ‘Sex Education’ uses the high-school romcom format to talk about the birds, bees and more
(This article was first published in The Hindu.)
As someone who grew up hungry for approval, it took me a long time to understand that it was alright — even essential — to have boundaries. Being disliked was a risk worth taking if I wanted to love myself, protect my integrity, and look at myself in the mirror without a hint of shame. I had to figure out what I needed to feel safe in relationships of all kinds. Learning to say no was a life skill I had to teach myself, even if my family only sought obedience and my school only rewarded conformity. These thoughts came rushing to my mind as I watched Season 2 of Sex Education, a British web series that began streaming on Netflix India last month.
There are multiple sub-plots connected to the main storyline, which is about a sex therapist who is also a single mother; with a son who is socially awkward but runs a clandestine sex clinic at school to counsel his peers. Created by Laurie Nunn, this show has become a major talking point in urban, English-speaking India, because of the feminist values it espouses, and for being queer affirmative as well as sex positive. It uses the structural elements of a high school romantic comedy, and subverts the genre to have mature conversations about what it means to establish and communicate boundaries, to feel safe, and to express oneself fully without the threat of violence.
Unfortunately, safety has come to be equated with surveillance in India. This takes various forms — restricting women’s mobility, policing the sexuality of queer individuals, and enforcing moral standards that criminalise trans people’s access to public spaces. These practices only ensure that patriarchy is safe while the marginalised live in fear that robs them of their will to exist, their freedom to move about, and their passion to create what they are meant to. Sex Education is not set in India but brings up concerns that are undeniably relevant to our context where body shaming is as commonplace as roadside tea stalls.
It is telling that, in our society, sexual violence is more easily talked about than sexual pleasure. Young people are deprived of opportunities to learn about bodily autonomy and sexual health. The apology of a sexuality education programme that a fraction of the population receives is couched in the language of good touch and bad touch or safe touch and unsafe touch, which puts the onus of safety on the victim of sexual assault. In this universe, safety gets reduced to saving oneself for marriage, upholding community honour, or punishing those who enjoy sexual exploration.
Season 2 opens up the meanings of consent beyond the mere formality of seeking permission before sexual intercourse. It invites viewers to think about how respect lies at the core of feeling safe and making others feel safe. It tries to take the stigma out of experiences that make people feel small, excluded or confused. It does not try to sell abstinence as an answer to questions about safety. It dares to talk about masturbation, vaginismus, sex toys, contraception, pregnancy and fetishes in ways that demystify rather than discourage curiosity. It challenges biphobia, slut-shaming, and misinformation about sexually transmitted infections. At the same time, it stays far away from being preachy.
The show affirms that sexuality education is not only about bodies, and the mechanics of what goes where, but also about relationships and emotions. Feeling safe could involve embracing the fact that sex is not exciting for everyone. There are people in the world who only seek emotional intimacy and romance from their partners. This does not imply that they are deficient. There is diversity in nature, and being asexual is an expression of that. Alternatively, feeling safe could involve recognising that you are attracted to people because of who they are, and that their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression has nothing to do with how you feel about them.
The series also depicts how pervasive and normalised rape culture has become, and what that means for girls and women on an everyday basis. The counter it offers is feminist sisterhood, not any systemic response to misogyny that would address it at the very root and get men to be accountable. Law enforcement is approached for redress but it offers very little by way of healing. The show presents alternatives to toxic masculinity in the shape of boys — heterosexual and queer — who care about the safety and pleasure of their partners, take responsibility, and ask about what feels good and what does not.
One of the sub-plots is built around a relationship between a closeted white student and an out-and-proud gay black student, which takes a dramatic turn when the latter confronts the former about the bullying he experienced from him for several years before they got physically intimate. While the show addresses the need for apology or repair, it does not acknowledge the racism inherent in the bullying.
Intimate partner violence in LGBTQIA+ communities is rarely discussed in popular culture but it is a reality. Those who grow up in the shadows fearing abandonment from their families often end up in abusive relationships because they have been made to believe that they are unworthy of love. Articulating exactly what one needs to feel safe can be a journey of a lifetime.