Discussions of young people and sexuality in popular culture often come laced with moral panic. Hook-up culture, teen pregnancy rates, single mothers, gender confusion, a crisis of masculinity — the youth are always seemingly in danger.
All of this is presented with a cheerful lack of censure. The show loves everybody, and, indeed, every body.
But Netflix’s comedy drama series “Sex Education,” which has just released its third season, is wonderful in part because it’s joyfully nonjudgmental. The students (and indeed the adults) at the fictitious British Moordale Secondary School masturbate, have sex, use contraception, deal with STDs, explore kink and have abortions. All of this is presented with a cheerful lack of censure. The show loves everybody, and, indeed, every body.
This utopian depiction of a world in which all are accepted for who they are is exhilarating. Like most utopias, though, there’s also a large dollop of bitter in the sweet. Showing what could be inevitable makes you realize our current shortcomings, especially when it comes to the treatment of queer people, young people and anyone who’s defined as different.
“Sex Education” may be an upbeat show, but it still has conflict. In this third season, the main antagonist is the new headmistress, Hope (Jemima Kirke). At first the hip, young Hope seems to a welcome change from the uptight former headmaster, Michael Groff (Alistair Petrie.) But Hope quickly reveals herself to be both a kinder and more efficient authoritarian. Determined to clean up the school’s scandalous ways, she enforces a draconian dress code that especially targets gender nonconforming students.
There’s plenty of other drama as well — most notably the ongoing will they/won’t they tension between leads Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey). For every broken heart, though, there’s a tearful reconciliation, and for every petty cruelty there’s a surprising and moving act of solidarity. Unbearable mean girls and angry outcasts alike find solidarity and joy.
The show's idealism can sometimes feel a little over the top, however — especially when it comes to systemic cultural problems. “Sex Education” is clear-eyed about the ways the rhetoric of safety, protection and responsibility can be used to police those who are different. But when it comes to depicting actual law enforcement, the show is much more credulous. In season two, dim but lovable Aimee (Aimée Lou Wood) is sexually assaulted by a man on the bus. Maeve, her best friend, offers sympathy — and then bullies her into going to the police. This is presented as the obviously correct and beneficial move, even though police are often unsympathetic and many survivors feel retraumatized by the system.
Maeve is poor and lives in a trailer park — it’s plausible that she’s seen how cops treat those with little social capital, and might be at least a little nervous about reporting loved ones to them. But in the show’s world, the police are held up unquestioningly as arbiters of justice. When Maeve finds that her mother (Anne-Marie Duff), an addict, is using again, she unhesitatingly calls family services and the authorities on her.
In “Sex Education,” the powers that be are on the side of young people. But in the real world, police and the government aren’t necessarily good at, or even interested in, helping children or victims.
Her mother is furious, but the outcome of Maeve’s decision is straightforwardly positive: Her sister is quickly placed with an affluent, loving and generally perfect foster family. In “Sex Education,” the powers that be are on the side of young people. But in the real world, police and the government aren’t necessarily good at, or even interested in, helping children or victims.
These aren’t the only issues that “Sex Education” sidesteps. The multiracial and multiethnic student body is rarely troubled by post-Brexit xenophobia. Racism is alluded to for the first time in season three, but it isn’t explored in a main plot line. (The show’s repeated discussion of homophobia is a distinctive contrast.)
Season three is also the first one to deal with trans and nonbinary prejudice. It does so with honesty and sympathy. But it doesn’t discuss the way that antitrans sentiment in the U.K. has been mainstreamed not just by conservatives, but by supposed feminists and leftists. The show makes it easier for students at Moorhead to rally together in part by eliding or downplaying broader political tensions and animosities which might divide them.
This isn’t to say that “Sex Education” should be a grimmer or bleaker show. Again, optimism, acceptance and love are what fans like me tune in to see. Season three delivers on each of those themes with no appreciable diminishment in quality or intelligence. But when you’re pointing the way to a better place, it’s worth noting just how far you have to go to get there. “Sex Education” is a dream of a world in which young people are loved and respected no matter who they are. It’s also a reminder that we don’t live in that world right now.