Sex Education, Laurie Nunn’s smash-hit Netflix show, unfolds in a timeless, placeless utopia. The backdrop is rural England (or maybe Wales?), and the decade is psychedelically ambiguous (we’re served fashion elements of the 1970s alongside tech from the 2000s). But it is the culture of the school around which the action takes place that is truly unrecognizable to my inner school-aged self. At Moordale Secondary, teenagers have conflict with one another and then repair it. Parents apologize for their abuse and neglect. Racism isn’t present; class conflict is resolvable via frank conversation and scholarships. A victim of years of gay-bashing not only incurs no trauma, but actually forgives, dates, and then dumps his tormentor. A fat teacher’s pet lands the hunkiest grown-up boyfriend. The meanest girl is secretly a loving carer to her bedridden single dad. When homophobia, slut-shaming, predatory strangers, or even school-privatizers arrive, the students of Moordale stand up for one another and organize.
The show captures “the full British experience of the American high school,” as Caspar Salmon witheringly put it in a 2019 review. It’s undeniable: alongside the scenery of rustic Albion and the day trip by bus to the battleground of the Somme, there are jocks, lockers, proms, bright red Solo cups for beer pong, no uniforms (at least initially), brown paper bags for groceries—all choices that clearly signify the United States, not England. The makers of the show have been grilled extensively about this and pleaded that Moordale is “more like a comic book world than an American one.” Potato, potato? Obviously, we are dealing with a riff on Harry Potter—a cash-in on the global appetite for British schoolboy adventure and lethally charming accents (like mine). The main character even looks identical to Harry, minus the glasses and facial scar. But all that doesn’t matter if you are invested in what the show offers: a care utopia. As far as some of us are concerned, there aren’t enough boxes of Kleenex in the world.
The central plot conceit of Sex Education, set up in Season 1, is a secret sex-therapy service offered by the dweeby and arrogant wizard knockoff Otis (Asa Butterfield), who lives with his single mum in what I can only describe as a chateau. Said mum, Dr. Jean F. Milburn (Gillian Anderson), is a professional sex therapist who owns a seemingly endless trove of sumptuous couture, boho interior design fashions, collectible dildos, and works of clitoral art. She is full of knowledge and empathy, and Otis takes after her in these respects. But the idea for the money-making “sex clinic” at Moordale comes from Maeve (Emma Mackey), a scary, “badass”—albeit virtuous and deserving—working-class character and punk-lite feminist nerd who lives in an American-style trailer park. With Maeve as booker and facilitator, Otis anonymously speaks to schoolmates in a rundown bathroom stall. He listens well and eases their sex-themed confusion or distress.
The school’s old-fashioned authoritarian headmaster Mr. Groff (Alistair Petrie) opposes the sex clinic straightforwardly; his replacement in the third season, the young blonde privatizer Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke)—“you can call me ‘Hope’”—hides her scalding contempt for young people and their social justice concerns behind a veneer of cool chumminess and “progressive” leadership. This is a good premise, but the show fails to trust its audience’s intelligence here.
At first, Boss Hope’s counterinsurgency has a friendly face: she manipulatively encourages the entrepreneurial spirit and enlists two star pupils to help surveil their fellow students and encourage them to feel aspiration and respect for new uniform protocols, neoliberalizing their hearts and minds. She wants to know who is secretly running the sex advice service after Otis and Maeve have thrown in the towel. It’s in everyone’s best interest to snitch, she tries to convince the students, because the bad press associated with being “the sex school” isn’t what anybody in the Moordale community wants now, is it? The earliest voice to identify Hope’s methods of control for what they are, Rahim (Sami Outalbali), becomes a turtlenecked Michel Foucault. But suddenly, halfway through the season, Hope morphs into a good-looking version of the fascist torturers from The Handmaid’s Tale (she even wears a hipster smock of the Aunts’ signature burnt-sienna hue)—hauling three of our beloved “deviants” up on stage during an assembly and hanging shaming placards around their necks. Get it? She is evil. School privatization on its own isn’t a sufficient enemy; we must see sadistic shame rituals.
Despite a number of misfires of this ilk, Sex Education has enjoyed huge levels of enthusiasm from practically all quarters of right-thinking society, including, just to be clear, me. I adore the tentacle-covered school production of Romeo and Juliet with its intergalactic walking genitalia. I swoon at the flamboyant choreography and manic harmonies of the school orchestra’s performance of their anthem, “Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches—as directed by the dumpy Mr. Hendricks (Jim Howick). (“I don’t want to hear the ‘t,’” he tells the students. “It’s TIDDIES!”) I’m a fan of the montages in which we see, in the style of Amélie wondering who all in Paris is cumming in this precise moment, each of the two dozen characters we know and love getting off in their myriad ways. “With its new nonbinary characters and its scenes depicting chest binding and disabled intimacy,” the New York Times gushed recently, “the British teen comedy-drama continues to widen its lens.”
Sex Education is remarkable for its skillfully relaxed, respectful, and normalizing treatment of such topics as: abortion, pregnancy, promiscuity, demisexuality, abstinence-only curricula, masturbation, virginity, sex in a wheelchair, breakups, trauma triggers, suicidality, chlamydia, fingering, porn, anal douching, the gag reflex, jealousy, grief, premature ejaculation, shame, cunnilingus, loss of desire, anorgasmia, substance addiction, revenge porn, vaginismus, divorce, faking it, erectile dysfunction, PTSD from sexual assault, and ambivalent sexting. In one scene, when the nonbinary character Layla (Robyn Holdaway) is accidentally injuring themself with chest-compressing bandages, the other nonbinary character Cal (Dua Saleh) teaches them how to do safe binding. All of this warms the very cockles of this viewer’s heart. And despite what this long list might make you think, Sex Education somehow manages not to feel didactic.
Even so, the show still omits certain themes. There’s a notable holding back from BDSM-related subjects; kink is limited to dirty talk between two teachers, medieval roleplay, and hentai-inspired space aliens with penis-hands. But there’s a more significant absence. Given the battleground staked around gender self-identification in the United Kingdom, a discourse dominated by hate groups like the LGB Alliance—which formed in opposition to the LGBT rights organization Stonewall’s trans-inclusive stance—as well as by “gender critical” (trans-hostile) feminists and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), the non-existence of transfeminine Moordalers is striking.
If there is a reason Laurie Nunn and her team left trans women—as well as any transgender people who use hormones or puberty blockers—out of the show’s 150-odd caste, with its 150-odd sexuality-related issues, it is not plain to me. Depressingly, on this specific point at least, Salmon may be right that Sex Education (“this hollowed-out, bet-hedging husk of a show”) was “made with the express aim of displeasing as few key demographics as possible.” We get scenes of torturous chest-binding so that British transphobes can wring their hands knowingly about “lesbian erasure” and so-called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”—but then also a Black trans American extending help and information so that trans viewers and their allies feel good.
I chose to highlight the scene in which one nonbinary person intra-generationally mothers another because it is my conviction that the labor of mothering has no intrinsic gender—and this strange, time-warped piece of TV knows it. The joke of Sex Education is that it’s less about sex per se than it is about care labor. Everybody in Moordale desperately needs and deserves (and to a limited extent gets) more mothers than they have. There is no COVID-19 in Moordale, but the care crisis that the pandemic so brutally exacerbated is nonetheless at the heart of the drama. Our moody heroine Maeve sometimes fucks boys when she is anxious, but sex is not a big deal for her, and Maeve is one of the few characters who never sits in the sex-therapy chair. The show is infinitely more interested in its characters’—most especially Maeve’s—substantive motherlessness. It reverses this condition as far as possible, bringing everyone closer to the kind of world that the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers in the 1980s called “motherful.”
Each season sets out slowly but surely to meet the widespread urgent need for mothering. Maeve receives mothering from her younger sister’s foster-mother Anna. She receives some from her neighbor—and briefly lover—Isaac (George Robinson), as well as from her biological mother Erin (Anne-Marie Duff), on the occasions when Erin is clean and able. Most of all, Sex Education is a show structured around Maeve receiving mothering from Otis, epitomized by a voicemail (intercepted and deleted by Isaac) in which he tells Maeve “how proud of you I am.” The coup de grâce for me was the moment when her best friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) says to Maeve: “I’ve been thinking about how you don’t really have a proper mum, and I wanted you to know that even though my mum has money, she’s also crap sometimes too. So, I was thinking that maybe we could be each other’s mums.” They hug. “Thanks, Mum,” Maeve says. “You’re welcome, Mum,” Aimee says.
The middle-aged people in Moordale also need mothering. They are transformed by the spiritual process promised in the show’s title every bit as much as the students at Moordale—perhaps more so. This very much includes Jean Milburn, the town’s infamous sex expert, whose machismo collapses as the show progresses.
Not every commentator shares my enthusiasm about the portrayal of Jean. Katherine Angel, author of Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, summarized Otis’s mom’s subplot as follows:
In Sex Education, Jean meets Jakob, a rugged Swedish handyman, and they begin to have sex; gradually, a relationship develops, but Jean is ruffled and unsettled—Jakob leaves his things in her house; he noisily cooks or does odd jobs while Jean sees patients; he disrupts the calm space of her home. Her frustration grows, and she lashes out at him. Then her oleaginous ex-husband turns up, having been thrown out by his current partner, and she kisses him. Jakob finds out, is heartbroken, and leaves her . . . she has lost her chance at happiness.
In Angel’s paranoid reading of the first two seasons of the show, the writers made Jean “sabotage” her relationship with Jakob (Mikael Persbrandt) as a way of telling us that she fears vulnerability. We are supposed to understand Jean’s unsentimental, high-drive sexuality as “a cover for her deep longing for intimacy and love,” Angel argues—in keeping with the hoary old trope of the sexually appetitive older woman (à la Samantha in Sex and the City), “fearful of love and commitment” and doomed to die alone. Her horny behavior is “a sign of her unhappiness” as well as “a further cause of it,” via snogging Otis’s loathsome dad Remi (James Purefoy). In this interpretation, “Her promiscuity is denied depression, her sexual emancipation a delusion. The audience is asked to enjoy, vicariously, her unashamed sexual indulgences but is also warned that she is a pitiable figure.”
While I’m not sure that disliking coupled cohabitation should be interpreted as a TV shorthand for “intimacy issues,” there are certainly things to object to about Jean’s mise-en-scène. The show invites us to find it cool and normal that she sees sex-therapy clients in her own home and, worse, that she has told Otis all about their kinks and predilections. Sex Education downplays the violations involved in Jean taking down handwritten notes about sex-therapy sessions in an easily purloined notebook (which then gets photocopied and spread all over campus), not to mention writing a book about her teenage son’s sexual dysfunction. Above all, the idea that the libidinal hang-ups of an entire community will be sensibly sorted out by a charitable upper-middle-class lady educator makes me a bit sick. (Some of my nausea might have to do with the fact that Gillian Anderson is now inseparable, for me, from Margaret Thatcher, whom she incarnated so humanizingly in The Crown.)
Nevertheless, the objection that her sluttiness is meant to represent “damage” is off base. Jakob does tell Jean, “You’re not ready for the kind of intimacy I’m looking for,” breaking her heart. But she realizes that he had a point. In Season 3, they get back together, despite the fact (not because) Jean is pregnant at forty-eight. The fetus might not even be Jakob’s, but she wants to see the pregnancy through. Sluts get happiness, says the show, because why on earth wouldn’t they?
The core spirit of Sex Education, however, easily missed on account of its outward facing efflorescence of boisterous boomerish sex-positivity, is the sophisticated sexual prudence, patience, and maturity of Generation Z. They might choose to embrace asexuality and vulva-cupcake baking for a spell, as does Aimee. They might find that they chastely love their friend, as in the case of Maeve. Or they might fall for someone they can’t be with (at least, not yet) because they’re straight—as “head boy” Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) does for Cal.
All too often do I hear cultural pundits, my age and older, bewailing, seemingly without hearing themselves, the alarming trends of Zillennials either not having sex (why do we want to insist anybody has sex?) or being totally poisoned by porn. The truth of the matter (based on my forays into TikTok) seems to be that Gen Z’s emphasis on the “ace,” or asexuality, spectrum—which includes demisexuals, graysexuals, aromantics, and more—constitutes a trauma-informed and care-oriented new tradition that is not to be confused with sex-negativity. Rather than focus exclusively on sex acts, this tradition proposes that we develop norms around taking time off from sex (as Aimee does, while hanging out with a goat on a leash) or expanding non-genital vistas of intimacy. The utopianism of Sex Education consists, more than anything, in the characters’ proficiency at mutual comradely mothering. Perhaps the demographic really receiving the sex education in Sex Education is the millennial viewership contingent.
Next season, I hope, we’ll see what further mothering is required when a sex-therapist slut with trust issues births a baby. With the help of a little mothering, Jean Milburn is learning to let herself be loved. Maybe we could all be each other’s moms.
Sophie Lewis (@reproutopia) is a West Philadelphia–based freelance writer and teacher of online courses in critical theory with the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Her first book was Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019). Her second, After the Family: The Case for Abolition, is forthcoming with Verso in 2022.