The first time I saw a sex scene on TV was in the series premiere of Gossip Girl when Serena van der Woodsen and Nate Archibald rip each other’s clothes off in an empty bar after a wedding. I was in the seventh grade, and it would be years before I had sex, but there was something about that scene that set the expectation for what sex would be like as a teenager.
Gossip Girl wasn’t alone in this. As I became older, I noticed a pattern of picture-perfect sex scenes in teen media. There was shower sex in Pretty Little Liars, classroom sex in 90210 and basketball court sex in One Tree Hill. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing, which was fine. At that point, I had understood the expectations of teen TV relationships. But still, I couldn’t help but think that there was a blind spot when it came to the representation of real teen sexuality and the often awkward exploration and experimentation that came with it.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago and I finished Netflix’s Sex Education, a teen show unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The series follows Otis, a sexually inexperienced and socially awkward teen who becomes a quasi-sex therapist for his high school. As one can assume from the title and premise, the show involves a lot of sex. But unlike the teen TV shows before it, Sex Education’s sex scenes aren’t romanticized, nor are they for the pleasure of the viewer. They’re awkward, charming and uncensored—both in the show’s explicit inclusion of nudity and its portrayal of real-life sex issues that many teens (and adults) deal with.
In the first episode, a man wrestles with his masculinity and his struggle to orgasm. In the second episode, a woman injures her neck due to having sex in the dark because of self-esteem issues with her body. In the sixth episode, a woman masturbates for the first time after a relationship of putting her partner’s needs first. The sex scenes aren’t romanticized, but that doesn’t mean they’re not romantic. There’s something charming about a couple talking out their body insecurities and how it affects their sex life. There’s something relatable about woman learning to give oral sex without vomiting. There’s something powerful about a young woman exploring her sexuality and taking control of it for the first time in her life.
The sex scenes in Sex Education aren’t there to titillate viewers, like they often are in other teen TV shows. There’s nudity, yes, but it’s more there to destigmatize the human body and never there for the glorification of the actors. Though awkward, the sex scenes aren’t embarrassing. There are no cringe-worthy moments, and even if there are, that feeling of embarrassment is always resolved by the end of the episode, where the question is turned around to the viewer: Why do we cringe so much at bad sex, when it’s perfectly normal—especially at an age where people are still exploring and experimenting with their sexuality.
That isn’t to say that Sex Education’s sex scenes are a PSA. The series is a TV show first, as it should be, and there’s a dramatization to every storyline. But in between the melodrama and romance, there’s an important lesson about sex and how it’s never perfect from the get-go, nor should anyone expect it to be. From its name, it’s safe to assume that Sex Education will talk about sex in a smart and open-minded way. But that doesn’t mean that other teen TV shows can’t learn from it. No one is expecting shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Feature to feature lessons about sex in between its mysteries, but consistently portraying only picture-perfect sex scenes doesn’t do anyone any good.
As Marshall Korenblum, a child psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, told us before, teens are impressionable, so there’s some responsibility on these shows to destigmatize common issues and not set unrealistic standards. “TV and movies have powerful influences on teens,” Korenblum said. “They’re more impressionable and suggestible than adults because of peer pressure.”
Sex Education is nowhere near perfect (the show, like many, still focuses a lot on heterosexual relationships), but it’s refreshing break in a long history of teen TV shows where the sex is more concerned with being pretty than real and where people still wear their underwear while fucking. Sex is complicated, awkward and never perfect, and it’s time to finally see that onscreen.