TEENAGERS. THEY are either “thinking about shagging, about to shag, or... shagging,” as the Netflix series Sex Education so frankly puts it. Indeed, it is only natural that teenagers—no doubt driven by their hormones—are enthusiastic yet confused about sex. According to Defining Sexual Health, a report published by the World Health Organization (WHO), adolescence is a period which sets the basis for mature sexual relationships. Teenage sex education is essential in educating the next generation of youth to be well-informed, but also to destigmatize sex as a taboo subject. In fact, the deficiency of a proper sex education may be one of the reasons sex is still considered an “out of bounds” topic in public. Following this conclusion that sex education is important, the question of “how” arises. Honestly and without judgement is Sex Education’s solution. Released on Jan. 11, 2019, this teenage comedy which deals with the issue of sex without pretense and in a playful manner, has become an instant fan favorite all the while receiving equal high acclaims from critics—a difficult feat, to say the least.
Not just another cliché teen drama
Sex Education revolves around the protagonist Otis Milburn, whose mother’s occupation as a sex therapist has given him insight into counseling sex and relationships—both subjects his peers are less experienced in. Otis helps Adam, the school bully, during an incident in which Adam takes several Viagra pills at once. He listens to Adam’s story without prejudice and identifies the mental pressure that was affecting Adam’s sex life: the rumor about his large genitals and the spotlight he endures as the principal’s son. At the height of this encounter, Maeve, the school’s outcast, sees Otis’ monetary potential and persuades him to become the unofficial sex coach for their school. The next eight episodes feature sex-related dilemmas that teenagers frequently face but feel ashamed to mention to even their own friends or family; some examples include issues with body image, abortion, homophobia, and slut–shaming among many others. As implied by the very forward title, Sex Education does not shy away from topics just because they are deemed awkward to mention. In fact, the biggest merit of this quirky series is that it revels in the cringe; from the establishment of Otis’ socially awkward demeanor to the characterization of Tanya—a girl who draws alien erotica—nothing is “too weird” for this series.
One of the primary reasons Sex Education is popular is because it does not resort to clichés that are not relatable to real teenagers surviving high school in the 2010s. For one, it sets aside the homophobia factor that appears in the most outdated of teen dramas. To give an example, Anwar, the leader of “the Untouchables”—a group comprised of the most popular kids at Moordale high school—is himself proud to be gay. He sneers at the school bully that “homophobia is totes passé,” meaning “homophobia is totally outdated.” Furthermore, the trouble that a lesbian couple is going through is not social scrutiny or bullying due to their sexual orientation, but rather a problem that any couple could experience. This is not to say that people in the LGBTQ+ community no longer struggle due to their sexual orientation. However, this angle has been overexploited by popular media, branding the image of LGBTQ+ romance as angsty and “different” from heterosexual couples. This Netflix series normalizes the lesbian couple to truly acknowledge that they are no different. Sex Education has certainly managed to take snapshots of contemporary teen life, which is why fans feel that they are understood and are able to relate to the characters.
The series managed to capture a wide base of fans because it achieves the difficult feat of being inclusive of everyone without being pretentious about their approach to these politically-charged subjects. The slut-shaming incident in the fifth episode in particular showcases how girls are especially vulnerable to sexualization and humiliation that can be detrimental to their social standing and self-image. In the episode, a photo of a vagina is spread throughout the school with a written threat that if the girl in question does not apologize for “having been mean,” her face will be exposed as well. Maeve helps catch the culprit because she relates to the slut-shaming the victim will endure if her face is revealed. During this episode, it is brought into light that the rumor that Maeve is promiscuous was spread due to the malicious lies spread by a boy she had rejected. This gossip snowballed with other false rumors which ultimately led to Maeve being shunned and made an outcast. At the end, the victim’s friend, regretting her action and fearful that her friend would suffer, claims that the picture is of her own genitals. However, as she shouted “It is my vagina,” all the girls—and even some boys—stand up one by one declaring that the picture is of their own vagina. This scene is in both parts absurd yet emotionally moving. The social commentary this incident implies is obvious: when a sex crime occurs, it is the victim to whom people turn their attention and, consequently, it is the victim’s reputation that gets tarnished.
Talking about the birds and the bees in Korea
While Sex Education is highly informative, its influence is limited to viewers who are already open-minded enough to watch a series devoted entirely to sex. As part of a society with Confucianism embedded in its culture, South Korean schools tend to treat sex education as a nuisance that can be summarized in a 20-minute video. While the experience likely varies according to each school, an anonymous interviewee (Fresh., UIC, Underwood Div.), who was born and educated in Korea, said in an interview with The Yonsei Annals that sex education was a time where her teacher show video clips that were related to preventing sexual offences and theoretical explanations of how sex works. “Students just zoned out during sex-ed; nobody really listened as it was not considered an important class,” she recalls.
Another flaw in the education is that schools rarely provide a chance for students to think about the ramifications of sex and how sexual intercourse works in real life. “I had a class where we had to attach sand bags that is the approximate weight of a real baby in order to better understand pregnancy,” says Park Jin-woo (Soph., Dept. of Political Science and Int. Studies), who used to attend an international school in Japan. “We had to watch a video of a mother giving birth in order to learn how a child is born as well as the responsibility that follows sex,” explained Park. Sex education in Korea fails to address even the basic mechanisms of sex and falls short of sating the curiosity of hormonal teenagers who have to resort to alternate methods like asking friends, watching pornography, and surfing through the internet. In fact, students’ understanding of sex is a mere 3.7 out of 10 even though their perceived understanding of sex is 7.27*.
Bringing sex out of the dark
Having highlighted Korea’s inadequate sex education, it may seem that Korea is still very much conservative. Yet there is a silver lining that Korea is gradually opening up to the idea of normalizing “the sex talk.” Popular Korean YouTube channels like Spooning and Daisy provide educational content about topics like masturbation, lubricants, and sex toys. Spooning has 53.7 million subscribers while Daisy has a following of 49 million; the popularity of such channels is a testimony to how more and more Koreans are opening up to sex and seeing it as an integral and natural part of life.
However, there being a few popular YouTube channels does not mean that the everyday Korean feels comfortable talking about lovemaking. What we need to do is establish a general social atmosphere that normalizes sex. As Sex Education shows us, in order to diagnose and solve a problem, you have to first be able to say what the problem is—the same applies to matters of sex.
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Sex Education has charmed many viewers with its clever jokes and stunning cinematography. However, what makes fans come back to re-watch the series is its ability to tell viewers “we understand you and want to relate to your problems.” It shows, time and again, that it cares about teens struggling with not only sex and what it means, but also about figuring out their identity and owning it. In fact, this is the core purpose of sex education—getting to know about yourself. It is time that Korea establishes proper education and stop vilifying sex so that people can finally embrace their sexual selves.
*Korean Women’s Development Institute