Premier Youth and Children’s Work deputy editor, Emily Howarth, explores what youth workers can learn from the Netflix series
Don’t judge a TV series by its title. That’s my lesson from Netflix’s series Sex Education. I tentatively dipped my toe into the first episode and was greeted immediately by boobs, followed by sex scenes and pretty open conversations about every detail of sex I could think of (and a few I couldn’t!).
My mum is a GP and she instilled in me a matter-of-fact attitude to sex, but this was a level that made even me squirm a little. But by the end of the first episode I was hooked.
Why? Apart from the perfectly paced plot development, intriguing characters, humour and familiar hints to my favourite teen rom-coms…
Because Sex Education reminded me of an over-exaggerated representation of my memories of sixth form. From my 16 to 18-year-old angle I thought everyone was having sex and they were super-popular for it. I felt a constant pressure to lose my virginity.
It’s a TV exaggeration to put it all together amongst the same group of friends. But I don’t think any of the issues aren’t faced by young people in the UK today
This pressure fed my longing to be liked by my peers. Looking back, my friends seemed to be doing exactly the same. In intimate conversations, each one would disclose they too were struggling but somehow we never joined the dots to realise that we weren’t alone and the whole pressure was a façade of teen angst.
40 per cent of young women and 26 per cent of young men said they didn’t feel they lost their virginity at the right time
The same sense of confusion comes across in graphic detail throughout this Netflix series.
The storyline follows Otis, the son of a sex therapist, who himself struggles with masturbation. His best friend is homosexual. The other key protagonist has been labelled as promiscuous and her sexual activity comes from a place of struggling with her own self-worth, possibly triggered by her upbringing.
And so it follows, each character has their own difficulty that is unearthed throughout the series. Each character is a beautifully crafted mixture of light and shade that brings depth and meaning to a series that on the surface appears to be a stereotypical teen drama.
So I find it familiar. But surely our teenagers aren’t struggling in this way?
I lived in hope that this is a representation of my own era or experience and was something the next generation would have grown out of thanks to better sex education. I looked hopefully at dropping teenage pregnancy statistics to assume they were more sensible than I had been at their age.
But, according to recent studies by the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes Survey (NATSAL) printed in the British Medical Journal, drawing the conclusion that less pregnancy means a mature understanding of sex is a jump too far.
Of the 3,000 young people that took part, 40 per cent of young women and 26 per cent of young men said they didn’t feel they lost their virginity at the right time. Most had lost their virginity before they were 18 and few if any wished it was sooner. Nearly a third lost it before 16.
A key detail within the NATSAL results is the analysis of sexual competence or willingness. This is how far people are able to make an informed decision about whether they are ready to have sex. About half of young women and four in ten young men failed to show sexual readiness.
Although teen pregnancy statistics may be dropping, the pressure to lose your virginity doesn’t appear to be abating. So maybe the show is more accurate than I’d like to admit.
I spoke to Gareth Cheeseman from acet UK, a charity that provides training and resources in relationships and sex education from a Christian foundation, and he described the series as a “sensitive portrayal” of the issues some young people are facing. He said: “I think everything it shows is happening to young people that youth workers are working with. It’s a TV exaggeration to put it all together amongst the same group of friends. But I don’t think any of the issues aren’t faced by young people in the UK today.”
Otis spends much of the series offering sensitive and informed sex advice to his peers. Some of it we might not agree with from a Christian perspective. But it helps the characters.
Mark Oestreicher brilliantly pointed out a few months ago in his column ‘Mark my words’, that we have such thing as a ‘null curriculum’. If we don’t talk about a topic our silence says all the young people need to hear.
Gareth said: “I feel that young people are so used to being told that these topics are off limits. That builds up a resistance and an expectation that adults don’t want to talk about this, they’re not willing to talk about these issues of love, identity, esteem, sex, bodies, puberty and all these things.”
If we’re not talking about sex, then our young people will go elsewhere for information. But how should we do this.
Gareth has some great advice: “The young people who walk into your youth group might not be facing those issues but their friends might be. So how are we helping our young people grow in their capacity to support their peers?
“The main thing for youth workers is get yourself equipped. Read more, attend training and watch documentary videos (not just the dramatisations!).
“Start opening conversations with young people to find out what issues they’re facing.
“If we’re not confident with that we might need to practice with our teams or our most well-known groups of young people.
“The Romance Academy’s sex education cards are brilliant for starting conversations and getting groups of young people willing to (and in the habit of) talk.”