CW: sexual assault
In a time of unreliable sex education, the aptly-titled Netflix original “Sex Education” offers a dedicated discussion on sex that conventional sources of education have failed to deliver. With its second season, “Sex Education” is changing the landscape for depicting sexual assault, in a way that is both powerful and memorable.
The show follows Otis Milburn, a 16-year-old who is going through the final stages of puberty and having trouble navigating his sexuality. After realizing he has a skill for providing sex and relationship advice himself, Otis teams up with fellow student Maeve to start a sex advice clinic at school. In the most recent season, another character, Aimee, experiences an incident of sexual assault.
“Sex Education” has always proved that it is unlike other TV shows by being willing to explore in-depth character arcs about issues like sexuality, friendships, slut-shaming and poverty. The second season proved to be no different than the first in terms of creating a compelling show that portrays difficult subjects in meaningful ways.
In the third episode, Aimee gets on a bus to surprise Maeve at school for her birthday. But during the trip, she is sexually assaulted by another passenger.
In the episodes following, Aimee is confronted with the trauma following her sexual assault. She has trouble getting intimate with her boyfriend and walks everywhere because she finds herself unable to get back on the bus. The way that “Sex Education” handles sexual assault shows the reality that sexual assault survivors aren’t able to just heal within a 20- or 45-minute TV episode.
In episode seven, six of the main female characters find themselves in detention. Their assignment is to find one thing that bonds them together as women and present it by the end of their time in punishment.
The girls initially feel that the assignment is hopeless, and petty fights break out. Aimee then opens up about what happened to her on the bus, and it becomes clear that all of the girls have experienced unwanted sexual attention. The episode ends with the girls getting out their rage by smashing objects, as well as the whole group getting on the bus the next day. Even though all of the girls are different, they are brought together by a need to help Aimee heal.
Even though Aimee has been empowered by the experience with her friends, the show makes it clear that she still needs time to heal. Aimee’s assault wasn’t put in the show to further another character’s arc or to catalyze redemption for a disliked character. It was based on one of the creator’s own experiences, with the intention of educating viewers about sexual assault and how it affects survivors.
There have been other shows that have portrayed sexual assault in a similar way, including “Veronica Mars.” Veronica goes through the healing process from her assault in a similar way to Aimee, in which trauma is explored throughout multiple episodes.
But in shows such as “Gossip Girl,” sexual assault is almost explicitly depicted, with no mention of it being wrong. The perpetrator is even given a kind of redemption arc later in the series. In other cases, such as “13 Reasons Why,” the show had a negative effect — it was widely criticized for its harmful representation of suicide, sexual assault and self-harm, making its popularity concerning.
“Sex Education” opts to take a different approach. While the show can’t replace the widespread education reform that needs to take place, it has the ability to come pretty close.
Since its debut, “Sex Education” has gained a 94 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and dozens of glowing reviews, not to mention a wide reach among teenagers and young people. Netflix has an incredible capacity to connect with people, making shows like “Sex Education” highly influential and important.
Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She is from Manhattan Beach, California and loves her dogs, cats and talking about TV (obviously). Her current favorite show is “Succession.”