A Sex Therapist Reveals What 'Sex Education' Gets Right & Wrong About The Job
Am I the only one who can’t get enough of Sex Education on Netflix? The British dramedy is full of adorable characters, cringe-worthy sexual encounters and just enough conflict to keep you on your toes. It’s one of those shows that brings you right back to your teenage years, when the prospect of dating was fraught with confusion, nerves, and stress about your experience (or lack thereof). It's honest in its approach to teen sexuality, but just how accurate is the sex therapy on Netflix's Sex Education?
While I love the show for its hilarious take on sex and dating, watching it did make me wonder if it was getting everything right. Otis, the teenage boy at the center of the story, seems to have this supernatural knack for helping counsel his friends about their sex lives. And his mother, Jean, is a progressive sex therapist who seems to be a little too in-tune with her son’s personal life. She runs her own business, meets clients at her house, and writes books inspired by Otis' sexual issues.
Certified sex therapist Kristin Bennion says that the show’s depiction of Jean is spot-on in some ways and not quite accurate in others. Jean practices out of her own home, which is rare. “While some therapists may do so, it’s more uncommon due to the importance of maintaining healthy boundaries between therapist and client as well as personal safety issues,” Bennion explains.
But what the show does right is portraying Jean as an emotionally complex and multi-faceted character. “Therapists can often be portrayed as all-knowing or having reached a level of emotional and psychological well-being — where their lives are assumed to be devoid of difficulty,” Bennion notes. Like any other person, Jean has challenges and is working through them in her own way.
Another element of the show that misses the mark is its depiction of Otis as a gifted sex educator who is able to change the lives of his fellow students. Bennion warns against attempting sex therapy if you are not a trained professional. “Because topics of sexuality can often be seen as glamorous or harmless to a degree in mainstream culture, identifying and acting as a sex therapist or coach can be attractive to someone who has a knack for talking openly about such things,” she says. “However, doing so without adequate training, frequent collegial consultation, as well as ethics and practice oversight from a licensing body can lead to great, unintended harm.” Certified sex therapists go through a rigorous training process — over 150 hours of additional training and 50 extra hours of supervision on top of their licensure — to ensure they are providing useful care, Bennion explains.
Bennion says the show isn't afraid to push boundaries, and in many ways, this is a great thing. “It was refreshing to see a television depiction of diverse sexual experiences unencumbered by what we’ve come to conceptualize as ‘appropriate’ for television,” she reflects. The show is honest about the complexity of sexuality and the fact that for many young people, it can be a huge source of anxiety. The teens in the series are all at different places in their sexual journeys, and they are all facing their own unique sets of concerns.
“Overall, the show does a good job of showing that there is not one ‘normal’ experience for teenagers, particularly when it comes to discovering their sexual orientation, their gender expression, deciding if and when to engage in partnered experiences, developing an (often) complicated relationship with one's own genitalia and body image, feeling sexually abnormal, and the awkwardness of first-time sexual experience,” Bennion says. And yet at the same time, the show does adopt unrealistic standards in some ways — Bennion notes that most of the main characters fit into a conventionally attractive mold. But the honesty about the awkwardness of discovering one’s sexuality makes the show really endearing to watch.
For young people looking for help with their sexuality concerns, Bennion says sex therapy can be a valuable resource. “Young people should know that sex therapy is available and can be a safe place to get more clarity about what may be troubling them within the sexuality realm,” Bennion assures. Just make sure to see someone who is officially a certified sex therapist, having completed all the extra hours of training and instruction. A seasoned professional can provide advice that is comforting and life-changing for young people who feel like they have nowhere to bring their concerns.
Ultimately, sexuality is so much more complicated than anything portrays in the movies or on TV. It’s encouraging to see shows like Sex Education painting a broader portrait of sex and gender concerns than what we might typically see in pop culture. Even if it’s not quite real life, the show adds a fun and enlightening voice to the conversation.