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Sex Education on Netflix
courtesy of Netflix

The Sex Education cast on good sex, bad myths, and awkward encounters

Netflix’s hit show is an unflinching, endearing look at the awkwardness and angst of teen sexuality – here’s what the stars had to say about it

“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” As sexual health scenes in pop culture go, this quote from Mean Girls’ Coach Carter rant definitely still rings in the minds of a whole generation raised on the iconic teen film. While deliberately ridiculous, it is a pretty accurate representation of the kind of fear-mongering and reductive treatment teen sexuality is often subjected to. But in 2019, we’re doing better now, with Netflix’s hit show Sex Education cutting through the usual bullshit and euphemism to take an unflinching, funny, endearingly honest look at adolescent sex and relationships in all their #relatable awkwardness.

The premise is simple. Channelling his sex therapist mother (played by a delightfully funny Gillian Anderson), Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) is a shy boy perfectly happy minding his own business, who, by a strange series of events, becomes unofficial “sex savant” to the hormonal teens of ambiguously transatlantic Moordale Secondary School – who are all, as best friend Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) keenly observes, “either thinking about shagging, about to shag, or actually shagging.” Helped by resident school “bad girl” Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), who runs the business side of this unconventional set-up, chaos and hilarity inevitably ensue – complete with riotously funny scenes like Eric’s very enthusiastic demonstration of how to deepthroat a banana at a party (“My grandma’s favourite scene, by the way,” Mackey tells Dazed).

There’s a humanity at the heart of it all. There are moments of real poignancy that come from show creator Laurie Nunn’s subversion of recognisable Breakfast Club-esque high school stereotypes. Through the refreshingly representational storylines, it’s clear that – at its core –  Sex Education is as much about coming of age as it is about sex itself. ‘Jock’ and head boy Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Stirling) struggles with anxiety and the pressure of a domineering white mother on the brink of divorcing his black mother, ‘popular girl’ Aimee Green (Aimee-Lou Wood) goes from “faking it” in sex and in life to embracing her real friends and understanding her own body – and you even realise school bully Adam Groff’s (Connor Swindells’) toxic aggression is part resentment towards his father, part repression of his homoerotic feelings for his usual target, Eric. As Butterfield tells us, it’s a testament to the writing and performances that “you can see how complex, lovable and real these people are,” – fully-fleshed, human characters that you can readily relate to and root for, even if (or, precisely because) they are flawed.

They’re your friends, Wood agrees: “I think you can feel really lonely as a teenager, too embarrassed to share. We are those friends that they can use as a gateway into them talking about their own stuff.” As a confused teen with limited sources, learning about sex can often come from outside: in hearsay, media, or even – perhaps most damagingly – porn. Sex Education is an antidote to these hypersexualised, skewed and glossy takes on sexuality. “Sex is great – we all love it, we’re all here because of sex,” Gatwa affirms, “but you have to be responsible, as well. You have to show all sides of things – that it’s not always going to be like some magical, sexy wind-blowing-in-the-hair moment.”

Tackling a whole range of issues – including, but not limited to female masturbation, abortion, vaginismus, performance anxiety, revenge porn, queer identity – head-on, Sex Education doesn’t shy away from talking about the things that the often sparse, traditional sex education in schools teaches. “We’ve only just started the conversation,” says Williams-Stirling. Below, we caught up with the cast to learn more about their takeaways from the show.

THERAPY IS NORMAL, HELPFUL AND HEALTHY

Asa Butterfield: (To prepare for the role) I spoke with my mum – she’s a psychologist. Not quite a sex therapist, but a similar vein of conversation and working through issues. I spoke with her, mainly about being a therapist, what it entails: the responsibilities and questions a therapist might ask, and the voice a therapist might have. I realised that was stupid and therapists don’t have a voice – it’s just natural speaking – which is, of course, what my character finds out.

CONSENT AND COMMUNICATION ARE KEY

Ncuti Gatwa: We had a sex workshop, an intimacy workshop. We just pretended to be lions mating, snails mating. We’d just met each other it was a small room, we were sweating, panting, humping the walls – it was mental, but it bonded us all very quickly! After a while, it was just normal. ‘What are you doing today?’ ‘Yeah, I’m gonna suck off a banana,’ like standard.

Aimee-Lou Wood: We had an intimacy coordinator there all the time – she was so helpful. And there were conversations going on for weeks, so you were kind of ready for it when it happened. It was well prepared, those scenes felt the most cathartic and the most rewarding. I was probably more prepared for the sex scenes than I was for any other scenes. It was harder to do just talking.

ABORTION DOESN’T HAVE TO BE SCARY

Emma Mackey: We try to demystify abortion and the whole process that Maeve goes through. We had a medical expert on set with us at all times guiding us through what would be happening, making sure everything was realistic. I’m really glad that you go through the process with Maeve and you see her potentially be more emotional than usual, but not because she’s having an abortion – it’s because she misses her mum. She just needs a hug and to be looked after, as opposed to, ‘Oh my God, abortion is really scary, I need to change my mind!’ No, she can’t afford to look after herself, let alone another human being.

In a lot of TV and film you see women changing their mind. I think it’s actually quite important to show the other side. A quarter of women will have had an abortion at one time in their lives. We’re lucky enough to live in a country where it exists and women can be looked after and go through the process in a healthy way.

“It’s our job to provide these awkward scenarios for people so that they can alleviate any kind of awkwardness that they feel while they’re experiencing it themselves” – Connor Swindells

DON’T PEDDLE THE MYTHS AND HORROR STORIES YOU HEAR ABOUT SEX

Emma Mackey: I want to know where they’ve come from, like who is creating these stories? I feel like we get more misinformation about sex than the actual truths. We’re a very imaginative species, we’re very good at creating fictions.

Connor Swindells: (When I was younger) I couldn’t believe you had to put the penis up in the vagina – I figured that it was just like a belly button hole.

Ncuti Gatwa: There was a boy at my first high school that believed that girls could get pregnant if they gave blowjobs. He was old enough to know better.

Aimee-Lou Wood: ‘Dick just going in and out repeatedly banging you to oblivion feels great’ – that’s the biggest load of bullshit. Penetration is such a small part of it.

IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT MALE PLEASURE

Aimee-Lou Wood: I warned my mum about my wank scene. She said: ‘How will you know what to do?’ There were a lot of supporting artists on set, who I told: ‘I’ve just done my masturbation montage’. One girl’s like: ‘What? How did you do that? You’re not a boy?’ It didn’t even shock me, but I was sad it didn’t. It’s like, the main function of sex for the girl is validation, rather than pleasure.

You can tell in the sex scenes (Aimee) has watched porn and thought, ‘Right, I’ll copy that then!’ It’s that thing about how teenagers tend to figure out who they are from what people are telling them rather than what’s going on inside. She’s figured out how to have sex through external things rather than her own body.

SEX DOESN’T HAVE TO BE EMBARRASSING TO TALK ABOUT 

Connor Swindells: It’s our job to provide these awkward scenarios for people so that they can alleviate any kind of awkwardness that they feel while they’re experiencing these scenarios themselves. That’s our job as an actor: we deal with it publicly so you can deal with it personally.

Kedar Williams-Stirling:  I do think conversations are being pushed in a way they haven’t been pushed before, and to show that to a younger generation, where the internet is so vast with information… putting stuff out there that is actually healthy is so important. Something like this, that is showing vulnerability and also empowerment, is necessary.

HAVE FUN EXPLORING YOUR IDENTITY

Ncuti Gatwa: Eric serves some serious looks, honey! I had never worn make-up before, apart from stage shows where you need it for cameras, lights and stuff. When I got the part and I realised that Eric is so into that, I was like, ‘This is exciting because I can get into this,’ – make-up is a whole world! I went to Harvey Nichols and bought the entire Fenty line. I watched lots of tutorials on YouTube and tried to learn how to apply make-up. It was fun! Highlighter, concealer, contouring, it was mad to learn.

REVENGE PORN IS NEVER, EVER YOUR FAULT 

Aimee-Lou Wood: When Ruby’s nude picture spreads across the school, the show says that it’s an illegal photo and that you should go to the police. I think a lot of girls didn’t even consider that it was illegal. It’s never your fault either, babe! My sister was sobbing when we watched that bit where everyone claims the photo as theirs.

VAGINISMUS IS REAL, BUT WE’RE STILL NOT SURE CRANBERRY JUICE CURES ANYTHING, TBH

Asa Butterfield: I learned it’s not uncommon for a woman to have vaginismus. I remember reading the script and thinking, ‘what is that?’ and asking how to say the word. What was the other thing (I learned)? Thrush and cranberry juice.

Emma Mackey: I thought it was good for UTIs? Thrush is different from UTIs – so that’s the one thing that I have a problem with in our entire show. But to be fair I didn’t look it up.

AND FINALLY, GILLIAN ANDERSON IS AMAZING (OBVIOUSLY)

Asa Butterfield: She’s lovely. She’s a very generous actress to work with: she gives you a lot to as an actor play against, and that’s all you can really ask for. We had a lot of fun. I didn't expect her to be so funny. Honestly, I would oftentimes be trying not to laugh in a scene where I’m supposed to be quite serious. Like when she’s stoned in a scene eating these crisps, giggling – I couldn’t contain myself. It was a treat.