Set to be watched by 40 million accounts by the end of the month, this latest Netflix original has resonated with many younger subscribers.
Sex Education follows British six-former Otis Milburn as he develops into sexual maturity under the shadow of his interfering sex therapist mother (played by Gillian Anderson). Impressed by his sex knowledge fellow class mate, Maeve, uses her head for business to make money from Otis’ talent by setting him up as an underground sex therapist at school.
The programme has been praised for its thoughtful and clever writing, its ‘accurate depiction of abortion scenes by experts’ and its diversity & inclusion of LGBT representation. Regardless of what side of the gender identity, sexuality and abortion arguments you sit on, I think that there is much to praise and engage with as Christian youth workers- we will get to some of these in a moment.
First however, should youth workers be joining young people in watching this?
The dominant approach to youth ministry is incarnation. This approach embeds the youth worker within the world of young people, to journey alongside them and to encounter the Spirit of God in the concrete experience of their lives. This approach looks to join young people in what they are doing (or watching on Netflix) and encourages thoughtful conversations there as part of a shared life.
There is a danger to this approach however, it is easy for holiness to get sidelined. We can become so occupied by meeting young people in their spaces that we forget that God calls young people to be set-apart, to be counter cultural, to be noticeably different. If our citizenship is in heaven then our language, relationships, work ethic, purpose and identity comes from there rather than from youth culture. We don’t embed ourselves into youth culture to stay there, but to point to a better more life giving and heavenly reality – the Kingdom of God!
So two negative implications of the incarnational approach are (1) we join young people in their culture and context and we ourselves (the youth workers) end up being more like youth culture than our heavenly one. Secondly (2) we affirm and sometimes even celebrate the culture without pointing to the heavenly one.
Rediscovering holiness as a model for youth ministry
Does faith formation in the UK need to embrace a model of holiness, equipping young disciples to discern what is good and pleasing and worshipful to God? This might be as simple as encouraging a set of questions before watching Netflix series. ‘What is my motive for wanting to watch this?’, ‘Will this series enable me to serve and love others in Jesus’ name?’, ‘is this the kind of content that is worthy of a citizen of heaven?’.
For example, I think it would be helpful for young people who are intentionally pursuing holiness to be aware of the directing techniques designed to arouse and intrigue them in order to hook them into watching. It is very intentional that the most graphic sex scene happens in the first scene of the first episode (the only episode rated 18). This hooks them into watching the whole series. Sex Education is not the only series to use this technique!
What is helpful?
That being said, there really is much to celebrate in the show, much that could lead to thoughtful conversations if young people in your group have decided it is right and helpful to watch it.
Otis rarely dishes out sex advice un-attached from relationship advice. Whenever there is a sexual problem in the show, often to the dismay of his ‘clients’ he wants to talk about their relationship, encouraging better communication and clearer expectations. This is so helpful,
this is not a show that sees sex as a purely physical act but as a deeply relational one.
Another observation on the show is the amount of sexual dis-functions among teenagers. Sex is not portrayed as an easy goal to achieve. At one level its simply really helpful to point this out, great sex takes work!
On another level however I wonder if this plays into a much wider conversation. Currently it is unclear ‘how much sex’ teenagers are having, there is some evidence to suggest that it is on the decline. Many find their human needs met better in the virtual world than in reality. The latest THREE phone adverts on the London Underground have been interesting, “chatting up a stranger on the tube. Awks… Tinder! #phonesaregood”. Porn is readily available and easily streamed and provides instant gratification without the complexities of relationships and young people despite being more connected than ever through technology are actually finding themselves lonely and disconnected in any meaningful way. There is a decline in face-to-face connection and intimacy. We should not therefore be surprised if teens are having less sex. However,
could it be that the narrative is not so much ‘teens are having less sex’ but rather ‘teens are having more bad sex?’.
Might it be that having grown up in a hyper connected technical world that they are struggling to connect in any deep and meaningful way? Might this show be showing us something? That teenagers don’t know how to connect sexually? What might this look like in our youth work?
Sex Education as well as being funny and clever and highlighting the sexual landscape of teenagers today also deserves praise for promoting a sex-positive, body-positive message. The makers have gone out of their way to ensure this is the case, even including a sex educator on set. In an interview with the Guardian (LINKED HERE), Laurie Nunn (the writer) said “the sex issues had to have narrative integrity. It’s never titillating – it’s always supposed to be awkward and cringeworthy and truthful.” This was also helped by having Ita O’Brien on set, the creator of ‘intimacy on set guidelines’. She told the guardian that the makers “were really aware that with the sexual content, and such a young cast, they needed to put in place good process’, and take care of their actors. Actors are frequently left to their own devices, and an actor without a director moves a simulated sex scene out of the professional realm and into the personal – which makes them vulnerable”.
This is not your typical overly sexualised coming of age comedy, instead Sex Education gives us a helpful and honest (as well as clever and entertaining) glimpse into the current sexual landscape of teenagers and highlights not only the areas for ‘gospel conversations’ but for an ’embodied gospel’ as role models we seek to embody what deep, meaningful, intimate relationships can look like within but also outside of marriages.