It’s a wonder that Netflix’s Sex Education hasn’t been taken off the syllabus in India. It’s just been brushed under the table, like everything else that makes us uncomfortable.
But when we can’t turn to formal education to provide us with answers, we must turn to popular entertainment. Fortunately, the lessons that Sex Education imparts upon its audience are vital, especially in a society that, for a brief while in 2019, saw Kabir Singh as a role model.
Recalling a conversation he had with a Polish woman, star Asa Butterfield said that not just India, but audiences in several countries around the world were empowered to have difficult conversations after watching the show, which Netflix said in an official announcement was watched by over 40 million accounts within a month of its debut in early 2019.
Asa Butterfield in a still from Sex Education.
“It was amazing to hear the impact the show had there,” Butterfield, who plays the enterprising teen sex therapist Otis Milburn in the show, told Hindustan Times in an interview. He said that even in Poland, “there isn’t a real sex education system in their schools. It’s not something that’s taught, it’s just something that’s brushed under the carpet, and you learn it when you learn it.” He called it a ‘destructive way of being.’
We should know, because we belong to a country in which attempts to introduce progressive curriculums is inevitably met with resistance. In 2019, an RSS affiliate organisation called the Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas said that there was ‘no need’ to teach children about issues as vital as ‘consent, harassment, respect for women, safety, family planning, and STD prevention’, as had been proposed to Union Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank. The organisation’s secretary even objected to the word ‘sex’.
But it is perhaps because of this repression that films and television shows about ‘taboo’ topics have been doing uncommonly well. Actor Ayushmann Khurrana’s films, including his debut Vicky Donor, in which he played a sperm donor, and Dream Girl, in which he played a sex hotline operator, did gangbusters at the box office. Just last year, Netflix’s anthology film, Lust Stories, divided audiences right down the middle, with some having been blindsided by its overt content.
Butterfield’s fellow cast member, Ncuti Gatwa, who is of Rwandan origin, said that he was surprised to learn how popular the show is among the youth there. “The themes that the show deals with are universal,” Gatwa, who plays Eric Effiong in the show, said, before coming up with the stinger: “Everybody is on this earth because of sex!”
“It’s something that affects all of us, regardless of your attitude,” he said. “It’s something you can relate to, no matter where you are on the globe.”
Aimee Lou Wood and Emma Mackey in a still from Sex Education.
Part of the reason why the show has been such a hit worldwide is because of how it addresses serious themes. While season one spoke about identity and abandonment, an important storyline in season two, which debuted on January 17 on the streaming service, deals with sexual assault and its aftermath.
Emma Mackey, who plays the wonderfully complex Maeve Wiley in the show, said that she, too, was moved by the sensitivity with which the writers handled the character Aimee’s ordeal. “Aimee is such a ray of sunshine,” she said. “The fact that it happens to her hits home even more and makes it more visceral.”
In season two, Aimee is subjected to a sexual attack on a bus to school. She laughs it off, initially, but over the course of the season can’t seem to shake off the experience. One of the most powerful moments of the season involves a squad of girls showing up for Aimee, and empowering her to take back control of her life.
“Sexual assault is a very real, omnipresent thing,” Mackey said. “What we see this season is not only the act itself, but the decision to talk about it and get the justice system involved, and then after that we see Aimee’s character deal with what is essentially PTSD, which is a very real condition. A second can transform your entire existence.”
Just days before the December 16th convicts march to the gallows, it would help to keep reminding ourselves of what Mackey said next: “There’s not a lot in place to help educate people – boys and girls – about (sexual assault).”
There should be.