The Unexpected Impact of Sex Education
I’ve recently finished watching the Netflix series Sex Education. The series had been recommended to me as one of the best ways of gaining an insight into how the generations below me are thinking about sex and relationships. That recommendation was spot on. Once you get used to the very candid engagement with a wide range of sex-related matters, the series is incredibly enlightening about where some young people are at on those topics. It turned out to also be quite an enjoyable and engaging watch. But there was one element of the series that was very unexpected.
I expected the series to be all about sex and romance. And it was. The premise of the show is that the main character Otis, the son of a sex therapist, inadvertently becomes a quasi-sex therapist himself, helping his peers at sixth form college with their many and wide-ranging questions around sex and relationships. There is no question that this is a series about sex and romance – or in some cases the lack of those. Every storyline revolves around them in some way.
That did make me slightly apprehensive about watching the series and aware that I’d need to exercise some caution and wisdom in doing so. As a single, celibate, same-sex attracted Christian who wants to faithfully follow Jesus, storylines around sex and romance can be potentially problematic: they can aggravate some of the pain of the self-denial required in following Jesus and they can unhelpfully stir up temptation to stray from the way of Jesus. And yet neither of those was the main effect of the series on me. To be honest, in revealing the vast complexities of sexuality and of romantic relationships, the series actually reminded me of the many blessings of celibate singleness! And despite the fact that all the characters seem to believe it, the series is hardly a good advert for the idea that sex and romance are the route to fulfilment.
But there was something else about the series that really did impact me. Something I hadn’t expected. That was its portrayal of friendship, and in particular the friendship between the main character Otis and his best friend Eric. The pair have been friends since childhood and though their relationship goes through some inevitable ups and downs across the three seasons, it is almost the one constant throughout. It’s the relationship with which the first season starts and the relationship with which the last season ends – almost the only relationship to survive from start to finish.
Otis and Eric’s friendship is a beautiful example of the blessing of true friendship. It’s a relationship of commitment – through good and bad the pair stick together, and they are deliberate in being there for one another when difficulty strikes. It’s a relationship of love – each clearly holds great affection for the other, clear in the way they greet one another, the way they talk and the way they support one another. And it’s a relationship of intimacy – there’s emotional and conversational intimacy as the pair share openly with each other what’s going on in their lives and how they are feeling, and there’s physical intimacy, not in a sexual way, but still in a way which expresses their love for one another – hugs, gentle affirming touches, an arm around the shoulder in moments of sadness or stress.
If I’m honest, I spent the whole three seasons waiting for the point when the writers of the show would start to imply that there was more to the boys’ relationship than friendship. The idea that love and intimacy are always sexual is so prominent in our culture that I thought such a trajectory was almost inevitable for the storyline. Otis and Eric are a classic bromance – a friendship between two guys that is so close no one really trusts there’s not more going on. This expectation was only heightened when it was revealed that Eric is gay. And yet, to my surprise, the story never took that turn. From start to finish, Otis and Eric are just friends, but they show us how misplaced the word ‘just’ should be when it comes to friendship. Friendship is not small or insignificant. It should be a serious relationship of commitment, love and intimacy.
In the end, Sex Education didn’t impact me in the way I thought it would. It did leave me longing for something, but that something wasn’t a boyfriend or someone to hook up with. And it didn’t leave me thinking sex and romance are where it’s at or that I miss out if those aren’t available to me. Rather, it left me longing for the sort of friendship Otis and Eric have. And it left me thinking how important and life-giving true friendship is. Watching Sex Education has challenged me to continue investing in friendships that are built on genuine, expressed love. And it’s reminded me that God hasn’t denied me anything I need. I don’t need sex or romance. I do need love and intimacy. And friendship is a context in which both are open to me, open to all of us.
Perhaps to my surprise, Sex Education has done me good. If only all sex education was like this!