Whereas other teen shows might seize this opportunity to seem edgy — or, on the flip side, to adopt the didactic tone of an after-school special — “Sex Education” does neither, instead choosing to depict the high schoolers with candor and a sense of understanding. It considers their inner lives and motivations, less concerned with what they’re doing than how they feel about doing it.
That empathetic approach is especially evident with the heavier story lines, such as when Maeve (Emma Mackey), who runs the clinic with Otis (Asa Butterfield), gets an abortion in the first season. In the second, which premiered on Netflix this month, it’s when Maeve’s best friend, Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), is sexually assaulted on the bus.
At first, Aimee brushes off the trauma of a stranger ejaculating on her leg. When Maeve learns what happened and tells Aimee she’s been assaulted, Aimee says the man must have just been “lonely, or not right in the head or something.” She accompanies Maeve to the police station but still holds that she doesn’t have a “proper problem,” and that it’s “basically like he sneezed on me.” It isn’t until Aimee returns to the safety of her own bedroom that she breaks down crying.
“Sex Education” depicts the lasting effect such an incident can have on a person, as Aimee exhibits signs of post-traumatic stress disorder throughout the remainder of the season. She refuses to get on the bus again and instead walks everywhere, regardless of how long it’ll take her. She recoils when her boyfriend touches her, unable to express why his touch makes her uncomfortable.
It’s relatively rare for a teen dramedy to devote this much time to a sexual assault story line, but “Sex Education” strays from other shows of its kind. It’s “bracingly frank,” as The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever once wrote, and pragmatic. In lieu of sensationalizing the incident, it acknowledges that harassment and assault are an unfortunate reality for many.
In the second season’s penultimate episode, six female students, including Aimee, are suspected of vandalism and ordered to serve detention in their school library. It’s rather like “The Breakfast Club,” only the girls bond over the trauma they are forced to live with as a result of being harassed or assaulted. Popular girl Olivia (Simone Ashley), for instance, shares that she was groped at the train station and no longer feels safe in crowds. (“It was like they thought my body was theirs or something,” she says.) The studious Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) recalls how her mother banned her from going to the local swimming pool, her favorite place to visit as a child, after a man flashed his genitals at her.
“That’s so unfair,” Olivia responds. Viv shrugs. It is unfair that this happened to her, but she — and “Sex Education,” on a larger scale — also makes the point of how prevalent this type of experience is among women. The show underscores that sense of solidarity when Maeve gets an abortion in the first season, in what Mother Jones’ Jamilah King recently deemed “TV’s most compassionate abortion sequence.”
“So often, popular depictions of abortion focus on everything except the person actually having it,” King wrote. “Sex Education” leaves moral politics at the door; while the show might inadvertently educate younger viewers, it never preaches. Instead, the sequence zeros in on Maeve, a withdrawn teenager with an absentee mother, as well as an older patient who already has multiple children. It never questions that an abortion is the right decision for each woman, but allows them the space to express sadness, too.
“Sex Education” is well aware that there’s no easy resolution to the emotional aftermath of some situations, no magical switches to flip. But when the five other girls show up to accompany Aimee onto the bus the morning after their conversation, or when Otis appears with flowers in hand to pick Maeve up from the abortion clinic, it reminds viewers of how meaningful it can be to approach loved ones in difficult situations with empathy and support.