While growing up, a common trope in television was that of the “irresponsible” parent or those that tried to be a friend instead of an authority figure. These characters gave their children advice about sex education and critics demonized them for their “radical” views and supposed encouragement of illicit activities.
For example, these types of parents might have given their teenagers condoms instead of promoting abstinence-only. They may have taken their child’s car keys instead of falsely hoping they would stay sober at a party. Later, another adult figure would demonize their parenting skills by questioning or lecturing their choices. Many insinuated that their acknowledgment of these activities inherently equaled support and approval. In response, critics promoted the typical Christian household values of authoritarian parenting. Their lectures typically included the same tired talking points that shamed anything revolving around sex, sexuality, and growing up.
Today, however, these parents are rightfully taking center stage. They are a prime example of how to treat children as maturing individuals that deserve real-world advice. “Sex Education”, an original Netflix series, is a great example of this. The show highlights how to talk about sex and sexuality in a mature way without shame. Of course, these types of shows are openly criticized for those exact reasons, highlighting the ongoing debate between different styles of parenting and the representation of them on screen.
From avoidance to embracement
Who can forget the classic scene from “Mean Girls” when the gym coach is teaching about abstinence?
In a room full of hormonal teenagers, the coach yells that if they have sex, they’ll get pregnant and die. Behind him, he has written the word “abstinence” on the chalkboard for emphasis. Of course, the students are not paying attention. They know, just like the coach, that this lecture is an exaggeration. Ironically, the coach ends his speech by passing out condoms. By doing this, he is acknowledging that there are ways to engage in sexual activity without getting pregnant or dying.
Flash forward to the age of Netflix, and teens today can enjoy “Sex Education” instead. The show portrays a high school boy, Otis, and his friends going through puberty. Throughout the show, the teens periodically receive unwanted, but helpful advice from Otis’ mother, a licensed sex therapist. Instead of ignoring the changes, she sees in her son, Otis’ mother, Dr. Jean Milburn, helps guide him through some of his teenage blunders.
While the coach from “Mean Girls” screamed about getting pregnant and dying, Jean calmly explains that, “intercourse can be wonderful, but it can also cause tremendous pain. And if you’re not careful, sex can destroy lives.” Jean is frequently viewed by critics as a radical parent, but the essence of her message is similar to the Coach’s. The only difference is that instead of yelling in an authoritarian manner, she gently explains the delicate nature of sex by getting on Otis’ level. She doesn’t prohibit the activity, but accepts it as a part of her son’s life and does what she can to help him.
Moving beyond heterosexual sex education
In addition to Jean’s guidance on heterosexual relationships, she completely embraces queer teens and the specific challenges that they face. Past shows once ignored or actively harmed the LGBTQ+ community, but “Sex Education” is flipping the script. The show positively portrays the reality of homosexual relationships and other sexualities/ genders.
The unapologetically queer characters and endearing questions of in-the-closet kids revitalize the portrayal of sex education on the big screen. The show does more than just talk about the typical high school curriculum covering sex education. It goes into every aspect of growing up, embracing awkward teenage moments, and highlighting the need for changes in actual lesson plans across the country.
Only 13 states in America require sex education to be medically accurate, a concept that seems incredibly surreal and wildly dystopian. Because sex education is not mandated at the federal level, each individual state chooses what is and isn’t taught. Some teachers have excellent and comprehensive sex education lesson plans. Others are not even allowed to discuss contraception and safe-sex practices. As a result, kids across America learn wildly different things about sex, leaving wide gaps in knowledge.
It’s far past time that every child in the United States received an equal education, and that includes comprehensive sex education. There will be no equality in America until every child is given the same, medically accurate information about puberty and relationships. Without this type of education, teenagers will continue to engage in unsafe practices that could be avoided if the school system and parents treated them with the respect and dignity that they deserve.