The third season of the British Netflix hit show “Sex Education” starts off with a bang—pun intended. The first three minutes or so of the first episode feature a montage of the show’s numerous couples getting it on while The Rubinoos’s 1977 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James & the Shondells plays in the background.
We see Otis (Asa Butterfield) and new fling Ruby (Mimi Keene) having sex in a car in the woods, Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) and his boyfriend Adam (Connor Swindells) passionately kissing and undressing, and Ola (Patricia Allison) and her girlfriend Lily (Tanya Reynolds) hooking up while in full alien costumes. And that’s just in the first thirty seconds. It’s not an uncharacteristic start to a show that has never shied away from explicit sexual scenes, but it is certainly not the type of opening sequence you want to watch with your parents.
Beyond shock value, the sex scenes of season three reflect the show’s driving thesis: sex is a learning process. Rather than dancing around sexual acts, the show puts them on full display, thus demystifying sex as a concept to an extent that verges on hyperbolic. The show seems to laugh along at itself as it delivers on the promise of its title, depicting sex honestly with the aim of teaching its audience, in addition to its characters, a thing or two along the way.
The opening scenes of the episode are also reflective of a tonal shift in the third season of “Sex Education.” Moordale, the fictional high school that the teenage characters attend, was the pinnacle of a sexually repressive environment for season one and most of season two (headmaster Groff, played by Alistair Petrie, ran a tight ship), but by the end of the second season, the institution had begun to come apart at the seams. The student body was bursting with, well, lust, and could not go on hiding it, a fact that became particularly apparent with the extremely phallic production of an alien-sex-themed Romeo and Juliet—if you haven’t seen the show before, and even if you decide not to watch it, I urge you to view the last episode of season 2. Early on in the show, individual students’ sexual fantasies and worries and wonderings were private except to the viewers and the characters in whom they confided (usually Otis or his showstopping sex therapist mom Jean, played by Gillian Anderson), but by the end of season two, sex at Moordale was suddenly very much on display, for all to appreciate.
As season three commences, viewers are faced with a new Moordale, labeled “the sex school” by local media. In the show’s reality, the school is an institution that is coming to terms with sex positivity. It’s not unlike Wesleyan, actually. Students are at various points in their learning about consent, pleasure, and what constitutes sex. Some students are having lots of sex, others are having none at all. Some want to be having sex, others do not. Many are grappling with their sexualities and coming to better understand their relationships. Moordale even has a wall covered in graffitied penises and sexually graphic phrases, which is vaguely reminiscent of YikYak at Wesleyan, home to many a horny musing.
Where Moordale and Wesleyan differ, besides the obvious discrepancies that set a fictional high school apart from a real university, is that Moordale is something of a sexual and relational utopia. Students cause each other emotional pain in their relationships, to be sure, but the only act of sexual violence against a student (Aimee, played by Aimee Lou Wood) is perpetrated by a stranger on the bus. Most of the students work hard to treat each other with respect and kindness, which often does not feel like the case on Wesleyan’s campus, where hookup culture runs rampant, known perpetrators are rarely held accountable, and survivors of sexual violence have few resources that really center their needs.
In general, the show has a certain naivete when it comes to issues of race, gender, and sexuality. While “Sex Education” showcases the structural issues that individual characters face (Eric grapples with being forced to hide his identity as a gay man when he travels to visit family in more socially conservative Nigeria, for example) it rarely portrays interpersonal acts of race or gender-based violence, which are certainly not absent at a school like Wesleyan.
Superficially, season three seems to posit that Moordale is a sex-positive utopia, the consensual pleasure-seeking world of fornication that we should all strive for. But on closer examination, perhaps not. Season three’s Moordale faces a new challenge in the form of new headmistress Hope (Jemima Kirke), who initially appears to have the students’ best interests at heart, but throughout the season reveals herself to be just as bad as former headmaster Michael Groff, if not worse. She draws lines on the floor and forces students to walk in single file, repaints the iconic yellow lockers a drab shade of blue, and tries to force nonbinary student Cal (Dua Saleh) to wear a tight-fitting uniform, in which they would be highly uncomfortable. And most egregious of all, at least to the Moordale students, she advocates for a sex education regimen that centers abstinence with no discussion of safe alternatives for those that do choose to have sex.
The presence of Hope, however repugnant she may be as a character, is just the wrinkle that “Sex Education” needed to continue crafting a compelling narrative in its third season. Cal is also a breath of fresh air and represents a nuanced portrayal of a Black, nonbinary person, which is incredibly rare in mainstream television.
Another highlight of the season is a sex scene between longstanding female protagonist Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Isaac (George Robinson), who is disabled and uses a wheelchair. Maeve carefully asks Isaac where and how he would like to be touched, building up a slow and intimate pleasure. The scene is carefully crafted and appropriately tender and sensual, a testament to what sex can be when partners offer enthusiastic consent and are deeply respectful of one another’s needs and desires.
Apparently, the Wesleyan Office of Support, Healing, Activism, and Prevention Education (SHAPE) thought so too. Their Instagram account, @wesshapeoffice, featured a post celebrating the scene and promoting their workshop about relationships in the media, which occurred on Oct. 13. In scenes like this, “Sex Education” effectively models what pleasurable and intimate sex can look like, educating viewers that may have been exposed to something more closely resembling Hope’s abstinence-based education back in high school. Seeing these moments on screen is both hopeful and inspiring.
I would be remiss if I did not mention all the ways that the third season of “Sex Education” is hilariously funny as well. In the first episode, the school’s a capella group rehearses a song that features the delightful lyrical refrain “Fuck the pain away” while the group bops around in quintessentially awkward a capella choreography, vocalizing the word “Fuck!” Not to harp on the Moordale/Wesleyan parallels, but come on—this parody has Wesleyan written all over it. A running gag throughout the season is Aimee’s pet goat, affectionately named “Goat,” who is perpetually wreaking havoc. Eric is dazzling both in his snappy, smart dialogue as well as his more serious moments, which are frequent as his character continues to develop throughout the season.
Season three of “Sex Education” is undoubtedly a triumph. So, should we Wesleyan students look up to Moordale and the world of “Sex Education” as a shining example of what sex positivity could be? Yes and no. At this point, achieving a campus where sexual violence does not occur seems impossible; this detail casts Moordale as painfully unimaginable, tantalizingly out of reach. Simultaneously, there is something to be said for imagining and portraying such a utopia, where sex is so openly discussed and students intentionally pursue consensual and mutually respectful relationships. Like Wesleyan, the strength of “Sex Education” is in its characters and their many subtleties, their challenges and their triumphs, and the unanswered questions that they raise. The show itself seems to continue to grapple with many of them—education is an ongoing process, after all.
Emma Smith can be reached at email@example.com.