Where’s the spunk, Adam? Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood), a popular high school student, asked this question in the first two minutes of the pilot for Sex Education. Seconds before, she had seemingly been in the throes of passion as she got pounded doggy-style by her boyfriend, the well-endowed Adam (Connor Swindells), but after sensing something suspicious about his unconvincing orgasm grunts, she demanded to see the condom he allegedly ejaculated in. Upon inspection of the rubber sheath, she discovered it to be empty. Where’s the spunk, indeed.
The scene was an appropriately inappropriate opener for Sex Education, Netflix’s teen dramedy about horny high schoolers and the two students, Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey), who make a business out of coaching them through their most pressing sex concerns. Boldly funny but surprisingly sincere, the series, which concludes with its just-released fourth season, milked a seemingly endless supply of humor from teenager’s most common foibles around sex and intimacy without ever making fools of the teens themselves. Sure, some concerns were more silly (a fetish for alien cosplay) than severe (vaginismus), but Sex Education treated each one with care and sensitivity: in the rest of the pilot, problems with masturbation and untimely erections are balanced with fears around Viagra-induced headaches. When Adam finally confronts his inability to ejaculate, he realizes he’s been under too much pressure—from being the headmaster’s son; from the lore surrounding his “big massive elephant’s cock”—when all he really wants is to be “a normal kid, with a normal dick.”
From the outset, this demystifying frankness helped Sex Education to stand out. While many teen shows have placed a premium on sex, few really make the act its raison d’être. (And in teen shows where sex features prominently, like Euphoria, it’s very rarely depicted in a positive light.) But Sex Education centered the sexual urges of hormonal teens, using them as a channel through which it could explore everything else: Adam’s cum problems weren’t just about cum; they were a manifestation of his inner emotional turmoil. (He also suffered from severe anger issues and internalized homophobia.) That Otis’ mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), is a licensed sex therapist only helped the show in its mission—her professional expertise when it came to sex further legitimized even the show’s most mundane matters, treating every adolescent urge as perfectly natural, acceptable, and expected.
Back in 2019, this conceit felt relatively novel. Four years later, Sex Education is ending its run in a much different climate than it started in, but unfortunately, it’s not for the better. In 2023, the topic of sex on screen has reached a fever-pitch. Though much of film and television feels decidedly unsexy these days—erotic thrillers have largely disappeared; Marvel-mania has led to a proliferation of chaste superhero fare—conversations in some corners of the internet have gone so far as to advocate for a complete removal of sex in our programming. When Sex Education premiered, much of the debate around on screen intimacy revolved around exploitation and gratuitous scene-setting. (Does Game of Thrones rely too much on rape stories?) Today, despite an increase in the use of intimacy coordinators, people seem more determined than ever to get rid of any signs of intimacy (healthy or not) whatsoever.
Coincidentally, this war on sex has run concurrent with a gradual conservative regression in the acceptance of queer identity. Across the nation, rights are continuously rolling back for LGBTQ+ people, particularly in schools—whether through laws demanding that teachers out queer students to parents, discriminatory rules about bathroom usage and sports participation, or barred access to potentially life-saving gender-affirming care.
Throughout the years, Sex Education has stayed several steps ahead, shining a light on the many cultural inadequacies that exist for queer people, in and out of school. Take an infamous season two scene, in which a gay French exchange student offers his classmates a tutorial on douching—this, after already calling out the school’s lack of adequate sex education materials for men who have sex with other men. At the time, this storyline felt like a natural extension of the wider real-world push for more LGBTQ+-inclusive learning in schools across the board. But three years on, we’re still missing anal sex education in our classrooms and we’re fighting against legislators who want to erase the very existence of queer people. Who can think about sex when there are laws forbidding queer students from even learning about their own history? When books are being banned? That young viewers still had this show to tune into, reminding them that their sexual orientation and/or gender identity was not only okay but completely natural, could be a lifeblood.
Luckily, in its final season, Sex Education continues this vital work. These last episodes are some of the show’s most vibrantly queer yet, following the remaining students as they relocate from their original school (now defunct after three seasons of scandal) to a “student-led” progressive school that wouldn’t feel out of place in a “this is the future liberals want” meme. Here, the most popular kids are queer, identity is amorphous, relationships are open, and top surgery is a cause every student is willing to rally around. (It could be life-saving, after all.) The new setting is an apt landing spot for a show that always tried to envision what a “perfect” world would look like (one without sexual shame or homophobia), and it opens the series up for more compelling stories about the nuances of queer sex, like how taking testosterone can increase one’s sex drive or how a devout Christian can reckon his faith with his homosexuality.
And while few shows have normalized queer sex as effectively as Sex Education has, even fewer can be credited for doing the same for stigmatized straight sex acts. Where else could Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), a straight male, discover the glories of his prostate through anal stimulation? What begins expectedly—with Jackson questioning his sexual identity (“Now I’m feeling very confused, because I really didn’t think I was queer”)—turns into a valuable lesson: Otis informs Jackson that sexuality is often fluid, but that enjoying “a finger up the bum” every now and then doesn’t negate his heterosexuality anyway. That, initially, Jackson was more confused than angry about his possible queerness is a sign of progress in and of itself.
These final eight episodes are nothing short of brilliant. But watching them, it was hard not to begin mourning what we’re losing with this terrific show’s end. As debates about sex on screen continue to collide with a conservative war on queerness, the loss of Sex Education feels truly devastating, mostly because there does not seem to be any real replacement for it in our culture. At a time when the admittedly charming Heartstopper is praised for presenting an almost too-chaste vision of young romance, Sex Education stands out for showing the horny reality of adolescence. As we look forward to the next class of teen comedies, one hopes that we won’t have to beg for something with a little extra spice. But if so, we can always return to one question: Where’s the spunk, Adam?
All four seasons of Sex Education are streaming on Netflix now.