Consent and Teenage Sexual Pleasure on Screen

Aneta Stępień and Máire Ní Mhórdha examine how two post-#MeToo TV shows employ the principles of comprehensive sex education by focusing on positive sexualities, and communication and respect, while deftly critiquing sex education based on disease and pregnancy prevention

In Episode 2, Season 4 of the popular Netflix comedy Sex Education (2019-2023), teenager Jackson tells Otis, an amateur school sex therapist, about a recent sexual experience he had. During a “casual” encounter, the girl he was with “put her finger up [his] bum,” which he says was as pleasant (“it felt great”) as it was surprising (“there was no warning”). While Jackson is predominantly concerned that experiencing pleasure at anal stimulation may mean he is “queer,” Otis draws his attention to the issue of consent, observing that, “even though you enjoyed yourself, those things should never come as a surprise. I would encourage you guys to practice enthusiastic consent, which is looking for the presence of a happy ‘yes’.”

The above is one of many scenes in the four-season UK production that places consent at the heart of diverse sexual scenarios, often featuring queer and gender non-binary characters. By building the show around Otis the teenage school sex therapist, the teenage characters are encouraged to converse about worries and fears around their sexual experiences, to celebrate their diverse bodies and identities and explore their sexual desires (or lack thereof). Sex Education is thus a model example of informal, entertaining sex education, explicitly adopting the principles of comprehensive sex education (CSE) recommended by the WHO (2010) and UNESCO (2018), the aim of which is to inform young people about their rights, and sexual health.

Conceptualising comprehensive sex education

The aim of comprehensive sex education (CSE) is to equip young people with the knowledge they need to understand their sexual rights and responsibilities (Berglas et al., 2014), to develop healthy “social and sexual relationships” (UNESCO, 2018: 13), and enhance their wellbeing. CSE includes four components:

  1. Positive sexualities and respectful relationships
  2. Young people’s rights, participation and agency
  3. Gender equality and power relations
  4. Sexual and reproductive health-related concerns and practices

However, there are many challenges to the adoption of these principles. “Comprehensive” sex education is subject to different interpretations, depending on the local and national context(s). In some settings, CSE recommendations in relation to sexual agency and young people’s pleasure can be controversial (Miedema 2020). Teaching about gender has been resisted by some conservative politicians as a dangerous “ideology” imposed by external political forces. For example, the Polish ruling party Law and Justice passed a law in August 2023 that bans sex education in schools. Other issues relate to lack of clarity or guidance on more complex aspects of the framework, such as how gender norms and power impact relationships, or framing “health” in sexual health as the prevention of STIs and pregnancy, which is reductive and harmful (ibid.).

Teacher stands reading a paper in front of chalkboard with STI prevention lesson
Sex education class in Moordale High Scool (Sex Education, S2:E2). Source: Netflix.

Sex Education mirrors these concerns in several ways. The character of Hope, the new Headmistress at Moordale High, embodies the more conservative and traditional outlook of the school curriculum with her mission to turn Moordale into a “sex-free campus”. Her approach clearly draws on the ABC (Abstain, Be Faithful, Use a Condom) model of sex education that emerged as a response to the spread of HIV starting in the 1980s. For example, the girls are shown women giving birth, with a view to instil fear of sex and abstinence. While formal sex education classes at Moordale focus on pregnancy and STI prevention, student characters ask their teacher to acknowledge issues of pleasure (e.g. which lubricants to use for anal sex) and interpersonal communication and safety (e.g. what to do when a partner doesn’t want to wear condom). The disused toilet at the back of the school, where Otis holds his sex education therapy sessions, becomes a safe space for students to discuss their sex and relationship queries and challenges. In fact, it is here that the students get the CSE they seek and don’t get in the classroom.

Sex Education’s showrunner Laurie Nunn states that the show is premised on her own high school experiences of “non-existent sex education” and experience of sexual assault in her late 20s (an event mirrored in the show through the story of Aimee in Season 2). Nunn says that it is important to her that Sex Education, particularly following the global #MeToo movement, focuses on “communication and honesty” about sexual experiences.

Pornography, power dynamics and affirmative consent on screen

The moralising and disease prevention focus of the formal sex education offered by Moordale High School in Sex Education reflects the reality faced by young people who lack information around, and examples of, affirmative consent, as taboos persist in relation to open communication about sex (Stępień and Ní Mhórdha 2023). As a result, teenagers in the process of exploring and discovering their sexuality are generally left to pornography to meet their curiosity and informational needs. Reports from Ireland and the UK show that over half of all teenagers (aged 16-21) use pornography as a primary source of information about sex – much of which portrays scenarios of abuse, violence and degradation (Porn Report 2020; Children’s Commissioner 2023). The harms related to violent and abusive pornography are well-documented. As E-Murr et al. (2017) write: “Pornography use can shape sexual practices and is associated with unsafe sexual health practices such as not using condoms and unsafe anal and vaginal sex. Pornography may strengthen attitudes supportive of sexual violence and violence against women”.

Crucially, young people’s sexual health as envisaged by the CSE approach includes meeting not only medical, but also psychological, emotional and social needs. This involves well-being, respect and safety, expressions of diverse sexualities, and, as noted in the implementation toolkit, is “critically influenced by gender norms, roles, expectations and power dynamics” (UNFPA 2015).

A young man and woman lay in bed
Characters Marianne and Connell lay in bed (Normal People, 2020). Source: BBC iPlayer.

In the absence of CSE in schools, television series like Sex Education – and other post-#MeToo productions, such as the Irish-based TV drama Normal People (2020), which explicitly focuses on communicating consent, agency and respectful relationship within the complexity of social and cultural settings – can meet some of these needs. For instance, Episode 2 of Normal People, when teenage characters Marianne and Connell first have sex, is a masterclass in its portrayal of ongoing and affirmative consent. The characters explore, discover, and manage their sexual encounter together, giving voice to their desires by asking questions, and giving answers. Marianne and Connell display agency in this process, leading to a positive sexual experience for them both, and strengthening the intimacy of their relationship (Stępień and Ní Mhórdha 2023).

Importantly, as we have argued in previous work (Stępień and Ní Mhórdha 2023), these on-screen dynamics of communication of consent are reflected offscreen, with the use of intimacy co-ordinators for actors during the filming of both Normal People and Sex Education.

Gen Z: Changing norms and expectations around representation of sex

A recent report titled Teens and Screens (Rivas-Lara et al. 2023) describes changing cultural norms and expectations among Generation Z (people born between 1997 and 2012) in relation to sex, both on and off screen. Young people increasingly value friendships over sexual relationships, as they move away from traditional expectations around marriage and having children. “We want to break away from the dominant narrative in film and TV where meaningful relationships must be rooted in sex,” says 23-year-old Yernur. The report found that almost half of participants aged 13 to 24 said explicit sex scenes were not needed to advance storylines on screen. “When these scenes aren’t necessary it feels like voyeurism, and it feels invasive to the character’s intimacy and private life,” says 22-year-old Livia.

Screen productions like Sex Education and Normal People which decentre the male gaze focus on communication, interpersonal subjectivities, and critical examination of consent (that is, considering the likely power imbalances; see Stępień and Ní Mhórdha, 2023) are applauded by Gen Z viewers and parents alike.

Similarly, sex educators like Anna Jurek from the Polish NGO SPUNK (established in 2010), who delivers sex education in high schools, found that the problems portrayed in Sex Education are extremely relatable to the Polish youth she works with. Although, as she noted, “the Polish and British reality is different”, the series is “very credible” in representing the issues faced by young people today, and its diverse, inclusive and intersectional approach to growing up, body issues, emotions and sexuality (Godziński, 2021). This demonstrates that when it comes to healthy sexual relationships, respect, communication and consent-giving are universal and desirable across different cultural settings as they impact self-worth and improve overall wellbeing.

Conclusion

The screen productions discussed here represent changing expectations of sex on screen, including less voyeuristic imagery and a greater focus on relationships. The shows place their focus on consent and thus establish consent as a core value for developing mutual respect, communication, safety and enjoyment. The variety of lived experiences within these television series, including gender, race, disability, and sexual diversity, makes them highly relatable to young adult viewers across different contexts. As such, we suggest that these productions exemplify and embody different strands of what we understand as holistic, intersectional, inclusive sex education. In the widespread absence of its provision in schools, these examples can be used by parents and educators to initiate discussions about healthy sexual relationships, a lifelong process of acquiring knowledge about sexual identity, intimacy, and our relationships with others.  

About the authors

Aneta Stępień has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Surrey and is a lecturer in Critical Skills at University of Maynooth, Ireland. Her research explores the intersection of literature, cultural studies, gender and sexuality. She is the author of Shame, Masculinity and Desire of Belonging. Reading Contemporary Male Authors (Peter Lang, 2017).

Máire Ní Mhórdha holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of St Andrews and is lecturer in Critical Skills at University of Maynooth, Ireland. Her research interests include social movements, international development, gender, feminism, and reproductive rights. She co-authored “Of Trust and Mistrust: The Politics of Repeal” in the edited collection After Repeal: Rethinking Abortion Politics (Zed Books, 2020).

References

Berglas NF, Constantine NA, and Ozer EJ. (2014). ‘A rights-based approach to sexuality education: conceptualization, clarification and challenges.’ Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 46(2): 63–72.

Children’s Commissioner for England. (2023). ‘A lot of it is actually just abuse: young people and pornography’. Accessed 17 Nov 2023. 

El-Murr, A., Latham, J. and Quadara, A. (2017). ‘The effects of pornography on children and young people.’ Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Godziński, B. (2021). ‘„Sex Education” jest tak wspaniałe, że powinni je obejrzeć również rodzice – rozmawiamy z edukatorką seksualną.’ Spider Web. 21 September. Blog post.   

Miedema, E., Le Mat, M. L. J., and Hague, F. (2020). But is it Comprehensive? Unpacking the ‘comprehensive’ in comprehensive sexuality education. Health Education Journal 79(7): 747-762.

National University Ireland Galway. (2020). ‘Porn Report’. Accessed 17 Nov 2023.

Rivas-Lara, S., Kotecha, H., Pham, B, and Uhls, Y.T. (2023). Teens and Screens: What Teens are Actually Thinking About. Center for Scholars and Storytellers, UCLA [Online]. Accessed 23 Nov 2023.

Stępień, A. and Ní Mhórdha, M. (2023). ‘Consent and Adolescent Sexual Desire in Normal People and Sex Education,’ in: Voices From the Wreckage: Young Adult Voices in the #MeToo Movement, 47-64. Wilmington: Vernon Press.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). (2018). International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education. An Evidence-Informed Approach. Revised ed. Paris: UNESCO.

WHO Regional Office for Europe and BZgA. (2010). Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A Framework for Policy Makers, Education and Health Authorities and Specialists. Cologne: BZgA.

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