Three characters from TV's Sex Education stand together in front of their school lockers

We learn a lot about relationships and sex from TV, Lily Shahmoon explains what TV taught us about sex.

My First Sex Ed Lesson

I remember my first ever Sex Ed lesson. Year 6, me and my friends were ushered into a darkened classroom where a projector had been set up. I looked around for my friend Molly (not her real name), but she wasn’t there. She was in a different classroom practicing her times tables, because her parents didn’t want her to witness what was coming.

An electric hush fell over the room. We heard radio static, and then a presenter inviting us to the magical world of procreation. On the screen, Sammy the Sperm (sporting a questionable fedora) waved at us enthusiastically. He was about to go on a journey, and he wanted us to come along.

I left the class traumatised. Why would anyone want to do that. With a boy? I hadn’t had much contact with my downstairs region, and I knew I wasn’t keen on sharing it with anyone else, ever.

More Questions than Answers

So began eight years of disorganised, confusing sex education. I learned that sex felt good, but sometimes didn’t, and that no one would tell me what the difference was. That you were supposed to pinch the tip of a condom before you rolled it down, but not whose job it was to put the condom on in the first place. Many, many harrowing images of STIs. I filled up with questions until I was about to explode, but I wasn’t given any answers.

There was only one place where I could find relief, one place where I could reliably turn for answers.

Everything that I know about sex, I learned from watching TV. Gossip Girl taught me that sex can be fun, and doesn’t always have to mean you’re declaring your undying love for each other. Glee taught me that all different kinds of people can have sex with each other, not just cis-girls with cis-boys. One Tree Hill taught me about how sex can complicate friendships, and that sex isn’t always romantic.

Where school had failed to teach me about the nuances of sexual relationships, TV was my guide and confidante. TV assured me I was going to be OK.

Then vs Now

In the years since I became acquainted with sex in a — let’s say more biblical — way, sex on TV has become more and more informative. Gone are the days of Dan and Serena, having tentative, picture-perfect first time sex in a Christmas wonderland. Gone is the dominant boy/submissive girl dynamic, or the notion that boys only have sex with girls and girls only have sex with boys.

Welcome to the new age, where sex is messy and awkward and not always fun, and everyone can have it. Here are some of my favourite shows of the past few years, and what they teach us that we maybe really should have learned in a classroom:

What TV Taught us About Sex:

Sex Education: Sex is Awkward

Since it hit our screens in 2019, Sex Education has been a breath of fresh air in a landscape where sex between teenagers was usually limited to first time/coming out narratives. In a bid to help improve the sex lives of students in his school, Otis (son of a sex therapist) teams up with troublemaker Maeve to provide a bespoke sex counselling service.

If I had had an Otis in my school, I might have been more confident when it came to early sexual experiences, and learning that it’s OK if stuff goes wrong. We see boys struggling to orgasm (a refreshing subversion of the normal stereotype!), conversations around blowjobs, STI’s, and even a very gentle and even-handed approach to abortion.

Most of all, Sex Education teaches us that sex isn’t always perfect, and there are so many ways it can feel awkward and uncomfortable if you don’t communicate with your partner. But if you do it with someone (or someones) you trust, and you talk to each other, it can be a great way to build a lasting connection.


What TV Taught us About Sex:

The Bisexual: Sex is Fluid

Desiree Akhavan’s Channel 4 series centres around Leila, who takes a break from her ten-year lesbian relationship (with devastatingly talented Maxine Peake) to experiment with sleeping with men.

It’s like a reverse coming-out story. Having considered herself a gay woman for so long, Leila has to negotiate the possibility that the lines aren’t as simple as ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, and that there might be a blurry in-between where sex isn’t defined by whose bits you prefer, but by who you connect to.

As Leila navigates her new life as a bisexual woman, we learn about attraction and its nuances, and it’s OK if we can’t quite put a finger on who we’re attracted to or why.

What TV Taught us About Sex:

Euphoria: Sex is Sexy

OK, even I can admit that some of the sex scenes in HBO’s Euphoria can be pretty extreme, but sometimes sex is extreme! Rather than remaining in the confines of sweet, gentle sex, the show explores the world of kink, and of those who like it a little rougher.

We learn that sometimes it can be empowering to be in control, or to give up control to someone you really trust. But we also learn that if you want to engage in sex that’s slightly rougher, it’s so important to talk to your partner, and to make your boundaries clear. Good communication is key!

There is so much shame surrounding human desires, and what really turns us on, but if we open up and share with the people we have a connection to, we might find sex can be even more fun and expansive than we ever imagined.


What TV Taught us About Sex:

I May Destroy You: Consent is Everything

BAFTA and Emmy award winning I May Destroy You took the industry by storm following its premiere last year. Writer and performer Michaela Coel delves into the consequences of sexual assault, and the legacy it leaves with victims of abuse.

It’s hard but important watching. An ONS report conducted last year found that 1.6 million adults in the UK had experienced sexual assault, many of them date raped like protagonist Arabella. Watching the show, we learn that abuse comes in many forms, it can happen to anyone, and too often victims don’t get the justice they deserve.

The show not only teaches us about consent, and how harrowing it can be when that consent is violated, but it also teaches us about what it takes to support someone who’s been through this kind of trauma. Arabella is surrounded by friends who love and care for her, even if they don’t always tell her what she wants to hear, and their commitment to helping her heal is uplifting and inspirational.


What TV Taught us About Sex:

It’s A Sin: We Need Sex Education


I’ll admit, I sobbed pretty much the whole way through Russell T. Davis’ hit show It’s A Sin. I would give anything to party in the Pink Palace, and to be friends with Ritchie, Jill, and the rest of the crew, and Ritchie’s death felt like a real gut punch.

Set during the AIDs crisis of the 1980s, It’s A Sin follows a queer group of friends as they navigate their new lives in London. The show premiered during the pandemic, and the themes of widespread, unknown illness felt particularly immediate and grim.

But unlike the Covid pandemic, where governments scrambled to disperse accurate information and fund vaccines, the series shows us how unwilling institutions were to teach people about gay sex and how to take precautions against contracting the virus. The show is pretty clear in its message: diverse, inclusive sex education really does save lives, and the more we can teach people about sex in all its forms, the better and safer our sex lives will be.

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