News Release

Netflix’s Sex Education lives up to its name – and challenges perceptions about teens and porn

The teen comedy series set at a British high school teaches viewers about sex and sexuality – often better than many schools.

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Edith Cowan University

Netflix’s Sex Education lives up to its name – and challenges perceptions about teens and porn

image: Netflix’s Sex Education lives up to its name – and challenges perceptions about teens and porn. view more 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Netflix series Sex Education has won a big audience thanks to its humorous portrayals of high school hijinks – but new Edith Cowan University (ECU) analysis says the show’s impact extends far beyond entertainment for teenagers.  

As part of a broader Australian Research Council Discovery Project, ECU researchers are examining how adolescents interact with material which may be considered harmful – including sexual content.   

Chief investigator Associate Professor Debra Dudek said teens were often eager for information on sex, but – much like the young characters in the show - traditional channels weren’t providing the answers they were seeking.  

Professor Dudek said this was particularly true of sexual education in schools, which often teaches sex solely from the viewpoint of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  

“We’re interested in how sex education in high schools is or is not working, because teens are saying it’s not always adequate for their questions,” Professor Dudek said.  

“But Sex Education, the TV series, seems to be filling that gap of what young people want to see in terms of their questions about sex.  

“So, it both answers questions about sex education, and represents sex education.” 

Listening to teens   

Professor Dudek said a crucial aspect of the research was providing teens with the opportunity to give their own perspectives on potentially harmful online content.  

It’s a conversation which has until now been dominated by legislators and mental health experts who have worked with teens who have had negative experiences with such material.  

As in Sex Education, Professor Dudek says many teens have reported they are comfortable and, in fact, very willing to consume content adults may deem inappropriate.  

“The research addresses whether accessing sexual content or porn is harmful,” she said.  

"In the show the representation of porn and erotica is represented as potentially of benefit.  

“It’s actually about challenging this gatekeeper idea that is quite prevalent about adults needing to protect the innocent, vulnerable children from that kind of harm.  

“Because sometimes the young people are saying, ‘Actually it doesn’t bother me at all, what bothers me online is being bullied or seeing animals harmed’.”  

Family viewing?  

Though its oft-raunchy subject matter may not make it obvious family viewing, co-researcher and PhD candidate Giselle Woodley says the show operates as a crucial tool to open conversations up about sex and sexuality within communities and the family home.  

For example, the show’s main character Otis has a sex therapist for a mother, often leading to many honest, if awkward, interactions.  

“The show invites that sort of conversation as there is that parent/son relationship in it,” Professor Dudek said.  

“It could be quite a tense conversation, but that’s quite realistic, I would say.  

“It may not be easy to watch as a family, but maybe you could watch it separately and then ask some questions.”  

As co-researcher Professor Lelia Green states: “Sex Education is a great discussion starter for kids and their parents. Let the kids lead the way!”  

The researchers are seeking more parents and their adolescent children to take part in further studies; those interested in participating can find more information and apply via the study’s homepage

Debra Dudek, Giselle Woodley, and Lelia Green’s ‘Own your narrative: Teenagers as producers and consumers of porn in Netflix’s Sex Education’ was published in Information, Communication and Society. 

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