Sex Education is smart, perfect viewing for teenagers – so why is it rated 18?

The age rating handed out by Netflix means the show can't be watched by the very people whose experiences it is reflecting

Sex Education season 2 - Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa
*This article contains sexual themes and language*

In one of the climactic moments of Sex Education’s excellent second season, Moordale Secondary School’s increasingly irate headmaster, Mr Groff, interrupts the school play (an erotic musical version of Romeo and Juliet) to lambast the school’s pupils and parents.

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“You’re enjoying this filth?” he asks them, before directing his ire towards sex therapist Dr Jean Milburn and exclaiming, “You have all been corrupted by this woman. She’s giving sex advice to your kids, filling their heads with dangerous nonsense.

“They’re children for god sake!” he later laments. “They don’t know what they want!’

The idea here, of course, is that Mr Groff is the villain of the piece – his assertion that by learning about sexuality his pupils have somehow been corrupted is obviously supposed to be read as reactionary and ludicrous. Clearly, this is a man out of touch with the reality of what is going on at his school, clueless as to the appropriate education that should be provided in order to foster healthy, progressive attitudes towards sex amongst his pupils.

Sex Education Season 1

And yet strangely it appears that Netflix, or at least those in charge of setting age ratings for the streaming platform’s original shows, are on the side of Mr Groff. Each and every episode of Sex Education has been handed an 18 certificate – citing, unsurprisingly, strong sex references.

Now, this strikes me as truly bizarre. Here we have a show that handles several complex and relevant issues concerning adolescent sexuality in a mature, honest and empathetic manner – and the very people you would expect to get the most out of it have been deemed too immature to watch it! It’s a bit like writing a book that focuses on dealing with old age and making it available exclusively to toddlers.

Of course, there is a lot of sexual content in the program, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it should be watched by young children, nor am I disputing that, when applied appropriately, age ratings can serve an important function.

It might be pertinent to note, by the way, that BBFC style certificates are still relatively new to Netflix – the streaming giant only starting to hand out age ratings to all of its content last year, apparently using an algorithm to do so. Obviously, then, there are going to be some mistakes made along the way. But this strikes me as a particularly egregious example and one that seems entirely counter-productive.

None of the sexual content seen on Sex Education is intended to provoke, nor is it ever gratuitous or unnecessary. Instead it is educational, stigma-busting and handled with emotional intelligence and humour – in short, the exact type of material that we should be celebrating those in the 15-18 bracket being exposed to.

Some of the themes and topics that are discussed during the course of the second season include bisexuality, pansexuality, repressed sexuality, sex addiction, asexuality, toxic masculinity, sexually transmitted infections and consent. Admittedly some of these are touched on in more detail than others, but they are all tackled with nuance and empathy, with a focus on removing stigma and countering commonly held myths.

Sex Education Aimee & Maeve-1

One storyline from season two, and one of the show’s most touching elements, concerns Aimee, a pupil at Moordale who is sexually assaulted on her way to school. This is not played for shock value, but instead provides an empathetic portrait of a teenager trying to make sense of a horrific ordeal – the kind of ordeal which is regrettably still commonplace in the real world. I can see no reason why this, or any of the other storylines, should be deemed unsuitable for those aged 15-18. What exactly are we trying to protect them from?

It’s important to remember that people of a high school age are hardly oblivious to sex, but are often not given the correct tools to make sense of their burgeoning sexuality. This can, and often does, lead to misconceptions spreading like viruses (something which is alluded to in the first episode of season two) and young people feeling shame or confusion about what are actually perfectly healthy feelings.

That Sex Education successfully addresses this, whilst also being funny, charming and relentlessly entertaining, is an undeniably positive thing and is fully deserving of praise. So I’d urge anyone in the 15-18 age group, or parents with children of that age, to cast the 18 rating aside on this occasion, and move the show right to the top of their watchlist.

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Sex Education season 2 is streaming now on Netflix