October 10, 2023 - 6:00pm

Last week, Netflix announced that Sex Education is its most-watched UK release of the year. Given the nature of the show, that might sound worrying, but it shouldn’t be. Despite the premise, Sex Education is the most wholesome teen show I have ever seen. It is so focused on character and virtue it is almost a Victorian morality tale (with, admittedly, a bit more masturbation).

I grew up on Dawson’s Creek and My So-Called Life, which were essentially multi-series romances with some background noise about being true to yourself and following your dreams. In my twenties, teen shows took a darker turn. Skins, which came out in 2007, was a litany of parties, drugs and self-harm. Its bleak, nihilistic vision of youth is echoed in Euphoria, the major show of recent years for that age demographic. Disillusionment and cynicism seemed the order of the day for Generation Z.

But then came Sex Education. The marketing attempts to draw viewers in with the promise of titillation. It’s a bait-and-switch, though, because Sex Education is not, really, about sex. That is just the hook for a show about human relationships. It centres on old-fashioned character: honesty, kindness and loyalty to those we love even as identities shift. 

This all becomes more explicit in the last episode. Maeve writes a letter to Otis, the son of a sex therapist, with whom she had set up an informal sex clinic at school. She thanks him for making her feel seen, for helping her trust, and acknowledges that the people who had come to them looking for advice on sex “were really just looking for connection”.

A large part of the joy of the show is that it takes all relationships seriously. The friendship between Eric and Otis has its own arc which is attended to as meaningfully as the romances. Unusually, the parent-child relationships are explored too. Parents are so often absent or oppressive in the stories told to children and young adults, but in Sex Education they get their own tales, as they evolve alongside their children.

Yes, it is extremely “of the moment’”when it comes to identity. By the last series there is barely a character who does not lead with a protected characteristic (it is quite odd to see so many people of colour living on the Welsh border). And yes, gender dysphoria does feature too.

Yet it is a good thing that it has been so widely watched. The stories we tell, and those which are told to us, matter. We are storied selves, stitching together who we will be from the available narrative material. Wisdom traditions and social science agree that the health of our relationships is the most important factor in our thriving. It may not be “sexy”, but it’s true. So a show which uses (awkward, sweet and admirably non-pornified ) sex to teach millions that fact can only be a good thing.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield