I went to an all-girls school. Sex education classes seldom went beyond female reproduction and awkward demonstrations of how to put a condom on a plastic object which, with extensive use of the imagination, resembled a penis. Terms like consent, vaginismus, asexuality and female masturbation were barely part of my vocabulary, let alone discussed in the classroom. The education we received was outdated, with contemporary issues like sexting, revenge porn and the role of social media excluded entirely from the curriculum. With class discussions leaving me with more questions than answers, I was left unsure as to whether whatever was going on in my body was “normal”.

If schools aren’t prepared to start open and honest conversations in the classroom, then young people are going to seek guidance and reassurance from the resources accessible to them, like the internet and mainstream media. Growing up, the problem was that the sex we were shown on the big screen was highly romanticised and unrelatable. Similarly, the porn industry set unrealistic expectations for how our bodies should look and how sex should be, with male pleasure prioritised over female pleasure. Important issues like sexual health, disability and abortion were (and in many ways still are) regarded as taboo, and like other stigmatised issues, this meant that the media often portrayed them inaccurately, or not at all.

I am proud to be witnessing a real sea-change in 2019. Streamable TV shows like Sex Education and Big Mouth are a breath of fresh air in their realistic and relatable portrayal of the issues that so many young people are privately struggling with, such as LGBTQ+ issues, masturbation, contraception, sexual anxiety, mental health, and alienation.  After a recent Netflix binge, I realised that these shows had taught me more about sex than high school ever had - or had ever even tried to.

The appropriately titled Sex Education is a coming-of-age drama that follows Otis Milburn, a socially awkward student whose mother is a sex therapist. He is reluctantly persuaded by his (very cool, very gorgeous) classmate Maeve to set up an underground sex therapy clinic at school. He accepts, and embarks on an entertaining - and educational - journey, offering sex and relationship advice to his peers. In a similar vein, Big Mouth is an animated comedy that follows a group of teenagers navigating their way through the trials and tribulations of puberty and sexual awakenings, with the help of their “hormone monsters”. In one scene, Jessi explores her vagina for the first time. “Do you want the grand tour?” her vagina asks, before naming each part and explaining its function. Granted, it sounds slightly ridiculous, but I know that if I had access to TV shows like these when I was a teenager, my sex education journey would have been much different. TV shows like Sex Education and Big Mouth highlight how outdated and awkward sex education at school can be, but more importantly they normalise these issues which are so often stigmatised.

Whilst we appear to be heading in the right direction in terms of the portrayal of sex in the media, sexual health awareness is still a huge problem in educational institutions. A report by THT found that around 50% of young people rated the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) they received in school as either “poor” or “terrible”, whilst one in seven British students are reported to have not received any RSE at all. In 2018, the government announced that RSE will be made compulsory in all schools in England, including primary schools, with a new curriculum expected to be introduced by September 2020. Up until recently, the subject was only mandatory in council-run secondary schools, meaning that students at academies (accounting for roughly two-thirds of secondary schools in England) and primary schools were missing out on this indispensable education. In Wales, RSE will be a statutory part of a new curriculum due to be in place by 2022, whereas in Scotland, the subject is still not compulsory and it is down to the schools themselves to decide how to deliver the curriculum based on local needs and circumstances.

Given that schools are supposed to provide young people with the knowledge that will be invaluable to them for years to come, it is shocking that RSE is not as standardised a curriculum as other subjects like Maths and English. Sex and relationships are amongst some of the most difficult challenges young people face in their adolescent years and beyond. How are young people supposed to enjoy safe sex, prevent themselves from contracting sexually transmitted diseases, spot signs of abuse in relationships, and understand the importance of consent if they’re not receiving the education they deserve? Until schools do better, we have Netflix.