Jeans, trauma, catharsis: ‘Sex Education’ outgrows feel-good

[CW: This article discusses sexual assault.]

“Sex Education” unpacks the raw, unglamorous world of teenage sexuality in its second season, which aired just this past month. This most recent run returns with much more vitality, color and, of course, education, topping its Rotten Tomatoes debut rating of 91 percent with a new 97 percent rating. If season one is all about the fraught search for self and sexuality at the formative age of 16, its successor tackles bigger questions regarding the myriad social perceptions of sex and, in doing so, lives up to the title yet again.

Unlike the show’s first take on teenage sex in all its dramatique, absurdity and awkwardness behind the closed doors of Otis and Maeve’s sex clinic, season two applies a delicate hand as it tackles more nuanced issues. An assembly of complex female characters takes center stage, each with their own set of peculiarities—from age variations to those of sexuality, from the sex therapist to the depressed housewife, from the popular girl in high school to the quiz heads. From explorations of pleasure to those of care, intimacy, independence, confrontation and recovery from trauma and assault, “Sex Education” attempts to capture modern women in their diverse totality.

The show addresses the issue of public sexual assault in public through the bubbly character Aimee. In a scene that preserves the comedy’s technicolor aesthetic without disregarding the gravity of sexual assault, Aimee climbs on a bus with a birthday cake she baked for her friend Maeve. She smiles at strangers, but before she realizes it, the “handsome” young man standing behind her masturbates and ejaculates on her favorite pair of jeans.The camera focuses on the cake until the music in Aimee’s ears slowly distorts to dissonance: “He’s wanking on me!” she cries out.

“Stop! Stop the bus, please. I need to get off, excuse me,”Aimee requests to get off the bus, but only apologetically. The crowd is visibly disturbed by her outcry and the disruption she causes to their morning commute. She becomes an inconvenience. As she disembarks, the music stops in her ear. The cake is smushed and her jeans are stained. The pink frosted bunny cake that Aimee clutches helplessly in the public space feeds into her false sense of security. “What happened to the cake?” Maeve asks Aimee when she arrives. “It didn’t look so bad before…but then I was on a bus and a guy wanked on my leg and I got a little shocked and smushed the cake … Do you think it’ll stain? I love these jeans.”

Maeve takes Aimee to the police station to report her assault. Aimee feels guilty during the process, especially after she hands in her jeans as evidence. She apologizes repeatedly to the officers for the fuss and inconvenience she brings. At the end of the report, she leaves the office without her jeans, in a pair of sweatpants offered by the police officers. Despite its effortless humor and the trivial emphasis Aimee places on her jeans, this encounter goes right to the heart of the all-too-frequent sexual assault suffered by women in public spaces. Slowly, the reporting process triggers serious reflections and complex emotions for Aimee—these can’t always be articulated clearly, but they are relatable to those who have experienced similar traumatic events. These traumas can evoke a profound insecurity that permeates and destabilizes the entire belief system upon which you construct your being. They evoke a deep concern for your safety, for yourself—a fear so deep that you can’t really wear those jeans anymore even if they are your best pair of jeans, or precisely because they are your best pair, that they flatter your body so well that they get you into that uncomfortable situation in the first place. The insecurity is internalized as you realize that you have no control or choice, not even over your own body, and only you are to blame. Nowhere is safe. No one is to be trusted. It is a constant state of fear at work to constrain and imprison.

It’s only after Aimee reports the crime that the status of “victim” assigned to her begins to feel like one, stripped of autonomy or power. It is a difficult road to recovery and empowerment from such an experience. The lean silhouette of her assaulter covered under a turquoise and purple jacket, his disturbing, well-disguised smile, haunt her everywhere she goes. This newfound awareness of unwanted attention follows, leaving her feeling powerless and alone. The bus incident plot line concludes with a scene in which all the female leads gather on an abandoned site of unwanted goods. Aimee’s friends encourage her to smash things to feel better. “I don’t feel bad, I just feel angry. I’m angry that a horrible man ruined my best pair of jeans, that no one did anything, and now I can’t get on the fuckin’ bus!” Aimee rails. Her guilt and fear finally yield anger when she wrecks the window of an abandoned car as her friends cheer her on and join her smashing. The explosion of physical power and destruction is synchronized with an exhilarating anthem singing for the characters’ release from frustration and of empowerment. “Sex Education” reveals the incommunicable nature of Aimee’s trauma, and concludes with catharsis, an explosion of long-suppressed exasperation.

When all the leading female-bodied students in the show must come up with a presentation on “what binds us together as women” as a detention assignment, they come to the conclusion that “other than non-consensual penises, [there’s] not much.” This seemingly light-hearted sarcasm in turn highlights the episode’s focus on actual uneasiness for women in communicating their shared trauma. After Aimee smashes the car, the girls show up at the bus station to support her the next day. After walking the rocky road to school, Aimee returns to the bus, reassuming her proper place—one with respect and safety—in the public space.

“Sex Education” deepens its purpose beyond the “feel good” genre and comedic value, capturing sex not only as its sensations and absurdity, but its dimensions of violence outside its prescibed privacy into the public space. In returning to more sentimental themes following Aimee’s arc, we are brought through Aimee’s narrative of reclaiming herself, making a full circle since her debut appearance in the first five minutes of the show in the first season. This season hits home with its clearly articulated importance of sex education, not only for the teens but also for the adults; not only for the amateurs, but for the experts–that there is still much more to learn about sex for everyone, beyond the manual basics.

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