When Netflix’s new show Sex Education dropped earlier this month, it became an instant hit among basically anyone who has sex or thinks about sex. The show follows an awkward teen, Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), who knows a lot about sex thanks to his sex therapist mom, Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson). Otis teams up with school outcast, Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), once they realize that Otis’s sexual knowledge means they can both make some major cash from their peers via “therapy sessions.” In each episode, Otis addresses a new classmate’s sex and relationship issues, all while dealing with his own sexual inhibitions and his mom’s serious prying.
Those who love the show love how relatable it is in showing the awkward situations and weird sexual questions that teens are inevitably going through but aren’t usually talking about. And with Otis as acting as a sex therapist for his classmates, we get to see what it would be like if teenagers actually had a thoughtful, insightful outlet for talking about sex and relationships.
It also broke barriers in a lot of ways, like showing teens finally having honest, progressive conversations about sex and sexuality. And also showing a full vulva on TV. Of course, that doesn’t mean every bit of Sex Education is 100 percent accurate. This is still TV, after all, and TV shows tend to rely on clichéd tropes and unrealistic drama to make the show entertaining.
So we talked to six real-life sex therapists about their thoughts on the show. Here’s what they had to say.
Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the whole season!
1. The show’s portrayal of an actual licensed sex therapist—Jean (Otis’s mom)—is a little cliché.
“Sex therapy is a bit unconventional as a job, but it's still a job to us,” Kate Stewart, a licensed mental health counselor based in Seattle, Washington, tells SELF.
Although some sex therapists may constantly talk about sex and have lots of sex with lots of people, the majority don’t. “I rolled my eyes at the trope of the mom banging all these people because she’s a sex therapist,” sexologist Megan Stubbs, Ed.D. tells SELF. “Banging people all over the place is not a job requirement.”
Then there’s the issue of the job itself—Jean makes it look like being a sex therapist is a cakewalk. It’s not. “For the most part, sex therapists don't just sit around in big houses barely doing anything and looking gorgeous all day,” Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., a sex therapist based in Long Island, tells SELF. “We see clients, we write articles, we give talks, we lecture, we teach, and so on. Looks nice, though.”
2. But her dildo-filled office is pretty realistic.
“I want to say that I don't have nearly as much crazy sex art, but I do have two nude paintings and a bunch of crystal and stainless steel dildos decorating my office,” Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and creator of Finishing School, tells SELF.
3. Most sex therapists are generally better with personal and professional boundaries.
Not only does Dr. Milburn openly hold therapy sessions in her home—breaching her patient’s privacy, as well as her and Otis’s potential safety—she also pries into her son’s sexuality and disrespects his wishes on a few occasions. Sure, lots of moms do this and it gives us the kind of drama that makes TV interesting, but it’s not exactly how you’d expect a sex therapist to act.
“Many of the sex therapists I know have children, and they are all very respectful of their children's space and ability to explore sexuality in their own way and on their own time,” Stewart says. “I think we would all talk to our children about our work if they were interested, but we wouldn't get into such graphic detail about our clients being interested in pegging.”
On top of that, we discover that Jean and her ex-husband (also seemingly a sex therapist) had a toxic relationship complete with a lack of boundaries that probably led to Otis’s own sexual inhibitions (specifically, his inability to masturbate). Remember that scene when young Otis sees his dad having sex with a patient? “Completely against our ethics and care for a client,” Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a sex therapist in New York, tells SELF. Later, we see a scene where Jean explains to young Otis that sex can be wonderful but can also destroy lives. “So it’s not that Otis is just inhibited,” says Fleming. “He was taught and conditioned by his own mother that sex is destructive.”
But then again, nobody is perfect, even therapists. And Jean’s behavior shines a light on that fact.
“Otis' mother was one of my favorite characters. She shows the reality that even though we are therapists, we’re sometimes at fault for crossing boundaries with those closest to us (by writing a book about Otis' sexual difficulties), being unclear in our communication, and reacting in stressful situations,” sex therapist Megan Davis, M.Ed, tells SELF. “I can admit, I am sometimes guilty of not taking my own advice or keeping my cool.”
4. But the show does a great job depicting real sex and relationship problems—and solutions.
“My favorite scene was when Otis counseled the two lesbians in the pool,” Dr. Torrisi says. “At some point one of them remarks that the issue can't be the relationship, that it's just the sex. I hear this a lot. Yes, having a good relationship can help sex. And having good sex can help the relationship. But, so often as a sex therapist, I see people scapegoat the sex in order to hide their fears about the relationship.”
In fact, pretty much every therapy session Otis has with fellow students rings true. “Otis addressed issues such as low or no desire, pain during sex, lack of orgasm, erectile dysfunction, and sexual orientation issues. We have a tendency to shame and silence discussions of sexuality and sexual issues, but Otis was able to help his peers to remove the shame and begin openly talking about their bodies, their sexuality, and their issues,” Davis says.
The way people react to his advice is realistic, too. “There is an immense power in just being able to talk about sex out loud. In the scene in the bathroom with Adam, you can practically see the weight coming off of his shoulders when he acknowledges that he's having issues with his erection and orgasm. I see that same kind of relief with my clients, too,” Marin says.
5. Ultimately it shows that sex therapy—or at the very least better sex education—can be helpful for pretty much anyone.
“Otis debunked many myths about sex during his sessions with his peers. For example, the myth and expectation that men should last 30-45 minutes before orgasm; when in fact most men only last 3-5 minutes. And the myth that vaginas [or, more accurately, vulvas] are supposed to look a certain way, particularly the labia,” Davis says.
Despite the TV tendency to solve complex problems in 30 minutes or less, Otis uses very real sex therapy tactics to help his fellow students. “He provided education to his peers, homework (i.e. when he sent Aimee home and encouraged her to masturbate on her own in order to tell her partner what she likes or doesn't like in bed), brought in both partners to work on communication strategies, worked with couples on conflict resolution skills, and encouraged experimentation individually or as a couple,” Davis explains.
Although the show portrayed sex therapy in both realistic and unrealistic ways, it's strides ahead of similar teen shows about sex. In Sex Education, sexual issues like erectile dysfunction and sex injuries aren't laughed off—they're given serious thought and discussion.
If after watching the show, you think you might benefit from sex therapy of your own, here’s how to find out more about it.