Netflix’s Sex Education is great – but it gets therapy wrong And it’s not the only one.
Netflix’s brand new British comedy-drama series Sex Education packs an immediate punch, sticking the students of Moordale Secondary School and their sex-based concerns right in front of your face without warning or apology.
Because this is a show on a mission: “[It’s about] encouraging people to rip the band-aid off and have those uncomfortable, awkward conversations about sex, rather than bottle it all up inside, or think that they have to go online to get the answers,” writer Laurie Nunn told Digital Spy and other press. “To try and talk to their partners or – if they can handle it – to their parents, or to their friends.
“We really think that that’s going to help them have healthier sexual relationships.”
It’s a noble purpose and because of that, nothing is sanitised. The concerns that the characters are grappling with are painted in the loudest colours, emphatically splashed across the screen because, as the cast and crew have consistently emphasised, Sex Education is nothing if not real.
It does the heavy lifting, having those all-important yet toe-curling dialogues – about relationships, identity, and what healthy, consensual sex looks like – that most of us swerved like Fast & Furious drivers during our younger years, and often still do.
Sex Education is just that: an education. (And we love it, by the way.)
But it could be accused of falling short in one central narrative tenet: the depiction of therapy.
“The first alarm bell I experienced when I watched it was the way it sort of suggested that sex and relationship therapy was something completely split off from people’s overall health and mental well-being,” Professor Sarah Niblock, Chief Executive of the UK Council for Psychotherapists, tells Digital Spy exclusively.
“That’s kind of ridiculous and it sort of undermines the whole premise of what follows.”
Throughout the series, students from a number of different backgrounds and social statuses approach Otis (Asa Butterfield) for help with an array of weird and wonderful problems regarding sex and their bodies.
Otis then dishes out his pearls of wisdom, just as his qualified sex and relationship therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) does to her clients, and away they go, instantly lighter, no longer bogged down by their weighty woes.
Like Sherlock Holmes, 16-year-old Otis uses the evidence before him to pinpoint the crux of their conundrums and ultimately, get his patients instantly back on track.
This, according to Niblock, is simply not how it works.
“I’m actually a little bit surprised it survived the script editing,” she said. “Problems in relationships occur because of deeper stuff. It’s not something that you can split off from the rest of your life.
“Often if people have a general sense of ‘mental un-health’ then it does get manifested through relationship difficulties. Problems in relationships, particularly around sex, often come about as a result of something that’s much more fundamental.
“So I think the way it compartmentalises sex and relationships as being something that’s just there and everything else in your life is great, but you’ve got this sexual problem, is very simplistic.”
The way in which Otis is able to address the hang-ups of his fellow students during a five-minute lunch slot is also a concern for Niblock.
“I think it’s also a little bit unrealistic in the way that it portrays quick fixes,” she continues. “That’s not to say for one moment that you have to go into psychotherapy for years and years. Things can resolve themselves pretty quickly.
“But you can’t just sort it out overnight. You’ve got to be prepared to be in it for a bit of time to really get to the root cause of what’s causing those problems in relationships.
“I’m concerned that viewers might take away a distorted view of therapy. My worry is that programmes such as Sex Education are going to make people think that when they see a psychotherapist, that they’re in an unsafe relationship with somebody who might not necessarily have the proper background.”
It’s not just Otis’s age and lack of life experience that is a problem for Niblock and her fellow professionals. It is also the way in which his friend Maeve (Emma Mackey) crowns him an expert for simply observing his mother in action from afar: “The programme makes out that anyone can just learn the skills and practise it.
“You have to have years and years of training and deep study and deep reflection to learn the ability to work with what are people’s most unconscious feelings and experiences, so that concerns me.”
Portraying therapy in an accurate, responsible light is no mean feat, but it’s something that Niblock says can be done with a comprehensive understanding of the process, and of the relationship between therapist and client.
Unfortunately that doesn’t quite fit with the demands of fast-moving narrative TV. “It doesn’t follow a nice kind of flow. It doesn’t follow a linear pattern where you go from A to B and then you’re better. It often goes backwards and forwards. There are highs and lows. But people don’t really know what goes on. It has a lot of mystique around it.”
Niblock cited Scandinavian thriller Black Lake and Dexter as two other shows which get it spectacularly wrong: “In Black Lake, there is the representation of a psychotherapist as somehow being able to have control over their clients, that somehow they can manipulate them.
“I think if they worked with us they’d realise actually that it’s the client or clients that are in the driving seat. It’s they who have full control over the process, and the therapist is there really to support them and hear them and… ask them questions, get deeper into things and reflect back to them.
“They can’t start twisting their mind and control them or turn them into murderers as you saw on Dexter with Charlotte Rampling’s character. If you’re a writer or producer, you should go and immerse yourself within the particular sector.
“You can’t really shadow a psychotherapist, but you would be able to get a much better sense of it if only they were to talk to us and organisations like ours who would be more than happy to advise and give a little bit of script advice.”
Yet despite therapy often being a very emotionally demanding experience, representations on screen can play with comedic elements.
“We do look at humour in the consulting room because actually therapists and their clients will find times when actually, something is extremely funny,” she said. “It covers the full spectrum of emotions.
“But it’s just important that the power relationship between the therapist and the client is represented accurately. There’s nothing more frightening than thinking someone will overpower you and control you.
“The most scary thing we face is lack of control. It’s one of the most stressful, anxiety-inducing things, the sense that you can’t change your circumstances. And what concerns me with some of these programmes is they almost portray psychotherapy as being able to make people go mad and lose sense of who they are.”
Niblock went on to say that if that stigma isn’t dealt with, the fallout could be catastrophic: “So many of us will experience a mental health issue in our lives. The most important thing we can do is talk to somebody. We’ve done research that shows that people don’t really know what a psychotherapist is and when they see those representations on TV it will certainly put them off.
“So we’ve got to do a lot of work to make sure that people better understand and can make informed choices about their care.”