Spoiler Alert: This article will discuss the plot of Sex Education season four.
The teen sex comedy-drama series Sex Education started as a show talking about sex and shame, educating teenagers and adults alike on sexual issues that we are often too embarrassed to talk about. However, the series has now also become a staple in trans representation on screen. With shows like Sex Education and Heartstopper, we have been blessed with more trans actors on TV, showcasing the diverse experience of such a rich community.
Not only do we have Cal, a non-binary trans masculine person who in the latest season experiences changes in their body since starting testosterone, but we also get to explore the relationship between Abbi and Roman, the power couple at the new college. In media, the importance of visibility and representation cannot be overstated. Trans YouTuber, writer, and LGBTQ+ advocate Jamie Raines stated how seeing characters like Cal, Abbi and Roman on TV would have improved his gender journey, making him feel less lonely.
Sex Education writer Krisha Istha, who identifies as non-binary and transmasculine, explained how they realised that ‘one non-binary, trans character can’t hold everything which is why there are Roman and Abbi, to portray the different versions of trans you could be’.
Interview with Chloe Scotney: GenderGP’s clinical sexologist
Much like Jean Milburn in Sex Education, we have our very own clinical sexologist: Chloe Scotney. We spoke to them about the series’ portrayal of LGBTQ+ sex, the intricacies of queer sex and why representation matters.
Cal, played by Dua Saleh, portrays one aspect of being trans, namely one that is affected by the healthcare system’s failure to provide timely and affordable access to gender-affirming healthcare. Cal struggles with gender dysphoria, wanting to get top surgery but not being able to afford it through private care. ‘I can’t wait any longer. I don’t think the world really wants people like me in it’, they explain in a heart-warming scene. Eventually, the school decides to fundraise for Cal’s top surgery. Nevertheless, countless trans people in the real world still struggle to afford this life-saving care, negatively impacting their mental health and overall well-being.
‘I can’t get the care that I actually need to live my life. It’s so painful.’ – Cal, Sex Education, season four.
In Sex Education, Cal experiences dysphoria while having sex due to their unexpected period. How can gender dysphoria show up during sex?
Chloe: Innately, it’s down to our experience as sexual beings. We arrive at that interaction as our sexual self and gender is a big part of it. This is not the case for everybody but for a lot of people. Trans sex can look very different. We all engage in sex in different ways. There are lots of potential barriers to sex if you experience dysphoria. For example, if you are someone who binds, that might be something you can’t take off in a sexual space. Affirmation then becomes a barrier. The same can happen if you’re using a strap-on, it can become a prompt for dysphoria, wishing that was a part of your sexual anatomy.
When we are engaging in sex, anxiety and intrusive thoughts automatically shut off arousal. We know that if somebody is experiencing something like dysphoria, it can shut down our ability to experience pleasure or to climax. To have sex well, we need to be able to communicate our boundaries and needs. Dysphoria can get in the way of that.
Another important issue Sex Education touches upon is how your partner perceives you. Are you being seen as your gender or are you being seen as a gender you don’t identify with?
Chloe raised a very valid question. It is vital to be seen as ourselves and perceived as such by our sexual partners. In season three, Cal starts dating Jackson but because he is a straight man, perceiving them as a woman, they eventually break up, due to him not being able to see Cal for who they truly are. ‘If you have anxious thoughts about how you are going to be perceived in that sexual space, it is a lot for someone to be carrying in a sexual interaction’, Chloe explained further.
Trans sex and representation in Sex Education
The final season introduces Abbi and Roman, the popular couple at school. Sex Education’s groundbreaking sex scene between Abbi and Roman, while brief, will leave a long-lasting impact on the representation of trans sex on screen. It is one of the few trans sex scenes to have ever been shown on television on such a global platform. Sex Education director Alyssa McClelland called this sex scene ‘revolutionary’. ‘We were talking about how we haven’t really seen raw, intimate trans sex on screen before’, McClelland noted.
Felix Mufti who played Roman described the sex scene as ‘joyous and beautiful’. The actor told Gay Times how ‘you never see two trans people having sex [on TV], ever, especially on their terms’. The scene felt like a statement saying ‘This is how we have sex and autonomy over our bodies’.
The series’ scene does not sexualise or objectify the trans characters, but it foregrounds an intimate, romantic moment between two people having sex. It also offers an understanding of what trans sex can look and feel like. Overall, the show does not tokenise the trans characters, they are not defined by their gender identity but rather by the qualities that make them human.
Sex Education gifted us with a plethora of LGBTQ+ characters, from breakout star Eric, played by Ncuti Gatwa, to new characters such as Abbi, played by Anthony Lexa, and Roman. As McClelland outlined, the show’s message is to ‘be authentic to yourself, [and] you will always be OK’. The series managed to explore all different kinds of sexual experiences and issues. While the final season is now over, it changed the way we see and speak about sex especially LGBTQ+ sex on screen forever.
Why is it so important to see queer and trans sex on screen?
Chloe: I love this question. I think it’s incredibly important. For me, there is something around the mechanics of queer and trans sex being on screen, not just to normalise it, but also for educational purposes. A lot of people rely on pornography which we all know is not too accurate.
The problem is that most of us have only really seen queer and trans sex in mainstream television through a reference to AIDS or abuse and sexual assault. LGBTQ+ sex carried negative connotations. We are also living in a time where trans people are under attack, so we really need those sensitive, beautiful depictions of trans sex like in Sex Education.
How was sex in all its different facets represented in Sex Education?
Chloe: The show did a great job of not talking about the screen-worthy aspects of sex, but also the silliness of sex too. They tackled serious subjects like abortion, confronting it unapologetically which was refreshing, while also delicately touching upon sexual assault through Aimee’s character.
People weren’t just cis, straight, white and able-bodied. Up until the last season, there wasn’t enough trans representation. But season four had a lot more of it. Touching upon different facets of sexuality, asexuality being in there, I don’t think I have seen it explored in this much detail on screen.
I am having people approach me because of the show who have never heard of sex therapy before saying they want to talk to a sexologist, which is fantastic. My only gripe with the show is around the unsolicited sex advice without proper training. Obviously, it is great for television, and they have consulted sexologists. However, the main message I would send out to people is to make sure you talk to someone qualified.
Could you talk to me about the sexualization and fetishisation of queer sex, and how it can impact the way even queer people think about LGBTQ+ sex?
Chloe: In particular sapphic sex is aimed towards the male gaze in our culture. We have taken sex that is purely about the queer experience and made it something for cisgender, heterosexual men. We have the consistent theme where queer and trans people are much more the focus of pornography and even outside of those spaces, more likely to be seen as sexual, criminal activities – it is always something negative.
If I think of my own experiences, my first exposure to sex that wasn’t heteronormative would have been lesbian porn aimed at cis, straight men. No wonder I had trouble claiming queerness as something that felt like it was actually for me. When we fetishise a group of people like that, we take away their right to exist as a sexual being without that input from wider society.
What should trans people know about safe sex and sexual health?
Chloe: What is important to remember is that a lot of sexual health risks aren’t gendered. STIs don’t care what genitalia you have. Just like everybody else, protect yourself and have these conversations about sexual health. Trans people can get pregnant and get other people pregnant. Just because you are on hormones, it does not mean that it’s not possible.
One thing we don’t talk about enough is how hormones impact your sexual function. Whether it’s a slightly dryer vagina for a transmasculine person or erectile dysfunction for a transfeminine person, these things can be impactful even if we have a dysphoric relationship with our genitalia.
How can we navigate a happy and healthy sex life as LGBTQ+ people?
Chloe: Sex can be whatever you want it to be, it doesn’t have to look a certain way. Get educated, get tested, stay safe and find your community. Be with people who respect your identity. If they are not respecting your gender, then they are not respecting your boundaries and your consent.
It is important to know your boundaries and your sexual needs. If you are not sure about what those are, speak to someone about it. Make sure what you’re doing aligns with your sense of self.
For many, it can be difficult to talk about sex. Do you have any advice on how to tackle sexual shame, especially for queer and trans people?
Chloe: This is one of the things Sex Education has done the best. It started a conversation, and it began to dismantle those stigmas and shame around sex. A lot of people didn’t even know sex therapy existed before the show. I am really overjoyed to see people come to my therapy space because of the series.
Normalising is important. That is how we start to reduce shame. Knowledge is power and knowing that you’re not alone is really helpful. Talk to your friends about sex because they may be experiencing the same issues.
Queer and trans people are more likely to encounter different shades of shame around sex that may not be as prevalent in the cis, heterosexual experience. An example is religion in conjunction with sex and gender [a topic that was explored beautifully through Eric’s storyline]. Not that cis, straight people don’t experience shame around those things, because they do, but they tend to show up more in our community.
I loved Sex Education. Considering it was one of the first shows to put sex out there in such an inclusive way, I think it did a great job and I hope it is the start of a lot more series and films that are willing to touch upon this content because people like it. We need shows like this.
Chloe Scotney is a clinical sexologist, working as an Advanced Counsellor at GenderGP. They offer counselling sessions, Information Gathering Sessions (IGS), and surgery referrals. She has a passion for patient-facing work so if you would like to speak with Chloe, you can book a session with them HERE.
If you haven’t already seen Sex Education, you can watch all four seasons on Netflix now.