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How TV shows can be used to teach about sex and relationships

Brook Education and Wellbeing Specialist Francesca Fiennes gives some tips on how to use examples from film and TV to support education about sex and relationships.

As Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) becomes mandatory after lockdowns, organisations such as Brook seek to provide specialist and professional advice to support this.

A great way to start thinking about how to engage young people in conversations around sex and relationships is to do so within frameworks that they are familiar with.  

TV and films can be great to use as references during classroom teaching, as well as whilst exploring these issues at home or in a more pastoral setting. This helps young people to contextualise some topics that might seem more abstract to them, such as consent and healthy relationships. These can particularly be the case if they have not explored romantic and/or sexual relationships yet. 

It’s also helpful to use fictional scenarios to start conversations as this can ease embarrassment. 

Equally, it is important to remember that some of these examples might demonstrate unhealthy or ‘toxic traits’ in relationships – but these can be helpful examples too. Having conversations and providing frameworks that encourage young people to think critically about relationships and what might work for them is a way we can truly empower them. Evidently, there are qualities which should be non-negotiable parts of a healthy relationship, such as respect, trust, open communication and equality. These examples can serve to spur on thinking about what suits the individual, and how to support themselves and others if they are experiencing anything unhealthy or non-consensual. 

Positive examples

Let’s start with some positives – we are seeing an increase in TV shows that demonstrate consent during sex in a positive manner. Whilst as professionals we know that freedom, consent and choice form part of the law, the wider societal messages can sometimes be distilled into ‘yes means yes’ and ‘no means no’ camps. Whilst a helpful starting point, we really want to ensure that young people can see how normal it is to have an ongoing conversation around consent, and that pleasure and enthusiasm are essential parts of the conversation. 

A fantastic place to start with this is the Netflix TV show ‘Sex Education’, which contains plenty of examples of healthy discussions around sex and relationships (including friendships). It must be noted that the show is rated an 18, so it’s worth checking in to see if your young people have already watched it. Some of the scenes and messaging is suitable for young people from around age 16+ – so you may wish to select appropriate snippets depending on the age group.  

In the recent series, characters Maeve and Isaac explore giving enthusiastic consent together. They ask each other where they like to be kissed, and Maeve asks Isaac (who is a disabled man), his level of pleasurable sensation he can feel on his body. The scene is tender, sexy and unassuming. They also do not discuss sex or intimacy as achieving some kind of goal, but rather explore the value of comfortability and pleasure as central to sex – and highlight how natural conversations around consent can look.  

On the downside, Sex Education can make it seem that almost all young people are having a lot of sex. This is partly necessary for the story line in order to cover so many relationship dynamics and identities, but it is worth thinking critically about and exploring whether that makes young people feel like they ought to be having sex. 

Another good example to consider is the TV adaptation of ‘Normal People’. This has a rating of 15, so again it’s good to check in to see whether young people have watched and decide on whether it’s appropriate for the age group you are talking to. During a scene depicting a first-time sexual experience, main characters Connell and Marianne have conversations covering contraception, pleasure and consent easily and positively.  

Negative examples

In terms of less positive examples of consent and healthy relationships, you could consider aspects of Ross and Rachel’s relationship from Friends. They don’t end their relationship respectfully, they don’t seem to trust each other, and subsequently find it hard to openly communicate with each other. Of course they end up together; which often is the case in on-screen relationships, and this might be a good opportunity to discuss ideas around pressure to find ‘The One’ and stay in relationships even if you’re not happy.  

A more stark example of non-consensual sex is a scene from Bridgerton (rated 15). In one of the scenes where the Duke and Daphne are having penetrative sex, Daphne prevents the Duke from being able to ‘pull out’ before he ejaculates despite him asking her to wait, therefore taking away his informed consent. This is an important example because it debunks the myth that men can’t be sexually assaulted. 

The media contains a large array of content that allows us to draw on examples of both healthy and unhealthy relationships, and consensual and non-consensual scenarios. Using clips as prompts to start discussions is a fun and engaging way to help young people to contextualise sometimes abstract topics and encourage them to think critically. 

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