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One of the TV shows I found joy in during pandemic lockdown was Sex Education, a British comedy on Netflix about the students of a fictional secondary school and their romantic and sexual misadventures. At the center of the series is Otis, a sexually inexperienced teen boy who knows way more about sex than the average teen because his mother, Jean, is a sex therapist and very open about sex and relationships. When Otis uses his information to offer the students at his school advice, he ends up establishing a sex clinic with Maeve, a rebel and a loner who is struggling with her mom’s abandonment. Things get complicated when Otis catches feelings for Maeve, and of course many shenanigans ensue as the show dives into the lives of the central characters and many peripheral characters.
This show is very open about sex and addressing all of the awkward, funny, and not-so-idealistic sides of it, but it’s also really funny and it can go surprisingly deep at times. I love the large cast of characters, the complicated group dynamics, and the way the show also includes peeks into the lives of the adults in the teens’ lives and their own relationship hang ups. While the show doesn’t reflect my teen experience at all and lends the impression that all teens are hooking up constantly (not true), I do appreciate that it tries to present sex in a more realistic, honest light and the emphasis is on education, de-mystifying, and safe practices. That’s something we could all use more of!
If you’ve watched Sex Education and are impatiently counting down the days until season four drops, then check out these YA books that capture the same vibe of exploration and discovery around romantic relationships (and yes, some of them are sexual) and friendships. While there are very few taboos in YA fiction, sex in YA can still be a hot topic and a touchy subject for some adults. I think the more teens can read about and learn about healthy relationships before they become sexually active, the better equipped they will be to make the right decisions for them and the more empowered they will be to make those decisions. Not all of these books depict sex on the page, but many have open and frank conversations about sex, sexuality, or dating.
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles
Del has had a crush on Kiera forever, so when she finally breaks up with her boyfriend, he feels like he finally has a chance. He volunteers for what he thinks is a church service project to get close to her…but it turns out to be purity pledge. Del hasn’t had sex, although everyone at school thinks he has, so things get awkward as he tries to convince Kiera he’s for real. Meanwhile, it turns out that Del is the only student at church allowed to attend the school’s sex ed class, and it’s not long before he’s sharing what he learns in class in exchange for a chance to get close to Kiera…but what happens when the truth comes out? Del is a bit misguided about how to appeal to a crush, but his misadventures bring up some big questions about consent, who has the right to sex education, and how much of a say adults should have when it comes to restricting that education. Plus, this book does a great job at large friend group dynamics, which is always fun to read!
Unpregnant by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks
Veronica is a Missouri teen just shy of 18 when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She’s got plans that don’t involve becoming a teen mom, and when she discovers that her boyfriend sabotaged their birth control, she’s horrified and knows she needs an abortion. The only problem? The closest clinic that will give her an abortion is in Albuquerque. And the only way she can get there is to ask her ex-friend Bailey for a ride. What ensues is a hilarious buddy road trip as they make their way to New Mexico over the course of a weekend, foiled by Veronica’s ex and their own complicated past. This is a great YA novel that is sex positive and unabashedly pro-choice, but it’s also about friendship and knowing your own worth. Plus, there is an extremely relatable moment in which she curses out her state’s legislature that we all might find cathartic. For reasons.
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On the Subject of Unmentionable Things by Julia Walton
If you love the idea of a teen being an underground sex advice columnist, then this book is for you! Phoebe is a rule-following teen who is secretly the blogger Pom, responsible for re-writing sex ed on social media. When Pom goes viral thanks to a conservative and anti-sex mayoral candidate, Phoebe knows she can’t back down…but her anonymity might not last. This premise feels TOO REAL, but I love the idea of teens taking control of their own sexual educations.
Late to the Party by Kelly Quindlen
If you’re looking for a YA novel that reflects the many different friend groups and sometimes fraught friend dynamics of Sex Education, this is it! Codi and her besties Maritza and JaKory are all queer, and this summer Maritza and JaKory want to find relationships. Codi is hesitant, but when she bails out her friends at a party she strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ricky, a gay teen with relationship drama of his own. They develop a fast friendship and he introduces Codi to his set of friends, who offer Codi acceptance and friendship, and she might even find her first girlfriend in one of Ricky’s friends…but she doesn’t tell Maritza and JaKory about any of this. I like that this book is about how it can feel awkward to change and evolve alongside friends who’ve known us forever, and sometimes you have to do your own exploration.
Loveless by Alice Oseman
Asexuality isn’t explored in depth in Sex Education, although it is brought up and one of the bit characters comes out as ace. If you want to know more, pick up this British novel about Georgia, who worries that there might be something wrong with her because she doesn’t experience sexual attraction like her friends seem to. As she heads off for university, she discovers asexuality, which leads her on a journey of exploration and discovery as she claims her identity with the help of friends.
Confessions of an Alleged Good Girl by Joya Goffney
Monique’s dad is a pastor, so everyone around her assumes that means she is “good” and won’t have sex until marriage. But that’s not Monique’s plan at all: she wants to have sex with her boyfriend…but can’t. And she has no one to turn to, except a strait-laced church girl who, as it turns out, is pretty knowledgeable about sex because she works in a women’s clinic. Monique sets out to find a cure, and along the way discovers the meaning of friendship as well as the importance of owning your decisions about your own body.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens by Tanya Boteju
One thing I love about Sex Education is that it leans into the cringe, and so does this book! Nima is a queer teen who is struggling to find her way after her mom leaves abruptly, and when she stumbles upon a drag show at a local festival, she’s enamored by the performance and the people who take part in it. As she is developed into their world and discovers a chance at her first real relationship, she must content with not knowing all the answers and her own unresolved feelings about her mom’s abandonment before she can have an honest, healthy relationship with her dream girl.
Doing It by Hannah Witton
If you’re looking for a great overall guide on all things sex and relationships, this real and honest book is full of information and advice, told in an honest and funny way. Hannah Witton covers everything from consent to birth control and addresses how you know when you’re ready, and what you need to know to have safe sex. Witton also addresses a whole slew of subjects related to sex that might not be covered in your sex ed classes, including sexting, porn, how to have a healthy relationship, and more.
A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability by A. Andrews
One thing I appreciate about Sex Education is that it looks at all sorts of sexual relationships, and (no spoiler) includes a scene in which a disabled character and an able bodied character figure out how to have a joyful and sweet sexual connection. In this quick and easy guide, A. Andrews talks about how disabled folks often get left out of the conversation when it comes to sex, offers tips and considerations for healthy sex, and busts some myths about sex and disability. This book is part of an excellent series of guides about sex and sexuality, and all are really valuable!
Bodies are weird and cool and exciting, and so no matter where you’re at in life, I hope these books provide a bit of guidance, insight, and of course, entertainment! If you want further reading, here are some non-YA books to check out!
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is a great memoir (for adults) about Machado’s abusive lesbian relationship and how she got out. Maeve is spotted reading it in season three.
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski, PhD is a fantastic nonfiction title (geared toward adults) about female sexuality and how science has traditionally neglected to dive into the particular ins and outs of what makes sex good for women, and the missing emotional link. In this book, Nagoski emphasizes you are perfect the way you are and wants to help you understand how to have more fulfilling sex.