In Netflix’s hit show Sex Education, Patricia Allison, Chinenye Ezeudu and Aimee Lou Wood have shone a spotlight on many topics long underdiscussed: from STIs to sexual assault. As Josh Smith discovers, they’re empowering everyone in the process – all in the spirit of GLAMOUR’s Sex Education September digital issue.
If you are late to the best party on Netflix, Sex Education is a masterclass in comedy, coming-of-age tales and of course all manner of sexual exploits, while also setting the standard for a truly representative cast that goes beyond any suggestion of tokenism.
When season one landed in 2019 the plot started with Otis (Asa Butterfield) serving sex advice – gleaned from his sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) – to his peers in Moordale High. Since then, the show has developed to follow a group of teens dealing with everything from a mass chlamydia outbreak to sexual assault. And while the show is based around relationships and sexuality, it achieves a rare feat, never once being gratuitous in how sex is portayed. Something reflected by the fact it was the first TV show ever to employ an intimacy co-ordinator onset.
Living up to its name, the show is also educational, taking a real, unpolished look at the complexities of sexual relationships, while exploring conversations which were previously taboo. It’s the sex education we all wish we’d had at school.
The start of season three, which lands on Netflix on 17 September, is no less educational. The opening montage, set to I Think We Are Alone Now, involves blow jobs, multiple sex positions, space-themed role play and masturbation (while using a VR headset). The relationships range from heterosexual to pansexual. and the main topic of episode one? Penis size and conversations around the shame that arise from it. There is even a student musical number poetically called Sucking On My Titties.
Allyship is another theme that underpins the entire show, and as I watch three of its stars, Aimee Lou Wood (who plays Aimee Gibbs), Patricia Allison (Ola Nyman) and Chinenye Ezeudu (Viv Odesanya), laugh and shout ‘I love yous’ to one another throughout their GLAMOUR UK covershoot, it’s clear that applies both on and off screen, too.
Aimee Lou Wood on Aimee Gibbs’ sexual assault story line, trauma & the sexism that surrounds sexual health: “Women are expected to go through pain & it’s just not even talked about or even noticed.”
As Aimee settles down after shooting her first GLAMOUR UK cover, she is her usual upbeat and excitable self, making jokes and having fun. It’s been a year since we last met and she can now call herself a BAFTA winner, after scooping the award for Best Female Performance in a Comedy Programme this year for her role of Aimee Gibbs – the gal with the party house who is forced to bare her vulnerable side through a traumatic plot twist in season two of Sex Education.
“It [the BAFTA] is on top of my fireplace,” she says in her warm Stockport accent – she grew up there with her parents and sister, Emily, who is also the makeup artist on the shoot today. “It was very funny, the other day I actually got locked out of my house and a locksmith had to come over. It was all normal and then I saw him clock this BAFTA on the fireplace! He was very confused because I was there with a towel around my head and pajamas on and I think he was thinking I’d stolen it!”
Well the BAFTA wasn’t stolen, it was beyond deserved for Aimee’s nuanced and touching exploration of sexual assault after a fellow passenger on a bus masturbates over her character in season two. Based on a real life incident that the show’s screenwriter, Laurie Nunn, experienced on a bus in London’s Kings Cross, the storyline shows Aimee questioning whether it was assault (which of course it was) and whether she should report it. When she then feels too scared to travel alone anymore, a sisterhood led by Emma Mackey’s Maeve join her on the bus in a show of solidarity. The moment garnered praise and multiple pieces of fan art, striking a chord with many people who have experienced sexual assault.
It won’t be her last award either, as last year Aimee starred opposite Toby Jones as Sonya in the West End production of Uncle Vanya to rave reviews. She is also about to appear alongside Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, the story of a 19th century artist who suffers with poor mental health. A CV all the more impressive when you consider Aimee’s first TV show was Sex Education, when she was straight out of RADA.
But back to season three of Sex Education, which sees the character Aimee turn to sex therapist Jean for help as she deals with her ongoing trauma.
“Season three handles Aimee’s healing from her sexual assault so beautifully,” the 26-year-old actor tells me. “It’s still so present for her because it’s huge. I remember saying through the whole of season two, ‘Aimee should really have Jean as that therapist in season three.’ That came true, which was great because it meant I got to do scenes with Gillian, who’s incredible, but it was also such a healthy and wonderful thing to show that you can ask for help.
“Things are going to happen in your life that are going to change you but there are people here to support you,” she continues. “The fact that Jean says to her, ‘You are never going to be the same,’ is this truth that seems harsh, but actually it’s the most freeing thing, because what she’s saying is you don’t have to pretend to be the same person you were before this happened because unfortunately, she no longer really exists. And in many ways, this new, bigger, more amazing version of you is present now.”
As Aimee has previously spoken about going to therapy and managing body dysmorphia, I wonder how the scenes made her reflect on the importance of talking about such issues. “I always get really emotional when I talk about it,” she replies.
“Talking is the most important thing, but actually I’ve also recently been thinking that I talk too much, I over-explain,” she continues, “and what’s been great in my therapy sessions is that she’s very like, ‘Let’s talk, but also know that you don’t need to over-explain yourself.’ A lot of us have a trauma response of over-explaining and taking you away from what you’re actually feeling. It becomes all about the other person and trying to damage control.”
When is comes to sex education IRL, Aimee wishes there was a more honest approach. “I wish I’d learned that your body belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to anybody else,” she reveals. “That’s such a hard thing to feel because when you look at yourself, you’re seeing yourself through what society wants, what’s supposed to be perfect or desirable. You never really feel like you own your own body and therefore you don’t own sex, it belongs to someone else, you’re doing it for someone else. Just recently I’ve been really like, ‘God, this is just my body, it’s great because it takes me from A to B, I eat food and I have sex and it’s all wonderful, it doesn’t have to look a certain way and it belongs to me.’”
Because yes, society does still try to own the bodies of women: from laws against abortion in some parts of the world to how the Pillis the responsibility of women. What still surprises Aimee about the sexism and patriarchal standards surrounding these healthcare issues?
She pauses to think. “I’ve never really actually thought about the contraception thing. I just hadn’t ever questioned it until recently,” Aimee adds. “It was just like, you get to a certain age and then you go on a pill or you get an implant or something that stops you from getting pregnant and it’s your responsibility. Why does the onus fall on the woman when a man could go and get 20 women pregnant, more, at once? Yet it falls onto us to put our bodies under this stress and these changes. Women are expected to go through pain and it’s just not even talked about or even noticed.”
When Aimee says: “Sex Education has helped me find my voice,” that passionate passage proves it.
Patricia Allison on sexuality & shame around sex: “From doing this show, my personal journey has grown and I’m able to now talk to my female friends about orgasms without it being the worst thing in the world.”
Patricia Allison’s character, Ola Nyman, came to the forefront of Sex Education’s storylines when she identified as pansexual after dating Asa Butterfield’s Otis and then falling for her eccentric best pal, Lily (Tanya Reynolds).
“Exploring my character’s sexual identity was interesting because I never really questioned my own,” Patricia tells me post the GLAMOUR covershoot. “I was always very fluid and it was interesting when I had to play a character who was faced with that and had to ask herself, ‘where do I belong, who do I like, what do I like?’ It turns out she loves people and she likes personalities, which is not too far similar from me. It just made me understand the generation that we’re living in a bit more because when I was growing up you kind of got bullied for being gay or bi or whatever in my school – it wasn’t as open.”
Unlike Ola, Patricia didn’t have to face her sexuality under the microscope of school life, either. “I never really explored my sexual identity at school,” says the 26-year-old, who started acting at the age of 10 in a school production of Oliver Twist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. “My parents really helped me with that. They never really asked me, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’ without asking me if I had a girlfriend as well, and so in my household it was either one or the other or whatever.”
One of Sex Education’s exceptional skills is also heroing those long ‘othered’, not only by TV shows but also the world at large – something that spoke to Patricia personally. “I have felt othered before. Being mixed race has had a huge impact on my growing up, feeling in the middle of things and feeling a bit ‘other,’ and then realising you’re everything. You can’t be ‘other’ – it’s just a mindset and sometimes how people might treat you. It’s nice to be in a show that champions personalities that aren’t what we have typically seen, previously in TV shows and movies. We try and make sure that everyone’s seen because the genetic makeup of this world is so f*cking different and that makes one huge, amazing population if we work together.”
One thing that has also empowered Patricia is the filming of the show’s unique and at times comical – yet always sensitively portrayed – sex scenes. “The sex scenes have empowered me and my body image,” Patricia discloses, “in a way that as an actor, I’m able to go onto set now and say, I’ve worked with an intimacy coordinator, I know what it feels like for me to be comfortable in my body and for another actor to be comfortable with me in a space, so how do I approach the other actor? How do I talk to them? Where do they want to be touched? You know, what do we want to do? I feel like I have more respect because I’ve got a dialogue and I know a way to communicate with other people. That’s been amazing so early on in my career, because I know lots of actresses who are much older, maybe have had to do sex scenes and it wasn’t as safe previously and that can have a real effect on your mental health.”
“We’ve been quite protected,” Patricia continues, “and the fact that it’s not a gratuitous show in terms of sex means it’s really clumsy, messy and painful, sometimes. It’s very real because we’ve all been through that experience, (when you) didn’t know what to say, having an awful time, not finding the way to communicate about it afterwards and it just being like a traumatic memory. We need to change that, move forward and try and make it more open and then get rid of the trauma and shame.”
How has her own relationship with shame changed? “Shame comes into everybody’s lives and everyone’s gone through something that they feel ashamed about,” Patricia replies. “I believe in dealing with shame, talking about shame and being open about it is really important because often I believe that there’s microaggressions of shame and we can shame people without even realising based on our own insecurities.
“It is like with Tanya’s character, Lily, she goes through some really horrible stuff where she’s just shamed by the things that she likes, the things that she does and how she feels about certain things,” she adds. “Microaggression shaming is like if you are making someone feel uncomfortable with something that they truly love and their uniqueness. People do it all the time because you’re ‘not cool’ and you don’t fit into that box.”
One thing society certainly still shames women for is talking openly about sex. “I’ve always known that since I started having sex,” Patricia agrees. “When I first had sex, then it dawned on me and I felt horrible, then I felt guilty. Then you feel like you can’t talk to anyone else about it. Also, female orgasms were just not a ‘thing’, like ever, and now I feel like even just from doing this show, my personal journey has definitely grown and I’m able to now talk to my female friends about orgasms without it being like the worst thing in the world. Even women talking to women about sex was a pretty shameful thing, but that’s changing and everybody’s starting to feel a bit more freer with the knowledge that comes with it as well. The clitoris is massive guys! It is literally so huge on the inside! Did you know that women literally get erections all night? That’s just a fun fact for you there!”
Patricia laughs, becoming the real life incarnation of her Instagram bio: ‘divine female energy.’ And we love to see it.
Chinenye Ezeudu On Racist Microagressions: “I didn’t really fit into any categories. I really had to run my own race”
“I’ve always felt like I was othered,” Chinenye Ezeudu tells me as we talk about her relationship with otherness and Sex Education’s heroing of the underdog, just after her GLAMOUR covershoot wraps. “I wasn’t particularly academic. I didn’t really fit into any categories. I really had to run my own race and that came with time and just trying to figure out who I wanted to become and not what people were pushing me to become. At one point I was being pushed to go to university and that wasn’t really what I wanted. So, I tried to focus more on what I did want, which was acting and writing.”
Chinenye is certainly running her own race now. Her star turn came in Sex Education season two playing Vivienne ‘Viv’ Odusanya – the autistic, top-of-the-class student who also finds time to captain the Moordale Quiz Heads and debate whether her unlikely friendship with school jock Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) might actually be love. Chinenye has since included Netflix’s The Stranger to her CV and is sitting here today, fresh from the set of the Netflix movie adaption of The School For Good And Evil, where she stars opposite none other than Kerry Washington and Charlize Theron.
Has playing Viv helped her evolve? “I’m becoming more confident as Viv becomes more confident,” the 25-year-old beams. “She’s taught me to be brave and I’m trying to do that in my personal life as well. I was so unsure of myself when I was young. I didn’t really know what I was supposed to look like, how my body was supposed to look. Now I’m just being myself, my complete, authentic self. I think my journey has definitely evolved and I’ve become just a flower. Wait, That was weird,” Chinenye laughs.
Rejecting traditional body standards and shutting out the noise of social media has also helped Chinenye flourish into said flower, though. “I feel my self-worth has changed because of social media and Instagram,” she says. “You’re looking at people who are a completely different body type, but you’re always trying to attain that ideal and that body standard. But we should all just strive to be who we are, the best of who we are and champion different types of bodies, champion different types of skin tones, everything!”
One thing Chinenye and her cast mates are happy about is shedding light on under-discussed issues and showing up not only for those traditionally overlooked but her younger self, too. “If I could go back and see a series like Sex Education, I would have had so many more conversations. I would have been more open about sex.
“Is de-stigmatised a word?” Chinenye giggles. “It would de-stigmatise a lot of conversations about sex and I think I’d be more confident in asking questions and I’m just confident in my own body. Sex Education is really good because it teaches you a lot of different terms, a lot of different things about sex and sex is such a wide conversation, so it is a really important show for everyone.”
Chinenye is very proud of starting one conversation in particular though, “I’m really proud of the conversations about sexting because my character feels a bit of shame in that whole conversation,” she says, referencing Viv’s struggle with the big question of season two, to sext or not to sext. “A lot of teenagers don’t really know what to do when they’re sexting people, they feel embarrassed about it and just like removing that stigma around those conversations and taking away the awkwardness is one of the highlights for me.”
Stepping into the power of her own voice has also come at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was finally given the front page coverage it deserved. “It’s been really a sobering moment for everyone,” Chinenye says, reflecting on the last 18 months of cultural change, “and we’re all just trying to come together, universally to say this isn’t right. This isn’t how we should be treated or how we want to be treated.”
“It’s made me think about a lot of microaggressions that I’ve gone through and trying to put them in perspective,” she continues. “It’s a hard one when we talk about those kinds of things, but things are changing for the positive and I’m kind of proud of our society at the moment – well, most of it!”
What kind of microaggressions still really surprise her, I ask? “Still the hair stuff and hair touching,” she replies.” I’m just like, ‘what are you doing? We’ve evolved past that!’ Let’s just stop those kinds of things.”
The last year and the camaraderie on the series has also made Chinenye reflect on allyship. “This series has taught me that allyship is just about finding your tribe,” she ponders. “Finding who makes you comfortable and who makes you feel safe. Viv has definitely found her tribe in Jackson and Jackson has found her tribe in her, which is just so beautiful to see.” It’s just as beautiful to see Chinenye running her own race, and winning it.
Sex Education season three will be available on Netflix from 17 September.