Film & TV

Netflix’s Sex Education: Conditions of Consent and STD Rhetoric

Chloe Wescott

Netflix’s Sex Education is created by Laurie Nunn. Her approach to sex and relationships discourse is refreshingly candid. Hormonal and inquisitive teenagers approach the show’s boy genius ‘sex wizard’ for advice. Otis has absorbed sexual health advice from his mother, a sex therapist. He dishes out guidance to the teens at Moordale High. 

In episode one of season two, a Chlamydia outbreak creates chaos. The show is informative, and unafraid to tackle topics neglected by Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools. Sadly, the series ultimately fails to engage with the nuances of consent rhetoric. 

This episode reveals Chlamydia was shared by Martha and Gwen. Sadly, they are publicly shamed. We later uncover that it actually originated from Owen, a partner they share. 

In a heartfelt confession to Otis, Owen explains; ‘I found out and got treated, but I didn’t tell them that I might have passed it on. They are already ashamed of sleeping with me… apparently I’m boring, and uncool. Imagine if they knew I had an STI too.’ As the episode develops, they discuss treatment, and unpack the stigma around STD positive status. 

Otis’ response is compassionate: ‘‘it’s not shameful to have Chlamydia, but it’s wrong to lie about it. We all have flaws, and our bodies do things we have no control over. But we can always control being truthful. You have to be honest with your sexual partners in the future… that’s all they’re asking for.’ 

Frustratingly, this is the end of the matter. The show neglects the crux of the issue, failing its young audience: healthy sexual relationships require trust built on transparency. 

Martha and Gewn consented to having sex with Owen under specific conditions. They were led to believe they made an informed decision, mutually understanding the risks involved. But by intentionally withholding his STD positive status, the conditions under which they agreed to have sex were not met. The girls’ consent given was not informed, and therefore invalid.

In the UK, this matter is legally ambiguous. The ruling of R v B 2007 states that having sex with someone and intentionally witholding STI poisitive status does not constitute rape – as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. However, the transmission of HIV during consensual sex with an intentionally uninformed partner would amount to grievous bodily harm, under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. This is because the victim would only have consented to sex, and not to the risk of transmission of disease, if they were unaware of their partner’s HIV status. 

But in 2020, this violation of conditional consent still does not constitute rape. Furthermore, if the STI/STD is not passed on, no crime has been committed. This remains a chilling legal grey area. 

The show squandered the opportunity to delve into the nuances of consent rhetoric, and uncharacteristically shied away from a difficult conversation. It undoes damaging stigmatisation, but it fails to engage with the idea that consent by definition must be informed – as well as freely given, enthusiastic and retractable. 

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