Writer Laurie Nunn and Sex Education cast talk season 2
We chat with Asa Butterfield, Emma Mackey, et al., from Sex Education season 2 - covering awkward sex scenes, intimacy co-ordinators, and toxic masculinity
‘It built up, built up, built up — it’s like this tidal wave,’ says Butterfield, who plays the anxious teen sex therapist Otis Milburn. ‘I don’t think we expected it to have such a connection around the world. It’s really lovely.’
‘I definitely felt the pressure because the show had such an impact,’ says Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Otis’s gay and flamboyant best friend Eric. ‘Is there going to be a downside to this? Are people gonna like the second season as much as the first? But I think that they will.’
Emma Mackey, playing the punky and pessimistic Maeve Wiley, doesn't think about the pressure. 'I tend not to think about the responsibility or the pressure because we’re just doing our job. We are like interpreters, and we’re just offering up a version of a reality. It’s a group effort.'
Asa Butterfield plays teen sex therapist Otis Milburn
In season one, Otis and Maeve set up a sex therapy business at school to aid nervous students. Otis is the son of a professional sex therapist, Jean (Gillian Anderson), and as a result he's absorbed all the pertinent information required to help out his teen colleagues. Right at the start of the eagerly awaited season two, Otis finds his delayed sexual drive and masturbates at every opportunity – in bed, in the shower, even in the car waiting for his mum. Surely, that must’ve been embarrassing to film?
‘In this show, not very much makes it awkward anymore,’ says Butterfield, unabashed. ‘I think the crew members probably felt more awkward than I did.’
The show prides itself on showing and talking about everything attached to sex. Even if it’s not awkward for the cast, it can be incredibly awkward for the audience. One case in point is in season two when Otis engages in some cringey, pokey foreplay with his new girlfriend Ola, played by Patricia Allison.
‘You always feel so comfortable and safe,’ Allison remarks. ‘You’re not actually touching each other. You actually have to act really hard.’
Patricia Allison plays Otis's new girlfriend, Ola
Part of this confirmed sense of safety was because of Ita O’Brian, the show's intimacy co-ordinator. After the #MeToo movement – encouraging countless female actors to relay their personal stories of sexual discomfort, assault, and even rape – intimacy co-ordinators became a requirement on film sets. It’s still baffling how recently this role was put into practice. So, what are they like to work with?
‘It’s a dance. You have to hit certain beats,’ says Allison. Both Allison and Mackey recount their various intimacy directions:
‘Are you comfortable with me touching here and here?’
‘You kiss for three beats and then you move to the wall…’
‘…and then my hand will move slightly downwards, five centimetres…’
‘Remember: it’s a No. 4 Orgasm on that one; start at No. 2 and work to No. 4.’
Although the detailed directions can be amusing to consider, their application is essential. ‘You’d never have a fight scene without a fight director,’ says Allison, ‘[So] why would you have a sex scene without a sex director?’
Aimee Lou Wood and Emma Mackey resume their roles as Aimee and Maeve
This season also examines the risks in being a woman in the world. Writer/creator Laurie Nunn writes a brave sexual assault storyline, based on her own personal experience, showing the trauma felt after a non-violent assault. This leads to an affirming, poignant, and powerful display of female solidarity. ‘What I wanted to highlight,’ says Nunn. ‘is, as a female, what it feels like to move through the world and – from such a young age – know that you’re not entirely safe.’
It’s clear this message was pushed onto the cast, as Allison elaborates: ‘There isn’t a subculture of sexual assault, all of these moments need to be realised: that it’s awful and omnipresent and that girls aren’t alone. We just learnt that 30% of girls and women are sexually assaulted in a public place. And that’s in the UK.’
Connor Swindells: '[Adam has] an overall confusion within himself. It's just an identity crisis.'
Nunn also puts a spotlight on toxic masculinity – mostly experienced by the closeted bully Adam Groff, who struggles with his feelings for Eric. Adam watches as Eric starts a new relationship with a boy from France, resulting in some repressed and aggressive behaviour. ‘I think it’s just an overall confusion within himself,’ says Connor Swindells, who plays Adam. ‘It’s just an identity crisis. He sees someone who has all the things that he doesn’t have, and lives life in a way that he feels like he can’t.’
Eric, no longer bullied by Adam, embraces his identity more than ever. Sex Education is unashamedly progressive – to the point where showing LGBTQ+ relationships isn’t only expected, but layered and realistic. Eric has been key to this since the first episode, and Nunn includes many different sexualities in season two. ‘All humans on this earth are a big mix of a whole lot of things,’ says Gatwa. ‘And Eric definitely represents a lot of intersections. I thought it was really important to show that.’
Ncuti Gatwa: ‘Eric definitely represents a lot of intersections.'
But the most vital part of the show is the education in the title, and how it addresses subjects that are often repressed in polite society. Nunn promotes openness and honesty in her writing, even making subtle protests against this silence around sex. Inhabiting the empathetic kindness and consideration of his character, Butterfield wisely remarks, ‘Sex is not something that should be considered dirty or something you should keep a secret because it’s a part of life. It’s literally the reason why we’re all sat here.’
As well as being a learning process for the characters, audiences also take on the lessons Nunn teaches – uncovering many areas like pansexuality, vaginismus, and male douching. The show is an important step in the cultural zeitgeist, detailing these different facets of gender, sexuality, and sex to dissolve the shame attached to them – not only educating the characters, but us as well.
‘The brilliant thing about Sex Education,’ says Allison, ‘is it gives you the responsibility, as the viewer, to take some education, to learn, and to grow. This is how we change society – it’s a conversation between us and the audience.’
Read our review of season two
Sex Education season 2 is available on Netflix from Friday 17 January