Since the release of the second season of Netflix’s well-loved original series “Sex Education” this January, the internet has erupted with rave reviews for the British dramedy. It delves even further into many of the topics introduced in the last season, such as intimacy, puberty, sexuality and self-acceptance. Several new storylines are introduced as well, but one in particular, the story of Aimee’s experience with sexual harassment on a public bus, feels the most significant.
Aimee’s storyline starts in the third episode of the season. She makes a birthday cake for her best friend, Maeve, and takes the bus, with her cake in hand, to go see Maeve at school. In a cheerful mood, she smiles at a guy behind her. He smiles back. He then proceeds to masturbate onto her leg. Initially, Aimee seems relatively unbothered by the act. She shows Maeve the stain on her jeans and recounts the story with striking nonchalance: “Do you think it’ll stain? I love these jeans.” Despite Aimee’s insistence that she’s really fine, Maeve, a fiercely supportive friend, convinces Aimee to go to the police station with her to report it, in lieu of a birthday gift.
From this chat at school to their visit to the police station, Aimee repeatedly tries to downplay the incident, defend her assaulter and reassure the people around her that she’s fine.
“It’s basically like he just sneezed on me or something,” she says at the police station. Maeve and the female police officer at the station assure her that she’s not wasting anyone’s time and that she’s done the right thing by reporting the act. Aimee’s outward display of indifference and Maeve’s fiery voice of reason provides a powerful contrast.
Maeve embodies an enlightened, post-#MeToo feminist perspective, seeking out justice on behalf of her best friend. Aimee’s outward response, defensive and cool, expresses more of what we might have seen on television in a pre-#MeToo era. She defends her assaulter in a “boys will be boys” manner, insisting he was probably just lonely or mentally ill. Moreover, her nonchalance goes to show the extent to which the teenage girl has internalized the patterns of rape culture and how far sexual harassment has been normalized in her world.
Yet, moments after Aimee gets dropped off at home from the police station, finally alone, she breaks down into tears. In this heart-wrenching scene, the impact and gravity of the incident seem to hit her all at once. Perhaps due to the sheer shock of the situation, or due to her efforts to be more accommodating and not “cause a big drama,” Aimee waits until she’s in the safety of her bedroom to process the events of the day.
In the days following the incident on the bus, Aimee seems to go through all of the typical symptoms of trauma: she can’t get on the bus anymore, she sees the face of her assaulter nearly everywhere she goes and she can’t be intimate with her boyfriend, whom she loves. I’ve only ever seen a real and raw depiction of trauma like this within a television series when it’s in response to rape or sexual violence. “Sex Education,” capitalizing on a more open-minded era, powerfully and momentously demonstrates the severe effects of a case of sexual misconduct that appears to be less intense or less consequential on the surface.
Aimee repeatedly experiences these flashes of panic in response to what she’s been through. She quickly brushes these moments off, but they truly take a toll on her life, isolating her from her friends and loved ones. In the seventh episode of the season, my personal favorite, Aimee finally opens up to a group of girls in detention about what she’s been going through. Her peers, mainly Maeve and Ola, are fighting with each other over relationship drama, but in an instant they all drop their problems to support Aimee in her emotional outburst.
She shares her fears based around her assaulter’s “kind face,” remembering him smiling at her, shakily saying, “If he could do that, then anyone could.” The sentiment behind Aimee’s words is powerful. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the survivor already knows or is acquainted with. This fact alone is enough to stagger anyone’s sense of safety, and evidenced by her reaction, Aimee’s trust in her surroundings have been rightfully demolished.
In one of the most empowering scenes of television that I’ve watched, all of the girls go around sharing their own experiences similar to Aimee’s. Maeve recounts being catcalled and made to feel, in the words of another woman, like her short shorts were to blame and Viv tells her story of a man flashing his penis to her in a public pool. Their conversation exhibits the expansive and heartbreaking effects of sexual harassment, relatable for its audience as well — a 2018 survey found that 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
When Olivia recounts the time a boy groped her at a public train station, she says, “It was like they thought my body was theirs or something.” Those words are quite possibly the most powerful of “Sex Education” and certainly a breakthrough for television. Like Olivia says, it’s not always the severity or the details of the act, but the principle, or implications of it. For these young girls, these cases of sexual harassment, which might have once been dismissed as “boys being boys,” altered their sense of agency, safety and trust.
Just as inspiring as Aimee’s strength and candor about her situation is the response of those around her. The girls all turn to Aimee and to each other for support, comfort and empowerment, understanding their shared experiences to be bigger and stronger than any high school drama that might try to pin them against one another. Aimee’s boyfriend is as understanding as can be with so little information, even asking consent before hugging her. The police officers validate her reporting the act and support her through her emotional responses. No one ever belittles Aimee or says, “That’s it?” about her experience. Aimee’s storyline on “Sex Education” serves an empowering and corrective experience for survivors, something incredibly fitting for today’s world.