The final season of Laurie Nunn’s award-winning Netflix show, Sex Education, was aired on 21st September 2023. Since its release, it has sparked conversation regarding the show’s ending. To me, one of the most resonant and important storylines followed Aimee Gibbs’s character arc, as Nunn portrays an all-too-common story of rampant sexual harassment and assault.
In the show’s second season, the audience bore witness to the loveable Aimee’s sexual assault on a bus. From this horrifying moment, we saw how this assault affected the character’s self-image, personal relationships, and everyday actions and interactions. The portrayal of sexual assault on screen, particularly in a hit Netflix show (albeit surrounding sex), is rare to see unless this is the entire focal point of a film or series. As such, viewing this particular scene blended amongst the (comedic) normality of the show’s backdrop felt particularly poignant, especially as it would resonate with nearly all female audiences. According to a survey by UN Women UK, ‘more than four-fifths of young women in the UK have been subjected to sexual harassment.’ Despite an uncomfortably high number of the population being a victim of harassment, this experience is rarely depicted amongst the normalcy of everyday life, as depicted by Nunn in Sex Education. This unfortunately relatable scene was so poignant that Aimee Lou Wood (playing Aimee Gibbs) won a Bafta for her performance, demonstrating the importance of the portrayal and discussion of such acts of misogyny.
The subsequent season of the show continued to explore Aimee’s assault and lasting effects on her personal life, impacting the character’s sex life within her relationship and body image. To help unpack this trauma, season 3 delivered an incredibly cathartic scene in which a distressed Aimee seeks counsel from Dr Jean Milburn, a sex therapist. In their consultation, Dr. Milburn emphasises: ‘What that man did to you on the bus has nothing to do with your smile or your personality, and is only about him. And it is absolutely not your fault.’ This scene presented exactly the message that needs to be relayed to victims of sexual assault and harassment, yet seems to be rarely discussed. As such, this dialogue offers up a double therapy session for both Aimee and the audience who are finally being validated.
The consultation scene in the show’s third season, whilst incredibly important, sadly contradicts the typical experience of many victims. It is relevant to note here that Aimee comes from a wealthy background and so her character is able to access such support. For many victims, therapy is simply too expensive and in order to access free counselling, one would face incredibly long waitlists for a consultation that may not be as fruitful as the session(s) depicted in Sex Education. Moreover, should a victim of a similar assault wish to report such a crime, the treatment received from police procedures would be contradictory to the (necessary) supportive advice offered by Dr. Milburn. According to the chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes stated that women who report their sexual assault may be met with ‘intense scrutiny and cultural bias.’ This same point was also reiterated in the damning Baroness Casey Report on the Metropolitan Police Service.
The Baroness Casey Review, spanning over a year and completed in March, was conducted following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, amongst other serious incidents that sparked public concern and distrust of the Met. The report expansively covered the London service and misconduct, including its systemic misogyny. Casey reported that ‘the number of rape cases have increased fourfold. But the number of officers investigating them has not increased at the same rate.’ This finding demonstrates the complete disregard of sexual assault victims by means of the insufficient staff and resources (as well as the distribution of these) that such rape crisis calls for. Moreover, Casey found that despite this rise, ‘the volume of trials reaching court has collapsed’ by 57% since 2014-5, on top of a decline in conviction rate, meaning less trials are going to court and fewer still are actually being convicted. Not only, then, do the Metropolitan Police (and other services nationally) disbelieve their victims from the start, but they allow these biases to seep systemically, leaving victims and women across the country wholly failed. Whilst Aimee’s case may never have seen a courtroom in reality, it is still incredibly important that her story is nonetheless heard. Furthermore, whilst most women who fall victim to harassment or assault may not have access to the same support as Aimee Gibbs, having a series that depicts such realities and itself offers support can be immensely validating.
In the final season of Sex Education, we continue to see the long-term effects of Aimee’s assault, but we also see her continue to seek support, this time through photography. At the advice of a friend, Aimee begins a photo series of self-portraits. The series revolves around the jeans she wore at the bus stop of the incident when she was assaulted in a step towards reclaiming her autonomy. Being able to wear those jeans at that bus stop is a powerful moment in her storyline as she is able to reclaim the freedoms that she felt were no longer safe (the freedom of clothing choice, the freedom of movement within a public setting, etc). The use of photography and art to reclaim the setting of an assault also reflects the work of other female artists. For example, photographer Eliza Hatch, who set up an Instagram page dedicated to women retelling their stories of harassment, shot at the sites of the incidents. As such, we can see how art and photography can be beneficial towards victims in processing their trauma, by allowing women to reclaim their stories by expressing their voice. Additionally, such portrayal of sexual harassment and assault can be reassuring to audiences, through both the photography (of Aimee in Sex Education and artists like Hatch) and the discussion created within the show itself.
Another scene in the final season depicts Aimee, after attending a funeral, admiring and photographing some garden gnomes, one of which resembles her Nan. This wholesome scene, however, takes a turn when some nearby construction workers begin to catcall her, commanding her to ‘give us a smile,’ and to ‘cheer up darling.’ This bidding for women to always appear smiling and friendly is a common form of street harassment, and is so frequently used that Eliza Hatch named her photography campaign after the phrase. This form of harassment can feel incredibly frustrating and this is felt through viewing the scene. This exasperation is further heightened as we have witnessed the journey that the loveable character has been on since being sexually assaulted, and more so as she is still wearing funeral attire. Aimee, too, portrays this anger as she approaches the workers, shouting ‘I’m not smiling because I’ve just been to a fucking funeral. I’m also not smiling because you’re fucking talking to me. YOU FUCKING FUCKS!’ In this satisfying response, Aimee relays exactly what many victims would simply love to yell at their harassers. Unfortunately, the reality of fear can often set in to prevent this, particularly as we have seen how violently some men can react to such rejections. As well as this, the sad irony is that the harassers in this scene, who briefly apologise, seem to only be remorseful because Aimee had attended a funeral, rather than due to their unwarranted behaviour. Perhaps these harassers (albeit fictional) would never learn to regret their misogyny, after all, it is evident that there would rarely be any legal consequences for them.
Aimee Gibbs’s storyline in Sex Education is an incredibly important, yet sadly eye-opening, part of the series. Outside of the show, harassment and misogyny is a violent epidemic that seems to frequently escape consequence or punishment, but this is something that the hit comedy show did not touch upon. However, the show cathartically, and accurately, demonstrates the longstanding effects of assault and is incredibly validating in the support that it portrays. It may be sad to see the show end, but it is particularly poignant to see Aimee’s character on the road to recovery.
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