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What Sex Education Gets So Right About Aimee’s Sexual Assault Trauma

·7-min read

Content warning: This article details instances of sexual assault and may be distressing to some readers.

The hotly-anticipated third season of Sex Education has dropped on Netflix, and was eagerly lapped up by fans who have had to wait well over a year and a half to get the next instalment of the school-based series, typically chock-full of shock, spills and plenty of sex.

But while Sex Education’s key focus point follows Otis as he navigates his new relationship with Ruby, while grappling his conflicting feelings over former flame Maeve, a stronger and more significant storyline simmers on the sidelines: Aimee’s ongoing trauma, following her sexual assault.

The second season saw the ditzy but good-hearted Aimee (played to perfection by Aimee Lou Wood) be masturbated on while taking the bus, but while the character initially played down the incident, she finds herself feeling insecure and afraid to get public transport to school.

In moving scenes, the storyline culminated with Moorgate High School’s girls putting aside their cliques and rivalries to get the bus with Aimee, so she no longer has to feel so alone when travelling.

But what’s refreshing about Sex Education was that moment, while emotive, was clearly not the end of Aimee’s trauma.

That scene could have signified the end of the story, wrapping up Aimee’s recovery with a neat little bow and seeing her move on to a new plotline more within the show’s comedic remit. But Aimee’s trauma bleeds into the character in season three – and rightly so, as you cannot simply recover from a sexual assault in real life by starting a new season, or rolling the credits.

Sex Education also doesn’t shy away from how sexual assault can change you as a person. For some people, the fact they were violated lingers to the very fibres of their existence, and can result in tectonic shifts within themselves as they try to come to terms with what happened.

The third season starts with a light-hearted sex montage with all the characters in the throes of passion, before it cuts to Aimee, preferring to go trampolining with her partner Steve, than engage in any sexual contact.

It’s only when Aimee tells pal Maeve that she feels safer ‘on her own’ that she’s prompted maybe she needs to see a professional about her deep-rooted feelings.

It’s good to finally see this process of acceptance play out on screen, says trauma expert and therapist Janine Wirth – particularly when statistics from the charity Rape Crisis find one in five women have experienced sexual assault in the UK.

“I think it’s fantastic that the storyline continues in season three as this challenges the viewers’ perception of assault (we often dismiss anything that isn’t rape involving obvious violence) and highlights how personal the healing journey really is,” she explains.

“Often survivors minimise their traumatic experiences because it happens to so many people that it’s ‘not a big deal’ and perpetuates the narrative that people should just sweep it under the rug and ‘get over it.’”

The fact that Aimee is a character that is often played for laughs makes her suffering all the more poignant for the viewer, and despite her efforts to get back to her old self (even buying a goat called Goat to bring her closer to her boyfriend), there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that things aren’t quite right for her.

Janine applauds the show for taking this stance with Aimee’s story. “When it comes to recovering from trauma, unfortunately there is no cookie cutter answer and several factors play a role,” she explains. “It’s important to understand that it isn’t a race. It’s better for survivors to take their time and heal in a healthy manner that feels good and empowered.

“The series shows that it’s completely normal for them to experience a rollercoaster of emotions, which is all part of processing traumatic events. Healing isn’t linear, there will be good days and there will be emotional days. It’s about respecting that journey and allowing survivors to go at their own pace.”

Sex Education also doesn’t shy away from how sexual assault can change you as a person. For some people, the fact they were violated lingers to the very fibres of their existence, and can result in tectonic shifts within themselves as they try to come to terms with what happened.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the series, Aimee sits down with sex therapist Jean to explain that she just wants to feel like the “old”, “smiley” Aimee again, and believes it was her happy demeanour that led to her being assaulted.

Jean gently tells Aimee she may never be the same again, before adding: “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.”

It’s vital that survivors hear that they are not to blame for their assault in such stark terms, as so many internalise their feelings and believe their actions resulted in their violation, says Janine.

Rape has a depressing and dirty history on television, having previously been used a plot device to shock, or define a woman’s character.

“Counselling provides a safe, non-judgemental environment to talk about the experience, process subsequent emotions in a healthy manner and come to terms with their safety and boundaries being violated,” she explains.

“Unfortunately it is very common for assault survivors to blame themselves and question what they could’ve done differently. We have to try and make sense of and come to terms with someone intentionally hurting us, so naturally we turn inward and examine our own actions.

“The truth is that abusers are opportunists and enjoy overpowering others when they least expect it. You are not responsible for someone else’s harmful pattern of behaviour.”

Sex Education’s realistic portrayal of a sexual assault and the subsequent fallout from such incidents comes during a seismic change in how sexual assault on TV is depicted. Rape has a depressing and dirty history on television, having previously been used a plot device to shock, define a woman’s character or in some cases, even to appear titillating in programmes such as Game Of Thrones and American Horror Story.

But more recent programmes have shifted the focus away from the perpetrator and instead centre on the victim’s quiet sense of devastation after an attack. Programmes such as Netflix’s true-crime series Unbelievable, and Michaela Coel’s multi award-winning I May Destroy You have broken the mould when it comes to depicting sexual violation – the aftermath of assaults come without melodrama and theatrics, and sidesteps any sensationalism to provide an emotive telling of these devastating but tragically common stories of women.

In the wake of such movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, where women are being more vocal about the sexual violence they face on a daily basis, it’s important that stories we see on screen reflect the reality of the trauma that survivors are often left feeling.

And like with Sex Education’s Aimee, it’s vital that these stories also show women that there are ways to get support to help survivors cope with what can result in a mammoth shift of self following an attack – and may even help potential perpetrators of assault see the real, long-term consequences of their action.

“As with any crime, the only person responsible for sexual assault is the perpetrator. There is no excuse for sexual assault or any other form of sexual violence and it can never be justified or explained away,” CEO of Rape Crisis England and Wales, Jayne Butler, explains. “No matter what someone was wearing, doing, saying or what they’d consumed, no victim or survivor is ever to blame for sexual violence against them.

“When TV shows tell the story of a survivor, like Aimee in Sex Education, it helps women to understand and identify with the feelings they might have from their own experiences, to see that they are not to blame, to understand what kind of support they can get and to work towards their recovery.

“We must place blame for sexual assault firmly where it belongs – with the perpetrator. These sensitive and realistic portrayals help many victims and survivors to receive the support and justice they need, want and deserve, and ultimately help to reduce and prevent sexual violence.”

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

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