We need to talk about Eric and Adam’s relationship in Sex Education

The sophomore season of the teen comedy-drama Sex Education has been out on Netflix for a few weeks and it does not disappoint in both content and delivery. The show has taken on a wider gamut by incorporating newer discourse such as disability, pansexuality, asexuality and sexual fluidity, and features an entire episode dedicated to an open and honest conversation about sexual harassment and sexual violence faced by women of all ages, class, and race. The characters have become more complex and dynamic, and the plot takes interesting turns and twists that appear to develop more organically.

One of prominent conversation among the Twitter fandom has been Eric’s last-minute decision to dump his boyfriend, Rahim – the new transfer student from France – for Adam Groff in front of everyone during the school play. We have since then pitched our tents with either Team Adam or Team Rahim, each divide making threads and subtweets and jabs to justify why Eric should or should not have made that decision.

A bit of context here: Adam Groff is Moordale High’s bully-in-chief. He evaluates each student and decides to what extent he has to make their lives miserable. He spends most of Season One singling out Eric and making him a primary victim of his barrage of verbal and physical abuse because of his sexuality. As a result, the normally vivacious Eric loses his sparkle or shrinks into nothingness in Adam’s presence. Then, towards the end of the season, the unexpected happens: Adam and Eric make out while in detention, midway a scuffle. After being shipped off to military school by his father because of his recalcitrant behavior, in the current season Adam is back in town to screw up things for Eric and his new love interest.

The premise of Adam and Eric’s relationship is problematic on many levels. During Season One, I had a premonition that Adam may end up being sexually attracted to boys and hoped the show would prove me wrong and not further drive the narrative that the most violent homophobes are closeted gay people. This narrative, which has all the merit of the memes that sexualise Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as gay lovers and was sadly promoted lately by Scientific American, spreads the false notion that gay people are the architects and primary perpetrators of their violence and discrimination.

Adam Groff’s character fits into the trope of the troubled abuser. The reason for his repulsive behavior is explained by his dysfunctional relationship with his father Micheal, who is verbally and emotionally abusive towards him, his parents’ estranged relationship, and the fact that he doesn’t have friends (yes I know you’re thinking about The Joker right now but I’m not judging you). This backstory humanises Adam, as an attempt to persuade the viewer that there is light inside him and that he might change for the better.

While at first glance it does not make sense for Eric or anyone to enter into a romantic relationship with someone who has abused them in the past, this may be more commonplace in the real world than we may ordinarily think. Eric may genuinely love Adam because, try as hard as we can, we do not have control over who we fall in love with. However, the expectation from fans that Eric not only forgive Adam but start a relationship with him – which has been getting so much traction on Twitter since this season’s trailer was released – is troubling and raises broader questions about how we exhort (and, sometimes, bully) racial , sexual and gender minorities to embrace their abusers.

What we fail to understand in our (successful) quest to ship Eric and Adam is that Adam is not entitled to free emotional labor from Eric. We, just like Eric, are not obliged in any way to make our abusers feel better about themselves or make them become a better person. Yes, it’s beautiful that Adam’s character arc is taking a progressive turn. He is ‘growing’, hating himself a bit less, and has found his first real friend (Ola Nyman), but being his relationship with Eric is just too problematic. Rahim echoes this when he warns Eric to ‘be careful: [Adam] can hold your hand but I’m not sure he can catch you.’

It is 2020 and, while queer folks all over the world can finally expect to see themselves on screen, these representations haven’t ceased to be fraught. Just in these past years, queer film Blue Is The Warmest color has been criticised for hypersexualising the focal lesbian relationship and tailoring it for the cis-het male gaze, while Luca Guadagnino Call Me By Your Name was accused of glamourising sexual predation and abuse. It is imperative that we continue to interrogate and question queer representations in movies and TV shows, for the screen is impressionable and moulds how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

Sex Education doesn’t patronise its queer characters and has grown to take up an important space in mainstream pop-culture, helping to normalise conversations on sexuality. Following the announcement by Netflix that the show will be getting a third season, we can only hope that it will further explore the complexities of Eric and Adam’s relationship without falling into any of the traps we have become used to.

Innocent Chizaram Ilo

In between receiving tons of rejections from cat adoption agencies, Innocent Chizaram Ilo finds time to read, write, tweet and nurse his fragile ego. Innocent's works have been published or are forthcoming in Fireside, Reckoning 2, A Beautiful Resistance, SSDA and elsewhere.

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