Sex Education has never shied away from showing the many sides—good and bad—of sexual self-discovery, and season two of the hit Netflix series is no different. From anal sex to fingering, no topic is left uncovered and all are portrayed in a nuanced way. But it’s a sexual assault that happens in episode three that’s the most crucial to watch.
In it, we see Aimee Gibbs (Aimee Lou Wood) get on a bus with a cake that she’s baked for her best friend Maeve’s birthday. She’s in a good mood, and so she smiles at the guy behind her. He smiles back. Minutes later, though, she feels something on her leg: The guy has masturbated and ejaculated onto her jeans. Aimee is clearly in shock, but she downplays the incident in the moment.
“I hope audiences will find Aimee’s storyline very challenging and emotive,” Sex Education executive producer Jaime Campbell tells Glamour. “I think there’s a real truthfulness about the way that that story unfolds. I cried each time I watched the initial footage.”
Wood says she focused on the surprise and confusion her character would feel. “It’s just like someone sneezing on me,” she says of what’s going through Aimee’s head in the moment. “The thing that really messes with her head is that she’s like, He didn’t look like the type of person that would do that. He smiled at me!”
Later, when Aimee eventually sees Maeve, she opens up about what happened but acts as if it’s not a big deal. Maeve isn’t having it, though, and demands they go to the police. But Aimee is hesitant; even when she’s at the station, she makes light of the situation. “She just can’t accept it,” Wood explains. “And yet they’re saying to her, ‘This is legitimate, this is valid.’ It’s only when she’s by herself that she really is feeling it.”
Wood recognizes that Aimee’s storyline might be triggering and all too relatable for many viewers. “I think that all women go through some form of micro sexual aggression,” she says. “We’re often trained to think that’s just normal, that we have to grin and bear it.”
She continues, “Unless it is rape, [many of us] feel like we can’t really talk about it or that we have to take it in our stride and even laugh about it. We’ve turned them into little funny anecdotes rather than actually dealing with the fact that might have traumatized us on some level.” It’s as if society has given us a hierarchy of sexual assault, she explains. “If you’re somewhere near the top then it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s okay. You’re allowed to be upset by this one.’ But anything lower you feel like maybe you’re a bit of a drama queen.”
TV shows have shown sexual assault before, of course, but this Sex Education storyline is new: Rarely does a series take an incident that isn’t rape and spend so much time over the course of a season unraveling the emotional layers that follow. Aimee’s experience isn’t relegated to a one-episode arc. Instead, the whole rest of the season checks in on her well-being and healing after the incident. It sends a clear message: Whatever the circumstances, any sexual assault is traumatic.
“It’s about what happens when you suppress that trauma and you don’t deal with it,” Wood says. “And it’s about women coming together and being that support system as Maeve, Ola, and many of the others do for Aimee at the end. Sometimes you need people to give weight to your problems and to give you permission to feel the damage of something. Sometimes you just need someone to go, “You’re allowed to feel shit about this.’”
The way that Aimee’s boyfriend, Steve, responds is also key. She has trouble being intimate with him—even cuddling is hard—but he never pressures her and invites her to open up when she’s ready, on her terms. That support only makes their relationship stronger, Wood says.
“Even though it’s such an unfortunate way to grow, it’s a huge turning point in her life,” she explains. “Much like what she learnt in season one by taking ownership of her body and that masturbation montage, this does the same, even though it stems from an awful situation. She becomes so much more empowered because of it…but it takes a long time.”
After season one, Wood says, women would often come up to her to talk about the female orgasm and masturbation. Now she’s ready to hear from women who have buried their own trauma. “I’m so grateful we’re telling this story,” she says. “The conversations that I’ve had with young women is just so incredible. I’ve had so many conversations, even with my friends, that I would never have had if not for this show. We never spoke about [these things]. And now we do.”
Season two of Sex Education is now streaming on Netflix. Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor.
Originally Appeared on Glamour