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Is It Wrong to Ship Eric and Adam ('Sex Education')?

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Ramianne is a TV show & movie enthusiastic who loves to reflect on characters and stories. She is particularly character-driven. She/her

Their story (season 1)

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 8

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 8

Before even starting to discuss their relationship, I think it's best to remind everyone what exactly we are talking about. So let's rewind their story in the first two seasons of 'Sex Education'.

The show starts with one flamboyant, unapologetically himself, gay and proud Eric Effiong and one very toxically masculine, emotionally repressed, rilled with parental pressure Adam Groff. Talk about stereotypes. Adam and Eric know each other because they have been in the same school for some years at least, and Adam has seemingly been bullying Eric for some time now. It's not about homophobia: it seems like Adam does not care at all whether Eric likes boys or girls; it's more that Adam sees Eric as an easy target that won't fight back if he keeps on bullying him off of his lunch every day. It does not seem to make Eric incredibly miserable at first sight; he doesn't seem to be depressed or fearing to be himself in school, but it's still a source of stress to have to avoid some hallways or move to another table when Adam is around.

And throughout most of the first season, that's about it. Neither one seems to show any romantic or sexual interest to the other (when you look back at some scenes, you can interpret Adam's behaviour as interest sometimes, but it's mostly interpretation rather than explicit depiction). Eric is NOT secretly in love with his bully.

Until they happened to have detention together. They have to tidy up some classroom, and Adam is just being his usual annoying self to Eric who just can't wait to finish and leave the room. They start a little fight, first with words, then with hands. It's not very violent, but they end up on the floor, and suddenly Adam kisses Eric, who's very well shocked. They mess around a bit, and Adam specifically threatens Eric not to tell anyone afterwards.

But Adam does not see Eric as only a sexual experiment, or a booty call. In the next scene they have together, Adam seems to actually be very sweet to Eric, and we understand there may be a potential for something more. For Eric? It's confusion all around. He did not expect that from Adam of all people, and he doesn't know what to think or feel. But before he has even the time to start thinking about it, he sees Adam being sent off by his father (the headmaster of their school, a very strict man that constantly signifies to his son, through words or otherwise, what a disappointment he is. Good parenting 101) to another school, a military one. Adam goes away, and Eric doesn't know if he'll ever see him again, let alone figure out what they are to one another.

There is not a lot of development of their relationship in season 1 as for the most part it's just a bullying situation, and it is revealed to be more than that in the last two episodes.

Their story (season 2)

Eric Effiong and Adam Gross kissing, 'Sex Education', season 2 episode 4

Eric Effiong and Adam Gross kissing, 'Sex Education', season 2 episode 4

Season 2 is when it gets much more interesting mainly because their love story has a lot more time dedicated to it. At the beginning of the season, Eric and Adam are in different schools. Eric seems to miss Adam, or at least to wish he could see him again (probably to figure out what the hell they are to each other), but has soon someone else to think about when Rahim, the new French student, comes in and seems to show interest in him (in his own weird French way I guess). Rahim is also openly into guys and does not shy away from showing his intentions clearly. Eric and Rahim rapidly start going out with each other.

But while coming back from their successful first date, Eric comes into Rahim's uncle's shop and finds Adam working there, who appears to act as if nothing happened between them in front of Rahim. Eric is in shock and has to go out of the shop asap. The same day at night, Eric finds Adam waiting for him in front of his house. The latter brings him to some abandoned field to smash stuff with a baseball bat (talk about an original first date). They catch up, and when they go back to Eric's house, Adam kisses him.

Eric is at loss. On one hand, he has Adam, who he seems to be more interested in / attracted to, but who is filled with repressed feelings, internalised homophobia, and used to be his bully for years; on the other hand, he has Rahim who is out and proud, unapologetic about his feelings, sweet and caring, but has one great big flaw: he does not have history with Eric unlike Adam. This confusion makes him not agree to be Rahim's boyfriend right away while he's still going out every other night with Adam.

So he tells everything to his best friend Otis in seek for some advice from the school's local sex therapist. Otis is quick to choose: there's no way Adam is the right fit. Why? Simply because he's Eric's bully, he made him scared for years and is not ready to let Eric shine his light with him. Eric tells Otis Adam has changed somehow, but doesn't seem so convinced in the end. So he follows Otis' advice, and agrees to be Rahim's boyfriend.

When Adam comes see him again, not only does Eric refuse to go with him on yet another smashing-in-the-dark-when-no-one-can-see-us date, but he later confronts Adam about their complicated past. He explains Adam used to make him feel scared and hate himself, that it took him a long time to be proud of himself again, and he doesn't want to destroy that for him. Adam then comes out to him as bisexual, but is yet too filled with internalized homophobia and too scared to be out that he doesn't let Eric do something as small as take his hand.

Later on, Rahim sees Eric and Adam interact (they're just joking together) and becomes jealous. He confronts Adam about it, which seems to light something inside him because a few hours later, he is running straight to Eric who's in the middle of a representation (he plays the trombone in the school musical play). Adam crashes the representation, calls for Eric in front of everyone (including Otis, Rahim, and his probably homophobic father), and basically comes out to every one by telling him he wants to hold his hand. Rahim is shattered with a broken heart and exits the room when Eric changes his mind and basically agrees to go with Adam instead of him.

Recap of Eric and Adam's love story

Enemies to Lovers or Victim Who Falls For Their Abuser: what's the difference?

Eric and Adam's story may seem as one more example of an Enemies to Lovers story at first sight. If you don't know what the Enemies to Lovers trope is, it's basically when two characters are enemies or at least don't like each other, but something happens and thanks to heavy UST and mutual respect, they end being lovers because love will always win on hate.

In itself, it's a beautiful type of story. A very popular one too. And sometimes, the beauty of it is used as an excuse to violence and abuse. It is way too easy indeed to say that they used to be enemies because character A was abusive towards character B, but character A is in fact just a broken soul that has suffered a lot and they just don't think they deserve love but character B sees through them and by being sweet and never fighting back, in the end character A overcomes their fear and accepts B's love and they live happily ever after.

What I just described is not an example of a sub Enemies to Lovers trope, but rather an example of a Victim Who Falls For Their Abuser trope. No, I'm not talking about the Stockholm syndrome; I'm talking about the too much used, and too often very real story of a victim of abuse that keeps being around their abuser because they want to "save" them. It's why many abused women in the real world sometimes take years before breaking up with their abuser. It's a type of story that has consequences in the real world, because it justifies staying in an abusive relationship, and excusing violence and abuse "in the name of love". While it is clear why this story is compelling on paper, because we all want to believe love will always win, it is dangerous, because it tends way too much towards the abuser and way too little towards the victim, who also deserves love and affection, and respect. And no, love doesn't always win. Not all abusers are shattered human souls that need repairing. And even if they are, it's not their victim's job to do it.

Eric (left) and Adam (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 1

Eric (left) and Adam (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 1

If this trope is already highly problematic for straight relationships, it may be even more for queer ones, especially gay ones. The Victim (of bullying most of the time) Who Falls For Their Abuser trope is even easier to "implement" for gay ones, because all you have to do is say that homophobic bullies are in fact gay men deep into the closet and riddled with internalized homophobia that the out gay victim has to help get out of the closet. The victim, yet again, has to be understanding towards their abuser, provide them love and affection for the abuser to stop hurting.

The main two problems with that (on top of the issues I've raised for the general Victim Who Falls For Their Abuser trope regardless of sexual orientation), is:

1) it implies that all homophobic bullies (usually in middle and high schools) are in fact gay. This claim is actually very homophobic in itself, because it implies that homophobia is actually a gay thing when it is not. Homophobia is a spawn of heteronormativity. Has a homophobic bully turned out gay before? Of course yes, and of course it's a story that needs to be told. But when it's the only story told about homophobic bullying, then it becomes problematic. We have to remember that homophobic bullying (which, as a reminder, brings people to suicide everyday) is not always due to internalized homophobia, far from it. Not all your homophobic bullies were secretly gays, most of them were just homophobic ignorant straights.

2) this trope for gay relationships also implies that the victim, who is also gay, didn't struggle with coming out, or didn't suffer because of their sexual orientation. In this scenario, the victim is the one that actually suffers from society's homophobia, but we dismiss their suffering in the name of their "courage" to keep being out and themselves despite everything. While it is nice to celebrate their courage, it would be also nice to acknowledge and rightfully consider their own harm and suffering. One gay man's struggle with their sexuality shouldn't undermine another's.

Coupled with the fact that it is often the "feminine" gay man that is the victim and the "masculine" one the abuser, and the fact that it shows yet another queer romance riddled with tragedy and suffering, we have here a highly problematic trope.

Where do Eric and Adam fall?

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 4

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 4

After reading this, you might think that the answer to the question this article's title asks is a resounding yes. But it is more complicated than that, and here's why.

The Victim Who Falls For Their Abuser trope is problematic because it is used to excuse abuse and violence and dismisses victimhood; because in this trope, the abuser only has to cry a little, open up about their feelings, maybe throw in a little sorry and this should excuse everything, when it doesn't; and because the victim's feelings and hurt past are dismissed in the name of the abuser's own suffering.

But it is important to also remind ourselves that mistakes, even big mistakes, happen, and we should all have the opportunity to learn and grow from them. It is called redemption. The core of the question is: has the abuser earned their redemption? And no, admitting your feelings and that you suffer is not enough. You earn your redemption through actions: you have to prove that you have owned your mistakes, apologized and learned from them. It takes time to prove yourself, it's not something that's instantly done. But it is possible.

Too often, stories that fall in the Victim Who Falls For Their Abuser trope neglect that, which is why it is way too often falling in the problematic issues I explained above. But I argue 'Sex Education' is not of this category; rather, it is tittering on the edge between falling in the problematic issues of that trope, and being aware of it so as not to fall on that side. And season 3 may be the key to solve that out.

'Sex Education' is obviously aware of the problematic issues that come with Eric and Adam's story: we can see it through Otis' talk to Eric pointing out why falling for your bully isn't the healthiest thing to do, through Eric choosing Rahim rather than Adam, through Eric explaining to Adam he suffered from his bullying and not acting as if it didn't matter to him. They could have just let Eric say "yeah but he's changed" and that was it, but no. They made Eric be aware that he deserves respect, and Adam does not deserve him as long as they're not equals again. But is being aware of how problematic it can be enough?

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 1

Adam (left) and Eric (right), 'Sex Education', season 1 episode 1

All in all, the show hasn't yet answered the very crucial question: has Adam earned his redemption yet? Which is why season 3 is going to be of the upmost importance to see if Adam and Eric's relationship will be able to lift off or if it will fall in problematic issues of their trope.

In my opinion, Adam has not earned his redemption as of yet. Coming out to everyone for Eric is obviously powerful and highly significant, but it is not enough to me. I was personally very upset when Adam told Eric he "understood he hurt him" after Eric confronted him on how he made him suffer, because it seemed like that was considered as enough to forgive him. Adam understands he hurt Eric deeply in the past, which is good, but where is the apology? And does him understanding it mean that he's going to learn from it?

But I have high hopes the show is aware of that, especially with what Rahim told Eric in the end: "Be careful. He can hold your hand but I'm not sure he can catch you". I do believe Eric is smart enough and holds Rahim high enough in his esteem to take that into consideration and actually be careful. It is not like Eric to fall for his bully just like that and stop wanting to be treated right. It is also not like Otis to let his best friend fall into a potentially dangerous relationship for his mental health without watching out for him. Eric decided to give Adam a chance because he believes he deserves one and can change (the beautiful soul he is), but I do think he's not naive and will take care of himself, and call it off if Adam doesn't prove himself with a lot more actions to actually earn his redemption.

Fan edit of Eric and Adam

Conclusion and answer

So to the original question "is it wrong to ship Eric and Adam", the answer is: it is neither right nor wrong. You cannot say it is alright to ship them when you're aware of the problematic issues the trope they fall in has. On the other hand, the show seems aware of that enough to maybe not fall in that, so it would be quite too extreme to say it is downright wrong to ship them. Only further episodes will truly tell whether the show managed to navigate that question successfully or not. Let's hope the writers and producers listen to fans enough to be aware enough not to mess it up.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ramianne

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