Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Sunday Times, film and snobbery.

I used to like the Culture section of the Sunday Times, back when they talked about video games with a maturity that was otherwise absent in mainstream media. Then they reduced the game section to a column for reviews. Then they removed it altogether. Apparently their definition of culture doesn't include the fastest growing and most profitable form of entertainment in the world today. I don't know why they scrapped the games section, but I'm beginning to suspect it was simple snobbery: the idea that games simply weren't worthy of coverage compared to film, theatre, books and stupid pop albums. That doesn't explain why they didn't review Death Magnetic or The Final Frontier, both of which were number one albums in the UK. Perhaps they were too busy helping Cheryl Cole's latest effort to pretend she's a pop star and not an ungrateful racist bully.

The game was given away by the front cover of today's issue, which consisted of a promotional image from Zack Snyder's incredibly awesome-looking upcoming film, Sucker Punch, together with the headline, "Here's Why You Will Stop Going To the Cinema: Why Hollywood is Giving Up Making Films for Grown-ups".

So that's you told, audience! If you read the Sunday Times, there is no way you'll want to see Sucker Punch! And if you do, you must be a child or a GRADE-A MORON! Congratulations! You've insulted anyone who wants to see Sucker Punch. Like me.

I really wish I could link to the subsequent article, but unfortunately it's hidden behind Murdoch's ridiculous paygate for the Sunday Times. If you really want to see it then it's on their website under the culture section. It's written by one Christopher Goodwin, who as far as I can tell makes a living bemoaning the intellectual downfall of the Western world. It's at least twice as long as it needs to be, and can basically be summed up as thus: Hollywood makes most of it's profit of of blockbusters aimed at a youth audience, and therefore "intelligent drama" aimed at "adults" loses out.

Whoa! Stop the fucking presses! Hollywood makes more from X Men films than it does from indie films about autism?! YOU'RE BUSTED, FILM-MAKERS! Our heroic Mr. Goodwin has finally exposed your dishonest racket to make money and, er, finance future films!

Yeah, there is so much stupid about this article I could go through it line by line to point and laugh at it. But since it is rather uncharitably not available for people to see without paying, I suppose I'll have to group them into a few arguments.

1. What is a "children's" film?

Goodwin produces the following useless statistic to "prove" that "kid's films have taken over." In 1993, 1 in 10 of the highest grossing films was a kid's film. In 2010- a scant seventeen years later!- it was 8 in 10. Now, Goodwin defines "kid's film" as "animated, based on comic books or books for children." So his definition of a kids' film is basically "a film for children", which is circular reasoning at its finest. Moreover, any definition that includes all animated films, including Grave of the Fireflies, Persepolis and any hentai you'd care to name is immediately suspect, especially coming from a professional film critic.

The choice of years is also deliberately misleading. 1993 might have featured only one "kid's" movie (I assume he means Mrs Doubtfire) but it is telling that Disney didn't release anything that year: 1992 featured three (arguably four- hey, I saw Wayne's World as a child!) and 1994 featured at least four. The number one selling film both years was an animated film (Aladdin and The Lion King respectively). The eight films of 2010 only count as "kid's films" if you include Iron Man (debatable) and exclude Eclipse (are you kidding me?!). It's also worth pointing out that only three of 2009's top ten unquestionably meet the definition, though a case could be made for New Moon and Transformers. Already it is clear that Goodwin has cherry-picked atypical years to exaggerate his comparison.

More to the point, his definition clearly doesn't work. I've already pointed out the difficulty of classifying films like Twilight: the first film was clearly aimed primarily at teenage girls (who may or may not count as "kids") whereas Breaking Dawn is likely to be an 18-rated horror film. I'm being facetious, but the point still stands that "kids" as a group encompasses all persons under the age of 18, from neonates to adolescents. It also utterly fails to account for "family" films or films that appeal to a wide audience. The number one film of 1993 (Jurassic Park) is an excellent example: it's clearly not a kids film, but a lot of children saw it. I myself begged my parents to let me see it as an eight-year-old, because (shock! horror!) kids like dinosaurs. They also like Batman and sparkly vampires, and I'm sure lots of them also liked exploring Middle Earth and Pandora (of course only the stupid ones would have preferred the latter to the former). For that matter, there are plenty of kids films that adults enjoy- how many stories have we heard about grown men being reduced to tears after watching Toy Story 3?

2. This is not a new phenomenon

As I've already mentioned, Goodwin discusses the infantilisation of cinema as if it was a bust. As if he were the first to make such an observation. Spoilers: people have been complaining that cinema is too youth-orientated since Star Wars was released over thirty years ago. There is no reason to suppose that the coming Dark Age of tits and blood obscuring plucky indie films with subtitles is any nearer in 2011 than it was in 1981. What is different now is that...

3. People have less money to see films

Goodwin claims people are seeing films less- in America film attendance was down by 5% and is at a current fifteen-year low. I don't know if anyone has told Goodwin, but people don't have as much money as they used to these days. Is anyone honestly surprised that people are going to the cinema less? Movies are a treat, an expensive luxury that has only increased in price now film-makers have decided to rip us off and give us migraines with 3D. If you can only see a limited number of films each year (and here I must reiterate that a professional critic like Goodwin not only has to see most films but has his expenses covered), you'd better make damn sure you enjoy it. Failing that, you're going to pick the films your kids enjoy over those you are itching to see yourself. That;'s if you're lucky, because...

4. Film releases are seasonal

Goodwin reminds us not to be fooled by the current crop of Oscar bait like The King's Speech, Black Swan and True Grit, because the rest of the year is going to be all blockbusters. Umm, yeah, that's how it works every year: the awards season runs from December to March, and that's when studios release their award-winners. The inverse is also true: one can imagine a parent wanting to take their child to the cinema as a birthday treat at any time in the year, only to be disappointed that most kids films come out in the summer or December. The hardcore action fan might similarly be disappointed that blatant award-bait like Conviction gets released in January instead of something more visceral

5. A film can be intelligent and a blockbuster.

The equation Goodwin is trying to draw is that a film cannot be intelligent and a blockbuster or a kids film. This ignores big-budget action films that a genuinely intelligent, like Inception and the Dark Knight, as well as those that aspire to intelligence but fail somewhat, like Watchmen. Indeed, I would submit that in recent years there has been a trend towards more intelligent blockbuster films, which blurs the gap somewhat between the films Goodwin praises and those he despises.

On the subject...

6. Just because you don't like a film doesn't make it bad

Right away Goodwin dismisses the majority of films as "not worth two hours of your life." I would respectfully disagree. Most of the films I see are worth seeing. If I don't want to see them, then guess what? I don't see them! How terrible it must be to write about films for a living and have to see every single one! What misery Goodwin must know? If you think so many films aren't worth your time, then don't bother watching them all.

But I would also submit that most films are enjoyable- yes, even the bad ones- if you allow yourself to enjoy them. Not every film has to be intellectually engaging. A "bad" film can be just as worthwhile as a good one: look at all the people who attend showings of The Room, making it a collective celebration of weird-ass mediocrity. Or the people who go to see the Saw films year after year- it would be inordinately generous to call these films "good", but they succeed in their primary goal, which is to frighten, unearth and entertain. The problem Goodwin has is that he considers such guilty pleasures are beneath him and doesn't realise that a film can touch any number of emotions to be successful besides stroking the egos of the middle-class.

7. Tentpole releases fund your autistic mute Holocaust films, you fool!

How does Goodwin think that adult-orientated drama gets funded? Does he not realise that they represent significant financial risks for studios. Okay, they have smaller budgets than blockbusters, but they still require a major advertising push at awards time. And studios have less money to finance films: Goodwin mentions the role of piracy and reduced DVD sales as part of the reason that studios have less money to fund films. As a result, he says, they choose to finance films they know will sell over risky propositions like indie films. So far, no big revelation. What he is overlooking is that big, financially successful films also help fund You can bet your arse that Black Swan, produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures, wouldn't even exist without Fox's big cash-cows like the Marvel films, Avatar and, yes, Alvin and the Chipmunks. So show a bit more respect for your paymasters!

8. The comparison with television is bogus.

Goodwin contrasts the low quality of American films with the quality of American television, like the Sopranos, the Wire, Mad men and Lost (no, really. LOST!) I really shouldn't have to point out how this comparison doesn't bear out. Goodwin appears blissfully unaware of the reality shows and "celebrity" talent competitions that make up the majority of American- and European- television. Is he honestly going to complain that Season of the Witch is any worse (or better) than My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?

9. Do you even like films?

This one is nitpicking, but in the first paragraph Goodwin goes on about how much he hates going to the cinema because he finds the smell of butter or the sound of mobile phones going off distasteful. Then why do you go to the cinema if your ideal film-going experience involves sitting on your own, without any of those filthy poor people to disrupt the experience for you? Wait for the film to come out on DVD! Except.. if you did that then you wouldn't be supporting all these pretentious films whose absence you bemoan! Oh no! Whatever will you do? Sit with us oiks and support the film or sit on your own knowing you are contributing to the decline of cultural standards!

Seriously, get your head out of your arse. Seeing films with others is part of the experience. It's more than a little hypocritical to set yourself up as the defender of film when you make your contempt for theatre-going so obvious.

10. Apparently it's impossible to like both Black Swan and Sucker Punch

This is the one I find really insulting. Goodwin operates on the assumption that if you read the Sunday Times (or live in a house where someone receives a subscription to it, in my case), then you want to see proper, grown-up films. He assumes you are over twenty five, which I will be in two days. It follows that he assumes you are white, middle-class and English, which covers me as well. So it follows that I wouldn't want to see Sucker Punch, ever.

Except I do.

Of the five films that I have seen at the cinema this year, three have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The others were a CGI animated film about a princess and a film with Nicolas Cage in it. I like I range of films: I loved the King's Speech for it's warmth and its humour, and I loved Black Swan for its harrowing yet insightful grasp on madness and the pressure to succeed that reminded me of a similar film that I love deeply (which, incidentally, happens to be animated). I also spent last weekend watching the Twilight Saga and the remake of The Wicker Man (with the excellent Rifftrax commentary, I hasten to add). I'm also a proud (by which I mean "deeply ashamed") owner of two Uwe Boll films. I saw the first Pokemon film in the cinema, for goodness sake! I'm probably going to see Sucker Punch, and so long as it's a good film I'll probably enjoy it. The most important thing about a film is that you find something to enjoy in it, not whether I should be watching it.

So to sum up: don't you dare tell me what films I should or shouldn't like. If it's a good film, I'll watch it. Hell, if it's a memorably bad film, I'll watch it. If it's pretentious shite made by cynical bastards after an award, I'll probably avoid it. But I won't shy away from a film because I have preconceptions about its worth. So please refrain from suggesting that just because modern cinema hasn't followed the narrow, linear and exclusive path you wanted it to that I think the same way.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Happy Valentine's Day from the Daily Mail: gay marriage is wrong because of "Biblical Sexual Standards"

I really shouldn't do the whole "woolly lefty outraged at stupid statement by the Daily Mail" thing, since 1. it's a bit predictable, 2. It's been done by better minds than mine and 3. it will only give the bastards traffic.

But this opinion piece by Melanie Phillips on gay marriage proposals, in which she all but outright says being gay is as bad as being a paedophile certainly merits some sort of response.

Phillips is almost certainly trolling for page views. At least I'd like to think so: I like to maintain a positive view of humanity wherever I can, and the views expressed are so odious, so cartoonishly over-the-top that they read more like a parody of a Daily Mail story than... an actual Daily Mail story. Melanie Phillips must be auditioning to play some as yet unannounced villain in the Spiderman musical- Bigoto, or something. But I can't dismiss the nagging suspicion that she might honestly believe what she says: I'm sure most people can think of at least one vile homophobe they've encountered int heir lives. For me it was the self-proclaimed "vicar of Jesmond", David Holloway, a man who might politely yet technically be described as snooker loopy. One year, after he had delivered a sermon claiming that "homosexuality is a disease and AIDS is the cure", the lads at my school, myself included were delighted to see someone had painted giant dicks on the church windows the same day we were due to hold the founder's day service inside...

At any rate I'm sure that I need to say much in response, since any right-thinking left-thinking tree-hugging do-gooder can see this as the deliberate provocation it is, and I've no doubt a more eloquent critique will be forthcoming. In essence it represents the fallacy that the European (or should I say British?) religious tradition that marriage should be between a man and a woman because it legitimises their exclusive sexual relationship and allows them to produce and raise children (she doesn't put it quite so succinctly: I am paraphrasing for the purposes of making her look bad).

Now, there is an awful lot wrong with that supposition, and it would probably take a doctoral thesis to examine everything that is wrong with it. Some of the criticism, won't mean much to the Daily Mail, of course, since they assume that married heterosexual couples are indeed better at raising children than unmarried gay couples (or unmarried straight couples and single parents, for that matter).

But some of the criticisms are still valid: the comparison between homosexuality, polygamy, bestiality and paedophilia is not only inaccurate but vile and criminal, whether or not one prefaces it by saying that you are not drawing comparisons. After all, claiming that one is "not racist, but" in no way dilutes the racism of your subsequent racist remarks, you racist. If it looks like a homophobic duck, swims like a homophobic duck and quacks like a homophobic duck, I'm going to call it a fucking homophobic duck. And then stick it in a misogynist pancake with some intolerant spring onions and.... sorry, that metaphor got away from me a bit. It's lunch time and I'm hungry.

It's also bad history to suppose marriage is based solely on aiding reproduction, rather than its role as a means of controlling the reproductive functions of men and women, to say nothing of its use as a means of joining families, tribes, even nations together for mutual gain. Henry V married the daughter of the (Valois) French king, Charles VI, primarily to legitimise his own claim to the throne of France. Did his men suffer through the mud at Agincourt, outnumbered six to one by the Valois pretenders yet delivering a victory so famous it would be shrouded in legend, just so Prince Hal could get his leg over? Probably not, but I'm getting distracted again...

What interested me, (and, it appears, the Twittersphere) was the appeal to the "Biblical" traditions of Britain that would be undermined by allowing gay people to marry in a religious context. It's interesting that she states "Biblical" tradition instead of "Christian" tradition. Presumably this is to create as large a consensus against the homosexual minority as possible: this way, she can include Jewish and- shock, horror!- Muslim readers in the "us" column against the godless pagans, sodomites and necrophiliacs in the "them" column with me.

The problem with appealing to "Biblical sexual standards" is that there are so many interdictions in the Bible against so many different aspects of human life written by so many authors, each with so many people commentating on them over and over again for over three thousand years that it is completely ridiculous to apply the morals they demand to modern society. Frankly it would have been impractical to apply them to first century Judea. This might allow Melanie Phillips to pick and choose which "Biblical sexual standards" are applied, but she must be careful in presuming the inherent superiority of those standards: she might be thrilled that gay people cannot get married in a church, but would she be so happy if she were forced to keep her head covered in church? Is she aware that David had seven hundred wives when she condemns polygamy along with homosexuality? Does she expect women to avoid church if they are menstruating or pregnant? Does she seriously expect adulterous women to be stoned, or have their faces mutilated? Does she advocate compulsory male circumcision (dammit, back on that again!)? Does she believe that pain in childbirth is punishment for being a woman? Does she think fantasising about someone other than your spouse is adultery? For that matter, does she ever eat pork or shellfish?

I don't wish to seem like I am picking on the Bible, since I realise it is dear to the hearts of many people. But it is clear that Melanie Phillips is totally ignorant of the religious tradition she claims to defend beyond scripture: since there are countless examples of Christian non-Biblical practices that I doubt she wants to see returned. I assume, for example, that she does not believe, as the emperor Justinian did, that sodomy causes earthquakes. I hope she does not believe, as Byzantine law did, that a woman who is raped should marry her rapist. I presume that she does not believe, as Martin Luther did, that if a woman conceived while menstruating her child would be born lame, crippled, blind or ginger (I am seriously not making that up). I pray no one shows her this penitential flowchart and she takes it upon herself to save us from having a blowjob at lunchtime on Fridays. I must admit I can see her sympathising with Theodora's solution to prostitution:lock them in a nunnery until they kill themselves.

This whole argument is clearly a reductio ad absurdum: I am trying to portray Melanie Phillips as an out-of-touch relic of a bygone age to reduce her credibility. She hasn't made it hard to do so. My point is that you cannot claim that gay marriage is an attack on a tradition when there is much in that tradition that is odious,antisocial and outdated. Gay marriage is not an attack on Biblical tradition any more than romantic love itself is. There's also a whiff of hypocrisy about a press that dedicates itself so thoroughly to denouncing wicked traditions among druids or "The Muslims" yet gets defensive when the relics of its own barbarous history are questioned.

More to the point, there is much in that tradition that needs to be challenged- indeed, much that has been challenged and jettisoned as no longer appropriate, even harmful. If the opponents of gay marriage want to make a case that is taken seriously it cannot be based solely on tradition if the tradition is itself faulty. Otherwise they will just be.. .well, conservatives.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Revenge of the Sith... In Five Seconds

What's this? Another video? The first I've made in over a year?

Well, I was checking Youtube for something or other and it turns out that over two thousand people (two thousand!) have seen my Doctor Who video (or one person has seen it two thousand times... in which case, thank you!) so I thought I would do another one to stroke my ego. Yes, it's about Star Wars, which isn't very original, but I had this idea a few months ago but couldn't make it work due to technical difficulties.

I hope you enjoy it!

See it here on Youtube.

Channel 4's response to the response to The Joy of Teen Sex.

I've received a response to to my comments about The Joy of Teen Sex from Channel 4's spokesman.

Dear Mr Welsh,

Thank you for contacting Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries regarding THE JOY OF TEEN SEX.

We are sorry to hear that you feel the programme proliferates unhelpful myths about sex and that you think we should reconsider the format and tone.

While the programme respects the decisions of individuals in regards to how they conduct their sex lives, it also has to deal with modern sexual relationships. The fact is that many young people in today?s society do not wait until marriage to have sex. Therefore, the purpose of the programmes is to say, if you are going to make the decision to have a sexual relationship with someone, this is the kind of information you should have knowledge to. The purpose of the programme is not to encourage young people into sexual relationships, it is to provide them with information that they should know about, such as contraceptive options, STI?s, pregnancy and personal hygiene.

Nevertheless; please be assured your comments have been logged and noted for the information of those responsible for our programming.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact us. We appreciate all feedback from our viewers.


Sandra Carter
Channel 4 Viewer Enquiries

I'm disappointed, but not surprised. It reads like more like a press release than a true response, but I'm not so egotistical as to believe that one complaint merits a personal response (okay, I am, but I'm at least grounded in reality. Mostly). The first part simply regurgitates the last part of my comment that seems intended to prove that my complaint was read but actually suggests they only read the end. The second part looks like it was copy-pasted from the "official" response to complaints about The Joy of Teen Sex, i.e. it's intended to mollify the Daily Mail claim that the programme will turn Britain's chaste youth into strumpets. Which was not my concern at all: I didn't mention marriage, I never suggested young people shouldn't have sex, and I agreed that providing information about sex to young people is important.

But the prepared response is not only intended for a different complaint, but it's fundamentally dishonest. Consider the following claims:

"The programme respects the decisions of individuals in regards to how they conduct their sex lives"

Then why the slut shaming? And what is the purpose of the wretched opinion pieces of that Victorian harridan, Billie JD Porter? Why doesn't she present any facts, instead of an unpleasant diatribe against unconventional sexual activity from the perspective of a smug fashion journalist? Why does she need to initialise her name? Is there another Billie Porter on Channel 4's rolls? Why not just call herself JD Porter? Why wasn't a professional sex educator involved instead? How old is she anyway? Her hideous Myspace page claims she's twenty one, this article claims she's eighteen! Why is her blog so ugly? ARRRRGH?

Next claim: "The fact is that many young people in today?s society do not wait until marriage to have sex".

The statement is undoubtedly true, but irrelevant. I didn't mention marriage once. I actually believe that sex before marriage is not only permissible, but necessary to ensure compatibility. What I did say is that sex must be considered in the context of the individual person's own experience and life situation, their emotional and personal state, and should not be viewed solely in the technical sense with no regard to the nature of the relationship between partners. It's one thing to demand a blowjob from a stranger in a nightclub: it's quite another to ask it of your girlfriend of two years who is still a virgin and finds the thought repulsive.

"The purpose of the programme is not to encourage young people into sexual relationships."

But by presenting sex as universal, it suggests that anyone not having sex is an exception that must be explained, not a valid choice in itself. It adds to the pressure on young people to have sex early because it takes as its default the position that all kids want sex, and want sex more than anything else in their lives.

"The purpose of the programmes [sic] is to say, if you are going to make the decision to have a sexual relationship with someone, this is the kind of information you should have knowledge to [sic]"[I assume they meant "knowledge about".]

Then why discuss vajazzling (did I spell that right?) a practice I have somehow never heard about despite being nearly twenty-six and a Guardian reader? A practice that is a deeply troubling reflection of the power of consumerism in sexual health? Is it really something that anyone about to engage in coitus for the first time needs to know about? I'm not saying young people wouldn't be curious- God knows I'm a little intrigued why anyone would do such a thing to their body. But surely it should be a lower priority than, say, contraception. Or exposing dangerous myths about pregnancy. Or making sure that young men know whether their foreskin retracts properly (not that I'm bitter).

For that matter, if the goal is to help young people make decisions about sex, why did their solution to "a lack of confidence" in young woman include buying frilly underwear? Was it to increase their confidence by having women with established body issues appear on national television in their briefs? Or was it to video a fruity twenty-year-old acting coy in her pants?

"[The progamme seeks] to provide them with information that they should know about, such as contraceptive options, STI's, pregnancy and personal hygiene."

It doesn't provide information, it provides baseless statistics about how 63% of young women want to be glamour models or vague statements about how 60% of young people are concerned about porn without providing any evidence where these stats have come from.

Being unemployed and with nothing better to do, I have naturally sent another email in response to Channel 4's, er, response:

Dear Ms. Carter,

Thank you for replying to my concerns about The Joy of Teen Sex. I appreciate you taking the time to respond to the comments I made.

Unfortunately there seems to have been a misunderstanding about the nature of my concern, for which I can only offer my apologies: I must have been ineloquent in expressing them. Your response seems to imply that my concern was based on the supposition that young people should not have sex before marriage and that your program was encouraging irresponsible promiscuity. I can understand why this may be so, as I've no doubt you have received such comments from some of your viewers, as well as certain corners of the media, but please be assured that I do not agree with them. As I originally stated, I am a great admirer of Channel 4's bold and daring approach to programming, and dearly wish to see more on the subject: I have already recounted my own personal experiences with the failure of British sex education.

My concern is not with the mission of The Joy of Teen Sex, but with its efficacy. I simply do not believe that it is presently able to respond to the concerns of young people about sex. I believe it presented a narrow definition of intercourse and denigrated young people who chose to engage in particular practices. I believe it encouraged the stigma surrounding sex instead of challenging it. I believe it supported the myth of universal teenage promiscuity when it had an obligation to denounce it. I believe, in short, that it does young people a disservice and is further evidence of the failure of British sex education. Put simply, I both expect and demand better from a broadcaster that I greatly admire.

If the purpose of the programme is not to encourage sexual relationships, it should not release unreliable statistics stating the majority of teenagers are sexually active. If the purpose of the programme is to provide information about sex then it should provide useful, factually accurate information, not reiterate tabloid myths about the aspirations for young women to be glamour models. If it wants to convey information that young people should know, it should prioritise information that is relevant, useful and likely to keep them safe, not peddle stories about vaginal decorations. If it wishes to take into account modern sexual relationships then it needs to cover the full range of sexual relations, both heterosexual and homosexual, polygamous and monogamous, long-term and short-term, mainstream or underground, without judgement or comment on the validity or morality of their actions. If it wishes to boost the confidence of young people, it should consider the reasons behind their social discomfort, not parade them in their underwear on national television.

Please send this email to whomever it may concern, along with my regards.

Thank you again for your time and patience.


Patrick Welsh

I'll update again if there is another reply. In the meantime, I recommend reading Reni Eddo-Lodge in The Guardian's breakdown of some of the problems with The Joy of Teen Sex, as well as Dr Petra Boynton's observations.

Friday, 11 February 2011

New blog

Just a quick post announcing the beginning of my new personal blog, more posts and better layout to follow.

In Which I Talk About (The Joy of Teen) Sex

At the time of writing I have no idea about which direction this blog will go in. Perhaps it will be an erudite examination of the sociopolitical problems of the world around us. Perhaps it'll provide insightful opinions into my favourite games, films and music. Perhaps it will be filled with dumb jokes about willies. I honestly have no idea: it's purpose for now is to provide an opportunity to gain some writing experience. I don't know how often I will update it, or even if I will. So I apologise in advance for its quality if I make a dog's dinner out of it.

It is with some trepidation therefore that my first post should start with a conversation about sex, so please forgive me if things get a bit blue. I will say this now, straight up, first thing: if you are likely to be offended a recounting of how part of my wang was cut off, I recommend you stop reading now and never come back. This probably won't be the blog for you.

Still here? Then you've no one to blame but yourself.

(As an aside, I really wish I would stop bringing up circumcision wherever possible. I really do)

The subject of today's post is Channel 4's execrable The Joy of Teen Sex, which you can watch here, if you are so inclined. But I wouldn't recommend it. It's unlikely to learn anything, and I would hate to be responsible for some poor individual stapling rubies to their labia as a result of watching it. Suffice to say there is a lot wrong with it: so much wrong that I recently composed a letter to Channel 4 outlining some of my concerns, which I shall now share.

Before we begin, I would like to make it clear that I do not think of myself as a prude. To prove it, here are some breasts:

There now, wasn't that nice? Now, on to the letter:

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to you in order to provide some feedback on your recent sex education documentary, The Joy of Teen Sex. Put bluntly I am concerned that the programme in its current form is more likely to create misunderstandings than clear them, and is likely to add to the pressure faced by young people at what is already a stressful time of life.

I am not a healthcare professional or an advocate of conservative prudery: in fact I am of the opinion that sex education needs greater prominence in the national media. Indeed, I m a great admirer of Channel 4, which has never been afraid to tackle difficult or controversial subject matters. My interest in the field of sex education is purely amateur, but motivated by personal experience, since I feel that sex education in schools in particular has failed me on more than one occasion. I must confess I am concerned that The Joy of Teen Sex might be indicative of the direction that Channel 4 wishes to take its sex education programming, that it is focused on repeating persistent sex education myths and presenting a heteronormative view of sexuality that is at once sensationalist, misleading and potentially harmful to the target audience, who themselves are often so lacking in quality sex education.

I should perhaps begin by explaining my own my personal experience with unsatisfactory sex education. When I was at university I needed to have a circumcision performed because my foreskin did not retract properly. I did not discover this fact until I was an adult because I did not know what an erect penis was supposed to look like. The problem was ultimately pointed out to me by my then-partner, and I’m sure you can understand that it was a source of some embarrassment. As a result I was forced to undergo a painful and expensive (around £1700) surgical procedure that resulted in weeks of discomfort and some permanent and unsightly scarring that could have been avoided had I been aware of the problem at a younger age. Unfortunate the education I received was hardly comprehensive, consisting of a small number of lectures delivered on the cusp of my adolescence by middle-aged men who seemed uncomfortable with their responsibilities and relied on outdated tapes to convey most of the relevant information. Given that it is regrettably illegal to show erect penises in most mainstream media, and since no sex education that I encountered media discussed this issue, I had no frame of reference that would have alerted me to my condition. It seems likely that young men- and women- may face similar issues if their sex education is incomplete or inappropriate. I would not wish my experience upon anyone, so I’m sure you can understand my concern that sex education be factual, non-judgemental, comprehensive and accurate, delivered at any early age and without the atmosphere of nervous embarrassment than happens at present. It is for this reason that a programme like The Joy of Teen Sex is not only useful but may be absolutely vital. And it is because I have been so personally marked by my own experience that I am concerned that The Joy of Teen Sex is, in it’s current form, performing a great disservice to its intended (or presumed) audience.

I would like to focus my criticism of The Joy of Teen Sex on the following points, if I may:

1. A limited definition of sexual intercourse. When discussing sex, it seemed to focus on vaginal intercourse for heterosexual couples and anal intercourse for homosexual male couples (with, incidentally, rather little coverage of intercourse between women). For example, there is an undue focus on orgasm as the be-all and end-all of intercourse, ignoring the fact that many people (including men, though no mention of male problems achieving orgasm were mentioned) can have satisfying intercourse without achieving orgasm and ignoring their underlining reason why people have difficulty climaxing. Likewise, there was a repeated emphasis on encouraging behaviour with which participants were uncomfortable, such as oral sex. If an individual was uncomfortable with a particular practice, the solution presented invariably involved different sexual techniques without asking why the individual was reticent to perform the action in the first place. The implication is that men and woman must enjoy practices like oral sex, and that any reluctance must be discouraged, when a more positive and holistic approach teach the importance of dialogue with one’s partner about what is or isn’t acceptable and emphasise that at all times both partners have the right to refuse to do anything with which they are not comfortable. Similarly, the solution presented to a gay man who did not enjoy anal sex was to encourage him to investigate other methods of anal penetration without either 1. explaining that he has every right not to engage in any sexual activity if he does not want to, and that 2. other forms of intercourse that he may find more enjoyable are equally valid expressions of sexuality. The issue comes down to the importance of stressing dialogue between sexual partners: taking the view that reluctance to perform is simply an obstacle to be overcome with confidence training or the purchase of a new sex toy is hardly empowering young people to deal with sexual relationships in a mature and positive manner. The result was that The Joy of Teen Sex seemed unduly focused on the mechanics of sexual intercourse when it should also cover its emotional and interpersonal aspect. It seems especially odd to present sexual problems in a vacuum when most of the young people questioned were themselves in relationships that seemed to be generally positive and functional.

2. A judgemental attitude towards young people. Related to the first point, the programme implied that sexual activity outside of vaginal intercourse in the context of a relationship This mainly came to light during the sections presented by the investigative journalist Billie JD Porter, who would investigate and report on a sexual subculture, such as cybersex, recreational drug use or the use of pornography. Unfortunately the way these sections were structured in a manner that seemed to indicate such practices were at unhealthy, illicit and shameful. The individual who claimed to be addicted to pornography was asked why he didn’t have sex with women, as if intercourse were in some way a “better” form of sexual activity and he needed to be ashamed that he was unwilling or unable to find a partner. Participants who engaged in cybersex were ridiculed and mocked for their advanced. Young people imbibing alcohol and taking drugs before having sex were asked why, as if such activity was to be considered deviant The implication seems to be that only valid form of intercourse is penetrative sex between one man and one woman, without regard for the full plethora of sexual activity. . The section was presumably intended to present the view of a young person to contrast with the older sex education professionals, but the end product seemed to contrast the “wholesome” Ms. Porter with those she interviewed, with the former, a well-spoken professional white Anglo-Saxon professional expressing amazement, disgust and disappointment at the activity of the latter. These segments came across as prudish and judgmental when what is needed is an open-minded and understanding approach to unconventional sexual activity. I must also add that, as a proud inhabitant of Newcastle Upon Tyne, I was disappointed to here my home city described as a focal point for drinking, recreational drug use and casual sex, since it now only perpetuates an unfortunate stereotype but also has little basis in fact, at least in my experience.

3. The assumption that sexual activity is ubiquitous amongst young people. The Joy of Teen Sex makes frequent use of statistics to claim that most young people are currently or aspire to be sexually active, and from a young age. I cannot speak for the validity of these claims, since I am neither a sociologist nor a statistician. However, I can say that it seems counter to my own experience growing up. I grew up in the late 90s/early 00s consuming media that assumes sex is ubiquitous among adults. I remember watching an episode of Friends where one character complained that he had not had sex in two months, as if this was a freakishly long period to remain abstinent, for example. This was admittedly a set-up for a joke, but it testifies to the idea that is so prevalent in the media that it is somehow unusual, even deviant, for an individual to abstain from sex for an indefinite period of time. I shouldn’t have to explain the myriad reasons why a young individual might be unwilling or unable to have sex: perhaps are simply not interested, or they feel that there are more important things to worry about than sex, especially given the immense workload of GCSE and A-Level students. It might be that many are simply not comfortable interacting the opposite sex, whether due to lack of confidence, shyness or a simple lack of experience with the opposite sex. Some will not lose their virginity until they are well into adulthood, and some may never have sex at all. Such a position is rarely, if eve, presented in the media, and when it is, it is almost invariably portrayed in a negative light as unusual or antisocial. I worry that The Joy of Teen Sex takes as its default the following position: 1. that all teenagers want sex and 2. all teenagers are currently or soon to be sexually active. Such claims are clearly false; for an ostensibly factual documentary to reiterate that sexual inactivity is unusual, even freakish, is simply adding to the already considerable pressure that young people face to engage in sex prematurely, without adequate preparation and in the wrong mindset, and with potentially devastating consequences. This is to say nothing of the appalling pressure placed upon those who do not have sex, who may feel alienated from their peers at a time of their life that is already emotionally fraught.

I have already mentioned that I feel sex education in the UK is inadequate, and that I feel it has let me down personally. Growing up I felt a great deal of pressure to have sex early and often. As an adult I realised such pressures were pointless, that there is more to life than sex and that satisfying intercourse is not necessary or even conducive to a happy, healthy lifestyle. As a result I was able to put off having sex until I felt that I was ready, both physically and emotionally, and I look back on the experience positively and without regret. It is my dearest wish that all young people will not have to face the same issues I did growing up, that they will receive good sex education and relationship advice that emphasises their empowerment, and their right to only partake in activity with which they are comfortable, without fear of judgement and without causing offence, and that any problems they have will be tackled with the help of professionals who act with tact, dignity and understanding. Unfortunately, I feel that The Joy of Teen Sex, in its current form, proliferates several unhelpful myths about sex, focuses on the mechanical aspects at the expense of the emotional and adds to the pressure young people face about sex, whilst providing a narrow definition of valid intercourse that excludes all non-valid activity as dangerous or deviant. Put simply, I believe The Joy of Teen Sex, far from it its billing as a bold and revolutionary new approach to teenage sexuality, is in fact representative of the worst trends in British sex education

I would very dearly like to see a series that provides good advice on sex and relationships, not only to young people to a whole range of demographics who are interested, worried or concerned about sex. But I do not believe it can fulfil its mandate in its current form. I hope that you will listen to the advice of sex education professionals and reconsider the format and tone of the programme.
I dearly hope you will take my comments on board for future programming.


Patrick Welsh

Hopefully I'll be hearing from Channel 4 soon, but given that The Joy of Teen Sex is apparently a ratings success, it doesn't seem likely it will change much. But if you want to actually learn something about sex education, there are plenty of other resources available.