Friday, 11 February 2011

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.

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