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Channel 4 sent complaint from practitioners re problem sex broadcasting

February 9th, 2011

Dr Petra

Over the past few weeks parents, practitioners, young people and journalists have been concerned about the Channel 4 series ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’. This has led to a number of us deciding to complain to the Channel and recommend a way forward to ensure future programming is improved.

Below is a copy of our letter, sent to the Chief Executive (David Abraham) and Commissioning Editors yesterday. Myself and others will be reproducing this letter on our blogs and you are welcome to share it on forums, your own blog or for teaching/discussion purposes. If you have been worried by the series and believe Channel 4 should address the current poor standards in sex and relationships broadcasting you may also want to contact the Channel yourself.

Dear David Abraham

Cc: Sue Murphy, Andrew Jackson, Katy Boyd, Liam Humphreys, Kate Teckman, Dominique Walker

We are a group of professionals who are pro-sex education and accessible sexual and reproductive healthcare. We believe in accurate and open discussions about relationships and sex, and feel television can be an effective and powerful medium for sex education programmes that are entertaining as well as informative.

For the past decade Channel 4 has been making programmes addressing sex and relationships issues for teens and adults including: The Sex Inspectors (2004), Orgasmatron/Body Shock (2005), The Dark Side of Modern Love (2005), Am I A Sex Addict (2007), The Sex Education Show (2008-present), and most recently The Joy of Teen Sex. This clearly demonstrates a commitment on behalf of the Channel which we feel is important given how little coverage these topics receive.

While these programmes may have attracted high viewing figures, they have been criticised by therapists, healthcare providers, and educators for portraying inaccurate or outdated and misleading representations of sex education, healthcare, clinical treatments and therapies.

Many of us have been approached to participate on these programmes, or publicise them to our colleagues/clients. We have repeatedly shared our worries about the direction programmes appear to be taking, although have had little success in having those concerns heard.

The recent series The Joy of Teen Sex has been even more problematic than previous similar shows, raising complaint and concern from sexual and reproductive healthcare staff, sex educators, youth workers, sex researchers, parents and young people. In particular they have been worried by:

- the range of topics covered, which may not be representative of the needs/questions teens may have

- some of the skills and qualifications of the professionals used in the programme

- the advice given to programme participants which left little room for exploration, choice, and the right to refuse sexual activity that doesn’t appeal to them

- misleading and/or factually incorrect information, and frequently used unreliable statistics to back up points made. For example the inaccurate claim made at the start of each programme that the average teen has had three sexual partners by the time they reach 16. In fact reputable research finds most teens have not had intercourse before they are 16.(1).

- little attention paid to communication, confidence, respect, romance, affection, closeness

- an overemphasis on sexual techniques and products

- offering options that may not be realistic for viewers, particularly younger teens or those on a low income

- valuing the ‘televisual’ over more relevant issues to young people – e.g. exploring vajazzling

- consistent muddling of key terms (e.g. vagina used when vulva is meant), or using outdated terms such as ‘hymen’

- inaccurate representation of what sex education is like, what sexual health services deliver, and how sex education and healthcare professionals should act. For example a medic making a client cry by showing her graphic images of STIs; telling young women to expect bleeding as part of losing virginity; or not making clear the difference between normal vaginal discharge and an STI

- mixed messages from programme makers in their casting calls to young people/parents, and what professionals being consulted for the series were told it would offer (see Appendices 1 and 2)

- an overall tone that encouraged teen blaming, slut shaming and homophobia, while perpetuating messages of hegemonic masculinities and narrow sexual norms

- not listening to numerous professional concerns during the development stage

- no awareness of, or respect for, cultural diversity

- producers of the show using twitter to promote the programme while simultaneously dismissing professional and parent complaints of the series, referring to anyone who questioned the series as ‘haters’ (see also Appendix 3)

We are concerned the Commissioners and Channel Four have not shown due diligence over this series. It seems to be fitting a pattern of programme development where viewing figures are prioritised over empowerment but where programmes are still marketed as ‘educational’. It does not appear to fit with the Channel’s Public Service Remit or Corporate Responsibility.

We are worried misinformation about sexual and reproductive healthcare and education has been grossly misrepresented, leading to parents feeling anxious, young people’s right to accurate information not being delivered, and professional advice being ignored at all stages of programme development.

The right of young people to comprehensive sex and relationships education is still contested in this country. Many individuals and organizations oppose sex education on the grounds it will sexualise their children, claim it will not give accurate information, or will encourage sexual activity rather than encouraging thoughtful decision-making about relationships. For this reason it is vital that any programme claiming to provide education about sex and sexuality does not provide fuel for these arguments. Sadly we have seen reactions to The Joy of Teen Sex in public discussions and on places like twitter that indicate the programme is already being used as evidence of the ‘failings’ of sex education.

As a result we fear this style of programme making could lead to young people and adults not getting the sexual and relationships advice they need; making the job of healthcare providers, therapists, educators, parents and youth workers more difficult; and causing distress to young people and parents. We have been overwhelmed with emails from anxious teens and parents who support sex education, but are concerned about the messages of teenagers, sex, relationships and sexuality portrayed in this series.

Channel 4 clearly intends to continue making programmes about sex and relationships. We are hoping as Channel Directors you will wish these future broadcasts to be accurate, entertaining and empowering. To ensure this happens we are calling on Channel 4 to establish an advisory group made up of sexual and reproductive health practitioners, sex educators, youth workers, parents and young people to oversee the development of future programming and ensure that it is entertaining, accurate and empowering. This idea is endorsed by Brook, the young people’s sexual health service. All of the signatories below are happy to help you with this endeavor, and are now expecting you to listen to our concerns, and promise quality sex and relationships broadcasting in the future. We look forward to hearing your response soon.

Signed
Petra Boynton PhD, Social Psychologist and Sex Researcher, University College London
Dr Stuart Flanagan, Genito Urinary Physician
Justin Hancock, Bish Training, trainer and consultant
Lisa Hallgarten, Director, Education For Choice
Wendy Savage MBBCh FRCOG MSc (Public Health) Hon DSc
Marge Berer, Editor, Reproductive Health Matters
Romance Academy – a nation-wide, holistic, relationships and sex education initiative
Dr. Meg Barker, Sex therapist and social psychologist, The Open University
Chris Ashford, Principal Lecturer in Law, University of Sunderland
Alice Hoyle, Sex and Relationship Education Advisory Teacher
Alison Terry, Second year student, Applied Community and Youth Work Studies, University of Manchester
K. Barratt, Second year student, Applied Community and Youth Work Studies, University of Manchester
Becca Thompson, BSc MA COT
Steven Norris, Student Teacher
Clare Bale, RGN, BA (Hons),MPH, PhD Candidate, University of Sheffield
Dr. Lesley Hoggart, Principal Research Fellow, School of Health and Social Care University of Greenwich
Matthew Greenall, advisor on international HIV & sexual health programmes
David McQueen, International Speaker and Youth Advocate
Janet Horrocks, Healthy Schools Project Officer
Joelle Brady, MSc, Researcher
Kendelle Bond, MD of Zest Consultantancy, Public Health Consultant
Dr Jayne Kavanagh, Medical Ethics and Law Unit Lead, UCL Medical School and Associate Specialist in Sexual and Reproductive Health, Camden Provider Services
David Evans, Researcher and Chief Executive SRE Project
Peter Bone, Chair of the Advisory Council, PSHE Association

(1) Wellings, K, Nanchahal, K, Macdowall, W, McManus, S, Erens, B, Mercer, CH, Johnson, AM, Copas, AJ, Korovessis, C, Fenton, KA, Field, J Sexual behaviour in Britain: early heterosexual experience. Lancet, 2001: 358; 1843-1850

APPENDIX ONE
Example email correspondence from researchers on The Joy of Teen Sex, to professionals:
“We are in the early stages of shaping our series and are keen to talk to industry professionals, so we can get it right. I understand your concerns and I can reassure you that our aim is to make a thought-provoking and positive series that will look at relationships, emotions and identity as well as “the act of sex”.”The Joy of Teen Sex will not be gratuitous, voyeuristic or salacious. Our aim, working alongside dedicated professionals, is to provide a platform for teenagers and parents to discuss the emotional, physical and psychological pressures young people face when they are seeking to forge loving relationships.”

APPENDIX TWO

Example of casting call information to recruit participants to the programme (reproduced and discussed in this previous blog post about The Joy of Teen Sex).


APPENDIX THREE

Metro Newspaper’s account of Twitter remarks from one of the producers on The Joy of Teen Sex, made during and after episodes were aired. (These have since been removed from twitter by said producer).


Update

Our letter has been reported in The Guardian and Channel 4 have since sent the newspaper this response (reprinted below). For the record the Channel have not as yet been in touch with any of the signatories of the letter and have not even acknowledged receipt of our letter. We await their promised correspondence.

Channel 4 has been committed to programming that addresses the lack and inadequacy of sex education in schools for many years through programmes such as the Sex Education Show and The Joy of Teen Sex. We are proud of our programming in this field as well and their ability to bring large audiences to the often difficult issues they have addressed. We have a hugely successful Sexperience website which has consistently been a leader in the field and has seen millions log on for further advice or information after watching the programmes. Anecdotally we also know from healthcare professionals that viewers have sought medical advice and treatment as a result of watching the programme.

While the programme makers of The Joy of Teen Sex consulted with a number of sexual healthcare professionals to ensure the information provided was accurate and appropriate, we realise that this type of programming will not always appeal to everyone. However, Channel 4 is always willing to listen to the concerns of viewers and interested parties following its broadcasts and we will correspond with the authors of the letter directly about their concerns.

A few thoughts on this response (from me, rather than on behalf of everyone who signed our letter). Given the major problems with The Joy of Teen Sex, it seems more than disingenuous for them to claim the series has been addressing the lack of and inadequacy of sex education. The point of our letter is to highlight how the misinformation in Channel 4′s programming is misleading regarding sex education, and may in fact be causing more work for parents and practitioners while giving ammunition to the anti sex education lobby. There are plenty of ways to support sex education but causing concern to young people, educators and parents is not the way to do it. Nor is creating programmes which feature mainly 18′s and over (not representative of ‘teens’). Or making programmes for teens that are screened after 10pm, and are blocked to under 18s when they’re archived on 4oD. The Channel can’t even claim they’ve not been told about the problems around delivering SRE and how media can inform this – they’ve asked me to speak at their education events twice to specifically tackle this issue (see here and here).

Anecdotes are fine, but how many healthcare professionals have said people have sought advice? Presumably if this is being reported to the Channel they’ll have some record of it? Why are these professionals listened to, but those of us who are raising concerns (based on what we’re seeing in practice) are not?

The Channel mention they consulted with ‘a number of sexual healthcare professionals to ensure the information was accurate and appropriate’. How many professionals and who were they? Six people/organisations signing our letter were directly approached to appear on the Joy of Teen Sex when it was in development. We all shared our concerns about the programme idea at the time but were unable to participate because the producers would not alter their focus. So that’s several professionals we directly know about who gave extensive feedback who were ignored. It would be useful to know who the healthcare professionals who were ultimately used by the Channel, because if they were responsible for signing off the inaccurate statistics and misleading examples of practice screened week on week there are, sadly, questions to ask about their competence.

It is not enough to say our complaint about this series and other programming is just a matter of taste. It is a matter of accuracy and broadcasting ethics. Our reason for writing to the Channel is not to have a grumble about a few things we just don’t like the tone of. It’s a serious catalogue of consistent problematic practice.

The Channel states how it ‘is always willing to listen’. Presumably that includes all the parents and practitioners who have also contacted the Channel separately from our group letter? People who are still waiting for any reply? Channel 4 has not, so far, indicated they are listening. They need to respond to us directly for us to know this is happening. And to continue a dialogue that shows they are taking on board feedback. Not fobbing people off with vague PR speak.

I will keep you posted on any further correspondence from the Channel who I hope decide to revisit our letter and realise we are offering them an opportunity to ensure they provide accurate, entertaining and empowering sex programmes in the future. It would be supremely arrogant of them to continue to decide they know better than young people, parents, practitioners – in other words, their audience.

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