March 30th, 2009
Channel Four begins a new four-part series of The Sex Education Show tonight. The focus appears to be particularly related towards young people and the impact pornography has on their lives, and also aims to cover issues relating to anatomy, sexual and health, and relationships.
I was involved as a consultant and guest on the first series, and reflected on the experiences in the following blogs:
Helping parents become sex education experts outlines how we gave parents a confidence building class in talking to their teens about sex, and then showed them putting these new skills into action.
How can parents, teachers and the media give good sex and relationships education summarises a talk I gave at Channel Four that tackled issues of providing Sex and Relationships Education to young people, collaborative working between practitioners, and how the media (including C4) often contributes to our problems with understanding sex.
Responses to the first series were pretty positive. While some areas of the media predictably gnashed their teeth about morality and prime time television, most reviewers appreciated the fact that sex was being discussed in a mainstream format. Viewing figures were high, and feedback I heard from parents, teens and sexual health practitioners/sex educators was generally good. Particularly people felt the programme focused on more than just anatomy, encouraged communication, showed sex in a diverse way, and particularly acted as a guide for parents about what was going on in young people’s lives and how you could talk to them about sex and relationships.
There were some criticisms of the programme from media analysts, and sexual health professionals. Mostly these focused on who the show was aimed at – teens, adults or both? The variety of topics within each show confused some or were interpreted as gimmicky, with too much focus on the main presenter.
The first series was contradictory in places – for example in one episode we heard about how the media makes us feel bad about our bodies by directing how we should look, followed by a film where the presenter had a bikini wax and remarked how it improved her sex life. Some of the case studies in the film didn’t seem representative of teens, and in places evidence was ignored in favour of more televisual techniques. For example, in one episode men were shown having a urethral swab for STIs although we now use a ‘pee in a pot’ method, and in another episode teens were shown graphic pictures of STIs which evidence suggests increases fear about sex but not the practice of safer sex or awareness of early stage symptoms/symptomless STIs.
Parts of the first series medicalised behaviour, focusing on anatomy, biology, infections and contraception, often presided over by a white-coated doctor. Which evidence shows is not what young people want to hear about sex and relationships. Sexuality appeared to be added as an afterthought. And while some areas of ‘sex’ were not critiqued (e.g. a foray into burlesque to spice up ones sex life) others were ridiculed (tantric sex), which created a slightly judgemental and heteronormative subtext.
The whole of the first series was underpinned by a survey conducted for (and to promote) the programme which generated results that ran counter to many existing reliable sex surveys (for example the level of sexual behaviour and porn use reported was far higher than other teen surveys suggest). As a result the programme was based on unreliable data, where existing kosher evidence could have been used instead.
I was invited to be a consultant on the second series, and my first task was to feed back these positive and negative responses. I also suggested the following to producers:
Move away from the medical
Part of the criticism of sex education by young people – and a reason why it doesn’t work effectively – is that it focuses too much on biological issues, and not enough on psychological/practical issues. I recommended using guests who came from a variety of professional backgrounds, and for any medics featured not to wear a white coat (as nobody does this in actual sex ed). I suggested and the focus of the series should shift from lessons about anatomy, STIs and contraception, to discussing body image, self esteem, feelings, emotions, desires, and respect for oneself and others.
Focus on life skills
Research with teens about what’s lacking in sex education suggests they mostly want to know how to have relationships – particularly communication and assertiveness techniques. For series two I suggested this become a core part of every programme, avoiding telling viewers what to do, but showing them how to put key aspects of relationships into practice.
Be aware of changes to Sex and Relationships education
Sex and relationships education is currently being reviewed in the UK with a view to it being a compulsory part of the curriculum from 2010 for children from 5 years and up (with age appropriate content). I’d referred the programme makers to the documentation on this issue so they would be aware of the directions that SRE was moving. This included a review of SRE and the government’s response to this review.
Avoiding sex negativity
We have a long history of our sex education in schools and via the media using ‘scare’ messages to put people off having sex. The previous series was generally positive although the use of medical tests (swabs) and gory diseased genitals did represent sex negative programming. I recommended that where possible relationships be described positively, but with the caveats that a positive relationship would be based around respect, understanding and consent (and life skills tips on how to achieve those).
Sometimes teens tell you shocking things in sex education settings. They can do this because of embarrassment, because they want an answer to a question, because they are testing your boundaries, or because they think it’s what you want them to say. If you’re from the media there’s an even greater chance of this happening. So I advised the programme makers to reflect on messages they were hearing and check carefully what they wanted to include in the programme to avoid being overly sensational. Aside from wanting to ensure accuracy, I wanted to avoid the programme worrying parents, or making teachers/health professionals’ work more difficult, or hampering our efforts with sex education. After all, if it’s a bleak or scary picture painted people may complain sex education was the cause, not the solution.
Negotiating our sexualised culture
One of the most striking findings about young people’s psychosexual development has come from the American Psychological Association’s 2007 report on the negative impact of living in a sexualised culture. Problems are being caused for teens by a society that has a high media sexual content, increased opportunities for sharing/accessing media, an established link between consumer products and sex, and an increasingly unrealistic and aspirational view about sex, coupled with a lack of comprehensive sex education that might help you negotiate this environment.
I recommended the programme identified some of the key areas where this was occurring, highlight to parents how this caused problems for young people, and provide information for teens on how to recognise and deal with this phenomena. The programme makers seemed to want to focus predominantly on porn, which runs counter to the APA review which puts porn within the sexualised culture but does not see it as the main or only cause of teen psychosexual developmental problems. I recommended the wider culture be reflected on, not a specific focus on porn alone.
The ethics of working with teens on sensitive topics
Part of consulting on the programme involved highlighting for programme makers means to make young people feel included and valued in any televised activities, while stressing the importance of setting a safe space for them to talk, ask questions, get answers, and opt out of filming if they wished. In particular I advised that young people may feel very self-conscious about relationship issues and discussing some (particularly sexuality or sexual activity) could lead to bullying, so all televised activities had to occur in the context of parental and school permission, young people’s ongoing consent, with aftercare provided for young people.
Remember the basic questions/don’t approach as an adult
Often the media responds to teenage sexual health/education in a moral or shocked manner, constructing teens as sexually active, promiscuous and precocious. Whereas the majority of teens don’t have sex until they’re 16 or over and want answers to very basic questions about sex. I recommended the programme didn’t go for more sensational topics (i.e. internet porn addiction) at the expense of answering very standard questions teens have around development, feelings, desires and ‘am I normal?’ type worries.
Teens aren’t a homogenous group
Following on from the above, we tend to see teens as the same, forgetting that many develop at different rates and are affected by multiple issues in their lives. So one twelve year old may be interested in hearing about reproduction, while another fifteen year old may not yet be mature enough to tackle this topic. Some teenagers come from families where there has been divorce, bereavement, abuse or other problems – so their understanding of relationships may differ from their classmates that may require additional support. Moreover teens coming from homes where sex is not discussed or presented as taboo, immoral, dirty or something to only be considered after marriage may have a different reaction to the whole concept of sex and relationships education.
I advised programme makers be aware of difference, and deliver messages in a sensitive way so those who really needed them could access them. I recommended the series didn’t put homosexuality as an additional part of the programme but included it throughout the series. I also advocated a greater awareness of diversity within the series, so it wasn’t tailored towards middle class white kids living in the London area (as programmes on teens so often tend to be).
Avoiding sacrificing evidence for being televisual
As already mentioned the first series did occasionally overlook or in places exclude evidence based practice to be televisual. I strongly cautioned against a repeat of this and suggested televisual life skills activities. For example, instead of just showing how to put condoms on, I suggested young people could be filmed talking about strategies for asking someone to use a condom, discussing responses when someone wouldn’t do this, and challenging stereotypes like ‘girls can’t carry condoms’.
Steer clear of mixed messages
Within series one there were a number contradictory or confusing messages given. I recommended for series two that producers looked carefully to ensure they avoided a Cosmo-esque approach to talking about sex (aspirational, performance, positions and product based) and to check they were absolutely clear with key messaging to avoid misleading or worrying viewers.
Signposting and sharing information
A television show can’t do everything. This series is only part of sex education efforts within the UK. So a key piece of advice from me was for the series to operate as a point for further discussion with clear signposting for young people so they could find further places of support. In particular I recommended showing how to find out sexual health services, explaining about confidentiality of services, and recommending how teens could talk to peers and parents/carers should they need to.
I haven’t seen the final cut of the series, so I’ve yet to see whether my feedback was included. As with any collaborative project I give the media the most accurate, balanced, clear and actionable information I can. It’s up to them how they put it into action. Let’s hope the Sex Education Show learned from the first series and can deliver a stronger series that truly represents education for all.