June 27th, 2011
You may remember earlier in the year Channel 4 ran a new series called The Joy of Teen Sex (JOTS). Series 2 is currently in production. Practitioners and educators were anxious about JOTS while it was being made. When the series aired we continued to be very worried about the core messages shared, the way sex and relationships were presented, and how messages of heteronormativity, commercialised and aspirational views of sex were normalised. We were not alone. Parents and young people also were troubled by the ideas shared in JOTS. This prompted a group of professionals working in education and healthcare to write to the Channel expressing our concerns.
Channel 4 responded, and the remainder of this post shares this and our reply, along with some additional updates about problems with sex/relationships programming at the Channel.
Channel 4′s response (25 February 2011)
“I am writing in response to your letter to Channel 4 of 8 February regarding The Joy of Teen Sex. As the head of Channel 4′s features department which commissioned the series I have been asked to respond on David Abraham’s behalf.
Channel 4 values feedback from viewers and experts and we have considered your letter carefully. I think it is important to confirm, before discussing any of your points, that we share your overarching belief of the importance of young people having access to open and honest information on sex and relationships.
It was in light of the Government’s 2007 Review of Sex and Relationships Education in Schools that we developed a slate of sex education programmes that would address the systematic issues raised in the Review, in particular the paucity of and poor quality of sex education in schools; the importance of complimentary information being provided in and out of school; and that sex and relationship education should be inclusive and meet the needs of all young people. Television is a powerful medium through which we can provide information in a way that is educative authoritative and entertaining, and which can draw-in significant audiences, both watching on their own or with friends and families. Channel 4 has a particular resonance with younger people who see us as a friend and youthful presence, and characteristics that make us uniquely able to bring effective sex education to the screen.
Over the last few years we have provided a range of sex education programmes and online resources – each seeking to reflect different aspects of sex and relationship education. The Joy of Teen Sex formed part of that mix, alongside programmes such as The Sex Education Show, KNTV Sex or Underage and Having Sex. We are proud of our track record in this area – both in terms of a frankness and relevance that young people rarely have access to – and crucially the impact that the programmes have had.
After last year’s Sex Education Show: Am I Normal, Channel 4 commissioned a public value case study, on the impact of the programme among teenagers. The research found that overall the show did a great job for teenagers:
- 78% of 14-19 year olds agreed it told them things that they would be too embarrassed to ask about
- 70% said they learnt things they didn’t know before
- 60% said that the programme made them feel more confident about themselves
- 62% of those who watched ep2 or 4 said they had changed their attitudes towards disabled people having sex
- 76% prefer learning about sex on TV than at school
Although we do not yet have comparative data for The Joy of Teen Sex, we have had some anecdotal evidence that the programme has had a positive impact on young people. Dr Rachael Jones has reported a marked upswing in attendances at sexual health clinics and that often The Joy of Teen Sex has been cited as a motivator for attendance.
In addition, the Sexperience website, which has sat alongside both the Sex Education Show and Joy of Teen Sex strands, has been immensly popular (attracting up to 5,000 user comments/questions a week), providing a forum for discussion and advice sharing. That the programmes and website have had a positive effect on young people seeking sexual healthcare advice or changing behaviour is evidenced by their being referenced or included in various NHS booklets and websites as well as their use in secondary schools.
In response to your particular points of concern about The Joy of Teen Sex, I would first like to reassure you that the programme was commissioned with the intention of providing accessible, relevant, entertaining and empowering information about sex and relationships to young people. Its purpose was to inform and educate by offering a platform to discuss any problems, questions or anxieties they might have. The programme was aimed at teenagers over the age of 16 (and their parents) and deliberately sought to be up-front and honest and to reflect the issues that young people wanted to discuss. Throughout the course of the series we sought to represent a wide variety of young people from different cultural backgrounds; heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual contributors featured alongside single people and those in steady relationships; sexually active young people as well as those considering their first sexual experience.
The series deliberately did not shy away from the fact that many 16-and-overs are sexually active and want to lead fulfilling as well as healthy sex lives. In tone and content it was also not an attempt to replicate The Sex Education Show – which is more focused on adolescents and the care to be taken before sex becomes part of a young person’s life – but was aimed at at the issues confronted by youngsters already having sex or being pressured by their peers to do so.
In putting together the programme we worked with a number of experts in the sex education field, both on and off screen. This included Peter Greenhouse, Consultant in Sexual Health at Bristol Sexual Health Centre, who also worked on The Sex Education Show and the highly regarded Dr Rachael Jones of the West London Centre for Sexual Health, who featured in the series providing medical and contraceptive medical advice. The background of other contributors – including Ruth Corden, Billie JD Porter and Joanne Wierzbickia – was made clear as was their role in the series to add to the mix of viewpoints and expertise, rather than to provide medical advice. We believe that it is critical to the success of these programmes that they are supported by credible medical experts who are available to advise us on medical matters and vouchsafe the reliability and authenticity of any advice proffered either during the programmes themselves or through the supporting website. While we will not always agree with our medical experts on presentational matters or issues relating to the narrative conventions used in television, we will heed any advice we have sought from them on any specific medical matters.
Given Channel 4′s ongoing committment to provide content that deals with young people sex and relationships, we have been planning to hold a roundtable discussion about television and sex education in the next few months to bring together people involved in providing sex education in the health and education spheres and people involved in making TV content. We very much hope you will be able to attend the event, and that it will provide a forum for your concerns to be addressed more fully by a range of experts.
We will be in touch in due course about the event. In the meantime I hope this reply provides some reassurance about the intentions behind this programme and across our sex education output, and the positive impact that the series has had during and since broadcast.
Head of Features”
26 June 2011
Dear Sue Murphy
Cc: David Abraham, Andrew Jackson, Katy Boyd, Liam Humphreys, Kate Teckman, Dominique Walker
Thank you for your letter of 25 February 2011. We are glad to hear of Channel 4’s ongoing commitment to improving the quality of broadcasting and that you share our ‘overarching belief of the importance of young people having open and honest information about sex and relationships’.
Our previous letter outlined a lack of underpinning of Channel 4’s programming with strong evidence and critical thinking and we are concerned that your response does not fully engage with the issues we outlined. It appears to be justifying problematic programming rather than reflecting on areas where content needs to be improved.
As stated in our initial letter we agree television is a powerful medium to share sex/relationships information, something supported by the wider literature on media and education. You are right to state you have the trust of young people, placing you in a strong position to share sex information with them. However, our concerns over how you have been going about this – and will do so in the future – remain. It is because you have a position of authority and trust among viewers it is vital to ensure messages shared are accurate, informative and entertaining. We would invite you to revisit our first letter and consider many of the areas we identified as currently not being adequately addressed. As ever, our offer to help you improve upon the quality of your programmes remains.
You cite within your reply a ‘public value case study’ but you do not include full details of who this was run by, how it was conducted, on whom, or how representative of the public/viewing audience these participants were. While the figures from this ‘case study’ seem striking the outcomes are not completely clear. Respondents stated they learned things they did not know, but this is only positive if the things they learned were accurate – learning something you did not know that is also misleading is not the same as learning something that is accurate and explained in such a manner as to give you the life skills to ensure confident behaviour in sex and relationships. Claims that teens prefer learning about sex/relationships from TV rather than school are not particularly helpful given most teens will prefer learning anything on TV rather than school and is disingenuous to the many creative and thoughtful sex/relationships programmes already offered within UK schools.
Your claim from anecdotal evidence that Joy of Teen Sex had a ‘positive impact on young people’ is not particularly helpful. Those of us working in clinical settings can equally supply our own anecdotes that following Joy of Teen Sex screening we did not notice an increase in clinic attendance. Those of us working in pastoral/advice-giving settings have had to counter fears and anxieties raised by the programme, with young people requiring reassurance over misinformation shared. In particular the coverage of anal sex, STIs, lack of sexual desire and contraception shown on Joy of Teen Sex made young people we have contact with feel afraid of sexual and reproductive health services, or that they were abnormal for not identifying with the sex tips featured on the programme.
You state ‘we sought to represent a wide diversity of people from different cultural backgrounds; heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual contributors featured’. Again we would draw you back to our previous letter that highlights how many of your messages within the Sex Education Show and Joy of Teen Sex were heteronormative and misleading over LGBT issues. Simply having some guests who may be LGBT or mentioning homosexuality is not helpful if your wider programming focus is through a heteronormative lens. By that we mean presenting diverse sexualities as ‘different’, problematic or unusual; or seeing heterosexual, monogamous and sexually active relationships as ‘normal’. Given the Channel’s stated focus on diversity we would also expect to see programming that made explicit how many young people are not sexually active until over 16 and that many enjoy relationships based on delaying/actively consenting to a committed intimate relationship when they are older. We disagree that you have included a wide diversity of cultural backgrounds and would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you what an inclusive and sensitive programming schedule that is culturally diverse could look like.
We note you spoke with experts to inform the series but we would again refer you back to our first letter. This clearly indicates many of us were also approached to inform the Joy of Teen Sex, shared our expertise – and our concerns – but were ignored. We are hoping a learning outcome for you from the feedback we have given in this letter and our previous one makes it clear that you need to listen to a wide range of practitioners – not just those who are agreeing with your programme remit. Indeed if experienced professionals are all telling you there are problems with your programmes and consistently offering to ensure you are both accurate and entertaining, you should listen to them. We would also remind you many of the counter signatories on our first letter and this one have extensive media experience delivering sex/relationships advice in print and broadcast media. Some of us have even been consultants and contributors on programmes such as The Sex Education Show or other sex programmes for your Channel. Or have spoken at Channel 4 events on education/health.
We remain concerned over the way the contributors finally selected in the series of the Joy of Teen Sex were portrayed, including some of the messages they were providing. We do not feel their qualifications were completely transparent – for example one appeared to be a qualified Social Worker but her status was later amended, while another had experience in sex toy sales but not necessarily the more complex and nuanced area of sex education/care. Equally concerning is the lack of young people’s voices and experience which could have been a feature of the series but was not included. In empowering sex/relationships education and healthcare the voices of young people as peer to peer advisors and consultants are central. We hope future programming acknowledges this.
We welcome your comments and are looking forward to your proposed round table discussion about your programming. We hope you will use our first letter and this response to inform some of the conversations at that meeting. We note Channel 4 have recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Trans Media Watch which will ensure ‘accuracy, dignity and respect’ in its portrayal of transgender people. We hope a similar commitment to sex and relationships broadcasting could also be developed.
As ever we remain committed to supporting young people, sex and relationships information and media opportunities to deliver this.
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
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 Consultancy, 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
Comparing our first letter with Channel 4′s reply and our response makes it transparent how there are problems with the Channel’s approach to sex/relationships programming and despite their claims about delivering quality broadcast materials this has not been achieved. Indeed where core problems have been pointed out, I would argue the Channel has sidestepped discussing or dealing with them. I feel the Channel has not adequately considered the problems with their past and current broadcasting on sex and relationships. As we speak The Sex Researchers – a series that promised to promote accurate and empowering information on past and current sexology is being aired. Only it is misrepresenting sex research (and researchers), again rehearsing narrow views of sex, gender and sexuality. Making out quirky lab based studies on desire and attraction (heterosexual obviously) are representative of mainstream sexology. The sex research community, including the Kinsey Institute, who helped put the programme together are very upset about how our time has been wasted in putting together something that seems to ridicule our work – and mislead the public on sex/relationships information.
Since JOTS aired we’ve also seen another series of The Sex Education Show broadcast. This series focused on sexualisation. When researching this issue the programme makers asked how they might ‘test’ sexualisation. They were referred to the Buckingham (et al) report on commercialised goods which is an excellent critical discussion of the area and provides a template of how to investigate the concepts of sexualisation and commercialisation. Rather than using this template, and while going against information from experts solicited for the series, the Sex Education Show went looking for examples of sexualised goods then made a fuss in stores about their sales. This is despite other evidence from reviews like the Buckingham one which indicates such products are not that usual and are interpreted very differently by parents and young people, but the concern over them from parents is often tied up in anxieties about girl blaming. Indeed the discussion of boys are largely absent, while the subtext of class and racial prejudice (about the ‘type of girls’ who wear such clothing) is problematic.
When acting as a consultant on Series 2 of The Sex Education Show I suggested Sexualisation could have been a topic to cover (from a critical perspective) since it tied in with the APA report on this issue that had just been launched. This was ignored with a focus given instead to limiting access to internet porn. When it comes to sex Channel 4 and related production companies seem to want to focus instead on topical issues that are both televisual and capture a public anxiety over a popular concern – rather than looking at and using evidence in a critical way.
Indeed if you look at how discussions pan out on the Channel’s Facebook page for Stop Pimping Our Kids (the campaign part of the last series of The Sex Education Show) it seems any in depth critical reflection is avoided or only included under duress (for example, witness how they position critical blogs discussing sexualisation research by myself and Dr Brooke Magnanti). Channel 4 now has a campaign for one current series (The Sex Education Show) which calls for restrictions on sexualised media. But other series the Channel has recently created – such as JOTS or The Sex Researchers seem to be promoting sexualised media (particularly for a youth market). In fact you could argue these plus Series 1 of The Sex Education Show with its focus on pubic hair removal, burlesque classes and new lingerie to boost sexual desire (in a show aimed at teens) comes under the Stop Pimping Our Kids campaign to crack down on sexualisation.
We are currently left with a situation where Channel 4 as a broadcaster focuses on a lot of sex/relationships content in various guises (entertainment, advice and education). These seemingly fall within part (or all) of it’s Public Service Broadcasting remit. Consistent, public and vocal calls for programmes to be improved – by the public and professionals – have been ignored. Programmes have been made during the past year which fail to have learned from the input from experts and feedback from professionals about content, accuracy and tone. We have an ongoing situation where programmes are being made by the Channel that contradict each other (and even contradict themselves), while offers of help to sort this muddle out are generally overlooked.
I hope the meeting the Channel are hosting in the coming weeks will be productive and the Channel will listen and really apply the core messages being shared. Otherwise we will continue to have a situation where both Channel 4 and production companies it commissions to make sex/relationships programmes will be viewed with mistrust and suspicion. We cannot currently trust Channel 4 to make quality sex and relationships programmes. And that is a situation entirely maintained by the Channel in the face of ongoing offers of support.