January 19th, 2011
Last summer myself and several other sex educators, therapists and reproductive healthcare staff were approached by researchers from Betty TV working on a new programme commissioned by Channel 4 called ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’. The show was described as a cross between the established (and popular) Embarrassing Teenage Bodies and The Sex Education Show. The Joy of Teen Sex would be set in a mock clinic where young people who had sex and relationships questions could get advice. The TV company was looking for people to appear as experts on the series (who’d play the role of ‘clinic staff’), and/or to refer them young people for possible inclusion.
After friends and family the media is often one of our main sources of sex information (acting as a ‘super peer’ – who doesn’t always have the right answers). Young people particularly appreciate sex and relationships advice from broadcast and online media. Providing sex information via the mainstream media is not new and has been well received by young people, parents, educators and healthcare staff (a classic example can be found here, see also here).
I am very much in favour of using the media to share information on sex and relationships (and other health topics). But I had reservations from the outset about this particular series. All of which I shared with the researchers at the time, and I’ll repeat now.
The series was billed as being a ‘youth’ programme. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean young people were actively involved in its creation. The title ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ sounded like something by an adult trying to impress the kids rather than generated by a youth audience.
As I heard more about the planned content of the series it seemed profoundly out of touch with the title. The title implied an attempt at celebrating sex, while the calls for participants suggested it was mostly negative and problematising sex (more on this later). The proposed content did not match the kind of things I’ve noted young people are worried about (through my research and work over the past decade as an agony aunt; and from listening to parents, sex educators and healthcare staff).
Given both Embarrassing Teenage Bodies and The Sex Education Show had received some criticism for their approach to sex-related topics , I was concerned that merging them for a new format without learning from the feedback for existing programmes was not good practice. When I shared these worries with the researcher from Betty TV they did not appear interested.
Setting up a ‘pretend clinic’ was also perhaps unhelpful as it may give an inaccurate impression to young people of what sexual health services are like. If the mock clinic appears off-putting to an audience it may also discourage them from attending a sexual or reproductive health clinic in real life (for more ideas on what a ‘real’ GU clinic is like click here).
The ‘clinic’ setting also framed sex and relationships issues within a health or medical format. Which may be appropriate for tackling the treatment of STIs or contraception, but given this programme was also being presented as providing advice about relationships was a medical tone the best to use? After all, do you head to your GP when you want tips to spice things up sexually? Given the wider concerns about medicalisation and sex, presenting young people with the idea sex and relationships are a primarily medical issue (as opposed to social or cultural) is unhelpful.
Those worries, however, were insignificant compared to my anxiety when I received the advert the company wanted me to pass on to young people, which read:
SO YOU THINK YOU KNOW IT ALL WHEN IT COMES TO SEX?
• How much is too much porn?
• Which STIs are untreatable?
• Are you still a virgin?
• How easy is it for a girl to orgasm?
We want to talk to teenagers, 16+ who need sex and relationship advice or who are keen to share their sex and relationship experiences.
We want to talk to teenagers and their parents who need sex & relationship advice from a team of professionals.
No issue is off limits.
Sex is the most important thing in a teenager’s life….and the biggest worry for their parents…
If you’re a parent, concerned about what your teenagers are getting up to in the bedroom, we want to hear from you.
• Do you think your teenager is addicted to porn?
• Do you think your teenager is sleeping around?
• Has your teenager told you they’re bi-sexual?
• Is your daughter a virgin, but you fear her boyfriend is pressuring her into having sex?
• What do you do when your son says he wants to have unprotected sex?
TV Production company betty are making a new Channel 4 series featuring frank and candid discussion of sexually aware teens.
Let’s unpack this advert.
First of all the programme starts with a challenge – asking if young people know it all. None of us ‘know it all’ when it comes to sex. Such an approach runs counter to working with young people on sensitive issues, where the aim is usually to create a safe space where people can ask questions or debate issues with confidence, rather than feeling judged, silenced or challenged.
‘Sex’ is not transparently defined. Discussions with the TV researchers making the programme indicated they understood ‘sex’ as penis in vagina intercourse (or anal sex in the case of young gay men). This is an extremely limited view of ‘sex’, the meaning of which has been explored in depth here.
Yet ‘sex’ and relationships are constructed in a particular way by this advert. For young people the advert focuses on ‘sex’ as whether or not they know much about infections, problematising porn, ‘losing’ virginity, and young women’s orgasmic difficulties. That leaves out a whole range of other issues young people may wish to talk about while reinforcing many gender and sexual behaviour stereotypes.
When it gets to the parent section of the advert it becomes even more judgemental. Here we see ‘sex’ categorised with more mentions of porn, a brief nod to sexuality, value judgements about ‘sleeping around’, and the setting up of girls as victims, boys as predators. There is nothing positive for parents. Only a list of potentially scary issues a parent might get in touch with. Indeed sex is stated as ‘the biggest worry for parents’.
Is that true? Are parents not also worried about their child’s future? Their academic progress? Their friendship groups? Risk of violent crime? Their health and wellbeing? Financial worries? Some parents may well be anxious about their child’s sexual development, but I’m confident most parents will have additional, and equally pressing, concerns. Realistically if sex really is your prime concern as a parent is television the best place to get support? Particularly if your worries are linked to the motional or physical safety of your child. This is not to say parents should not want advice, just that framing conversations with young people about relationships in purely negative ways is unhelpful.
The advert does indicate what the aim of the series might be. Rather than an opportunity to empower parents or listen to young people, it seems to be designed for the viewer to judge the wayward teen or hapless parent. Previous programmes and wider media coverage about young people’s sexual behaviour have been criticised for creating a format which slut shames young women, makes young men appear to be perverts, presents a heteronormative tone (while pretending to be right on about sexuality), and generally suggests sex is a scary issue – for both young people and their parents. It harks back to an old fashioned view (explored in depth here) that if we had to deliver sex education we might as well make it as offputting as possible to dissuade young people from considering trying it. Aside from this being limited, it is also disempowering. And it shifts topics that young people may not necessarily be seeing as a negative, into a problem. Although in this case dressing it up as a ‘sex positive’ series.
The phrase that put me off supporting the programme most was ‘Sex is the most important thing in a teenager’s life’. It may surprise you, but I profoundly disagree. ‘Sex’ may be important to some teens some of the time, but not to all teens all the time. For many young people the most important thing in their lives may be their friends, their schooling, hobbies or sports, their pets, their faith, music or a whole slew of other stuff I’m probably to old and boring to know about.
Indeed when you talk to young people, often what they are interested in is being in a relationship, being close to someone (either in the short or long term). They may certainly have questions about ‘sex’, and have a range of feelings attached to it – curiosity, anxiety, and excitement. But they will also have other questions that go beyond the mechanics of intercourse.
The majority of young people (2/3 of the UK population) do not have ‘sex’ (at least defined as penis in vagina intercourse) until they are 16 or over (the UK’s age of consent). Many young people aged under 18 have not have sex or a relationship. Those having sex at a very young age tend to be more vulnerable due to numerous reasons (covered here) and are of particular concern to educators, healthcare staff and youth workers.
When you talk to people who deliver sex and relationships education via schools or youth groups, those who are working ethically and appropriately are not trying to convince young people sex is the most important thing in their lives. Indeed, they are usually stressing to young people the importance of having many interests, and encouraging them to delay sex. Alongside tackling wider problems or opportunities facing young people (like schooling, home issues etc). Critics of sex education often argue that talking about sex encourages early experimentation, which is not accurate. However, you can see why critics get worried when young people are being encouraged to view sex as the cornerstone of their entire lives, when for many it isn’t (at least not all the time).
From the calls for respondents the programme ‘teen’ has been defined as young people aged 16+ (or in some cases 18-20). Meaning the focus of the series is better described as being aimed at ‘young adults’.
Setting up a post watershed series (screened at 10pm) aimed at ‘teens’ but really meaning over 16s raises issues over what topics will be covered. Working with young people on sex and relationships issues reveals lots of diversity. You may find a nine year old asks a question that seems very ‘adult’ while a fourteen year old wants to know something that you’d expect a much younger child to be aware of. Part of the skill in working with young people (as it is with adults) is pitching what is discussed at their level, within their comfort zone. Not talking about issues they are not yet confident to understand, or that may be beyond their comprehension or are age inappropriate.
There is always a dilemma in education and advice giving about to provide information that does not patronise young people nor decide for them what they ‘ought’ to know. Young people have a right to sex and relationships education, but when television programmes muddled entertainment and advice (ignoring the latter for the sake of the former) this can mean young people either get information that is not useful, or are presented with concepts that may not be appropriate to their needs.
My worry with this programme is the topics selected for the series were chosen to attract an older audience, rather than truly deliver sex information to teens based on issues young people really want answers to.
It is important to stress I only had involvement at the early stages of development, when practitioners were being approached to be part of the series or find potential participants. I don’t know whether the focus of the programme has altered since, but reading pre-reviews of the series suggests concerns myself and others had with the series have not been resolved.
According to press coverage, in the first show we will meet a woman called Michelle whose 17-year-old daughter Rachel got pregnant last year, is sexually active, but ‘refuses’ to go on the pill. Already we can see the cards being stacked against the mother and the daughter. The danger of such programming is it becomes an opportunity for audiences to judge others who are not fitting particular expected roles. Worryingly there is often a class and race based subtext to this kind of media coverage where audiences are invited to judge chavvy youth or those from ethnic minorities or different faiths.
Other press discussions of what we can expect from the programme, from sex tips to ideas about techniques suggests the focus is a primarily adult one – but one that is also problematic. Adult sex advice (from the media and self help market) is preoccupied with positions and performance. Where ‘perfect’ sex is something to continually aspire to, is measured by how much you do it (not what you do), and where orgasms are something you ‘achieve’ not ‘experience’. It is a space where relationships are usually defined as monogamous (usually heterosexual but sometimes lesbian or gay sexuality is acknowledged). It is not a place where diverse sexualities are talked about in depth – or if any kink or alternative sexualities are focused on it is usually in a fairly sanitised or problematised way.
Sex for grownups (in the mainstream media and popular culture) excludes those who can’t fit into size 10 sexy lingerie, afford the latest sex toy, or whose bodies can’t mould themselves into 101 different positions. It is not a place for people with disabilities to have a voice, nor for those who are Trans, queer or asexual to speak out. If you are single you are allowed to be sexual so long as you can talk (albeit not very explicitly) about friends with benefits, or better still indicate you are trying your hardest to get into a relationship.
Many researchers, therapists and sex educators feel the stifling mainstream depictions of sex and lack of adventure and exploration – and absence of focus on communication – is a problem for adults who want to experience enjoyable sexual encounters or relationships. As a result, the aim of teaching young people to view sex and relationships in more diverse ways is to overcome many of the bad advice aimed at adults, or at least develop the critical thinking and life skills to see through the commercialised, pressurised and frequently unrealistic versions of sex currently on offer in mainstream popular culture.
It is therefore worrying the ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’, rather than tackling what ‘sex’ might be and how young people may look forward to experiencing it, may just serve up a predictable platter of Cosmo-esque sex tips. This is not what youth-focused sex and relationships education should be.
The media frequently distorts the teaching of sex and relationships. This can frighten parents and disempower teachers. Yet with programmes that provide unrealistic ideas about advice giving for young people this could easily give parents the wrong impression, suggesting as the norm activities that are not considered appropriate within school based or healthcare settings. It would be damaging if a programme that misrepresented both sex education and sexual health care contributed to a backlash against supporting parents, schools and healthcare providers from giving relationships information to young people.
Parents already worry about tackling sex and relationships issues with young people although they play a fundamental role in educating children. Media coverage that exaggerates the concerns of young people, presents an overly sexualised focus, or does not tackle the more mundane (and less ‘sexy’) questions young people may have can do two things. Firstly it can suggest to parents they need to be fearful for their child (and their potential sexual interests), and secondly imply the issues their child wants to know about are completely outside a parent’s ability to tackle. Neither are empowering for parents or young people. It is perhaps for this reason parents have already started speaking out about the programme.
What is not clear is why young people and parents wanted to participate in The Joy of Teen Sex. Were they seeking attention or fame? Or did they need advice? If it’s the latter it would be useful to know what led them to get this through a television programme rather than existing services – particularly if people had encountered barriers with existing education or healthcare on sex and relationships issues. Were people unaware of, or unable to access existing sources of free help and information? What about the participants in the programme? How representative are they of young people generally – and how many would-be participants for the show were not included? Why was that? It would be interesting to see journalists follow up on these questions, rather than just inviting us to gawp at and judge the participants in this series.
I have not seen the programme, so I my concerns could be completely misplaced. I will watch it and see if it manages to provide accurate and empowering information. I sincerely hope it does, but I am not confident this will happen. As a supporter of mediated sex advice it infuriates me programmes continue to be made where experts are ignored, where unethical practice is permitted, where young people are not involved, and where the end result does not educate but may well disempower parents, teachers and young people. It represents an endless stream of programming that wastes time, money and opportunities to share accurate advice people so desperately want.
I am always happy to support programmes that cover sex and relationships in an affirmative and diverse way, that move beyond ‘sex’ as intercourse, positions, techniques or infections to answer the questions young people really have in a sensitive way.
I did not feel The Joy of Teen Sex was offering this (although as already mentioned I am happy to be proved wrong). When I was asked to participate as a presenter and to refer young people to the researchers I refused. I felt the TV researchers were not listening to the feedback I shared on how they might make this programme more accurate and empowering, or my concerns about the wellbeing of young people and parents.
Equally worryingly the researchers warned me and other educators not to criticise or question them in public (i.e. on Twitter) or share our concerns about the series.
When a TV company commissioned to make a youth focused programme tells practitioners concerned about young people to keep silent, you really have to wonder who they are trying to benefit.
The Joy of Teen Sex is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm (GMT)Tweet