Richardson contra pornographiam

225px-anna_richardson

And so we’ve had Channel 4 bringing back their smash hit Sex Education Show, starring Anna Richardson, or “that mad sex woman” as she’s now known up our way. I dealt in passing with the last series, but here I just want to ponder the show in a bit more detail, and some of the issues it’s brought up.

Firstly, what’s right with it. A lot of the show’s success does really depend on the presenter, and la Richardson is tailor-made for this sort of thing. She’s no-nonsense without being unsympathetic, and has a natural ability for talking to young people. She also seems game for just about any wacky stunt the producers throw her way, which is maybe why I do have some misgivings about it. The thrust of the show may be educational, but this is C4, so the powers that be (I’m guessing middle-aged blokes in the commissioning department) want it to be Phun. That means a self-conscious wackiness often veering into Eurotrash territory, which does sometimes clash with the serious tone in other segments.

But maybe that’s fitting, because this series is billed as Sex Education vs. Pornography. We’re talking here about how the rampant pornographication of popular culture rubs up against the traditional prudishness and prurience of respectable British culture. As our host kept repeating, 90% of teenagers had seen porn and 30% claimed to be using it for educational purposes. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that things have changed qualitatively since the days when teenage boys would pass around top-shelf magazines, and the Auntie Jayne column in Escort was about as near to sex education as anything you could find.

Of course, the net has changed things massively in terms of quantity. Porn is much more accessible now, in no more time than it takes a teenager to click “Yes, I am 18” on a computer screen. And yes, much more extreme material is readily available online, stuff that fifteen or twenty years ago you would really need to search for. Although, from the sniggering of the boys talking about bestiality or coprophilia, and bearing in mind what teenage boys are like, I suspect that their downloading of these clips and passing them round on their mobiles has more to do with the gross-out factor than any actual arousal, the same way kids of a previous generation used to dare each other to watch video nasties.

And yet, this huge amount of explicit material still goes hand in hand with stunning ignorance in matters of sexual health and even basic biology. It was amusing to notice that the teenage boys, voracious consumers of porn though they may be, still didn’t know how to locate the clitoris. Probably that says something about most porn’s lack of attention to female arousal. Other clues are that teen pregnancy remains at very high levels, and chlamydia is almost endemic amongst British teenagers, when you would expect them to be better informed than ever. There is probably more sex education in schools than ever before, but it clearly isn’t doing the job; condoms are readily available, but kids don’t seem to know how to use them. Whether this is the crisis it’s hyped up as, I don’t know, but it seems obvious that something is wrong somewhere. I suspect, though, that it’s got at least as much to do with the culture as the availability of porn.

This, of course, is where Richardson and her crack team of health professionals come in, with frank advice for the kids. A particular highlight is seeing their faces when confronted with graphic pictures of the outcome of gonorrhea or syphilis, a shock tactic that military doctors have applied to good effect for decades. But it’s this more worthy material that doesn’t sit too comfortably with the wackiness, and perhaps demonstrates why Antoine de Caunes isn’t presenting.

It is true that the influence of porn can be seen, particularly when it comes to body image. 45% of the girls surveyed were unhappy with their breasts. Some 27% of the boys admitted to being insecure about their cocks, and presumably the other 73% were lying. It was predictable, if depressing, that when the boys were shown pictures of ten pairs of breasts, all of them chose the single fake pair as the most attractive. It was much more depressing when the girls did likewise – with all the eating disorders about, they really don’t need more unrealistic images to live up to. And, as one might expect, everyone regarded pubic hair as somehow gross and abnormal – not something that you start out with and can choose to remove or not, according to taste.

There was, mind you, one of the stunts that worked quite well. This was when our foxy presenter got a porn star makeover. This involved fake nails; fake eyelashes; fake tan; about a yard of hair extensions; waist painfully corseted; tits hoisted up to throat level; and enough mascara to put Alice Cooper to shame. And all topped off with an outfit straight out of Footballers’ Wives. This led Anna to say, “I feel like a slag.” Then she went out on the street, noticed the stares and whistles, and started to see why some women get a kick out of dressing that way. Her insouciance lasted until the vox pops, when the punters said that she looked “up for it”, and, on being shown a picture of her in her normal state, that they found that much more attractive. Aww. (And they were right, too.)

What was interesting about that was that the vox-popped punters were older – not middle-aged necessarily, but past school age. And this is why I tend to be a little more sanguine about whether there’s a crisis. Get together a group of fifteen-year-olds, ask them about sex, and you’ll get all sorts of strange ideas and attitudes. By the time they’re 25, most of them will have outgrown most of those attitudes. The question is, whether they do themselves any damage in the interim, and this is where decent education comes in. I have a feeling Anna Richardson may be trying to turn the tide back, but one can only salute her indefatigability.

11 Comments

  1. Fellow Traveller said,

    April 7, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    What crisis? That they’ll all fuck each other senseless? So what? They could have constant orgies in the streets and it would have zero effect on anything (except perhaps postal deliveries).

    As for outgrowing these attitudes I perceive the older generation (30 and even 40 somethings fuelled by Viagra) as ‘worse’ in their activities if anything. Teenagers at least have a kind of naive innocence in their sexual exploration. The older crowd ought to know better, they’ve got responsibilities and boy do they like to crow about them, but it doesn’t stop them dogging in a Newcastle car park on a Friday night. The oldies seem obsessed with getting their end away before its too late – the grave awaits – a desperate atmosphere envelops frantic couplings.

    I sense a lot of projection in the depiction of ‘out of control’ libidinous teenagers along with a strong dose of envy.

    Of course they will do themselves damage. Love hurts. You can’t avoid pain. At the end, the wounds will be the only thing holding you together.

  2. malachi said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    You know the difference between a clitoris and a golf ball, don’t you? A man will spend twenty minutes looking for a golf ball.

  3. Mark P said,

    April 7, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Actually, Fellow Traveller, the programme didn’t spend much time bemoaning the fact that teenagers have sex or might be having more sex than years ago. It didn’t even try to make a case that watching people have sex on the internet is bad per se.

    Its argument – in so far as there was a coherent argument – was broadly that: (A) It’s a bad thing for teenagers to be getting their sex education from pornography. (B) It’s a bad thing that quite a few of the same teenagers are watching “extreme” and sometimes illegal pornography. (C) Very widespread and frequent pornography viewing is leaving large numbers of teenagers, who often don’t have the life experience to evaluate what they are seeing with a bit of perspective, with, lets just say less than welcome views about their own bodies and about the role of women more generally. (D) Rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs are very high and the fact that the sex teenagers are witnessing is almost entirely condom free may be one contributory factor to this.

    I honestly can’t see how anyone, whatever side they take in debates about pornography more generally, could reasonably object to much of what the programme was saying in between slightly wacky stunts.

  4. Wednesday said,

    April 8, 2009 at 5:41 am

    It is true that the influence of porn can be seen, particularly when it comes to body image. 45% of the girls surveyed were unhappy with their breasts.

    I don’t think the “influence of porn” should be overstated in this regard. Girls are unhappy with their bodies from a very young age, long before they ever see porn (well most of them anyway). And historically this predates the porn explosion. I’m sure I’ve said this before here but I’m personally convinced that magazines aimed at women do a lot more damage to our self-esteem; they’re more widely seen by women and also tend to promote an even more unrealistic body image than porn does.

  5. Dave Semple said,

    April 8, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Well, I learned where the clitoris was via FHM. When I was about 15, I began reading that magazine – which, while not quite as lurid as Nuts or Zoo, is pornography – and from it learned all sorts of things about sex. Including that the G-spot can be in irregular places for different girls. I haven’t read FHM since I was about 18, but they weren’t behind the door about how to get a girl off in those days.

    *shrugs* I doubt that is representative of most of the tits-and-bums stuff lads read these days, however.

  6. McGazz said,

    April 8, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    I think the idea that porn creates unrealistic (and incredibly misogynist) expectations of what sex should be like has a lot of truth in it. The stories about teenage girls upset because, at the end of their first sexual experience, their boyfriend pulled out and ejaculated on their face (because he thought that was what you were supposed to do) aren’t all apocryphal.

  7. harpymarx said,

    April 8, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    “And historically this predates the porn explosion. I’m sure I’ve said this before here but I’m personally convinced that magazines aimed at women do a lot more damage to our self-esteem; they’re more widely seen by women and also tend to promote an even more unrealistic body image than porn does.”

    Wednesday is spot-on there. Indeed those women’s magazines are appalling yet more accessible and visible to women than porn. And these mags are full of contradictory messages, one page will have an article filled with horror about an eating distress like anorexia and then the next page will have snidey comments about some woman celeb who has developed ‘curves’… And there will be page after page on the ‘ideal body’, how to have a ‘successful orgasm’ along with how to pleeeaaassse your man (oh, and did I say heterosexual in content?). It is never about women doing what they want when they want and how they look is up to them… Nope, it is all about commodfying the perfect and ideal body which women are expected to aspire to. No wonder so many women have low self-esteem as society is saturated with so-called ‘perfection’..
    And don’t get me going on sex when it comes to these mags… Sheesh….

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 10, 2009 at 5:40 am

    That’s spot on about the women’s mags and the images they promote. In fact, I vaguely remember a men’s mag voting Kate Winslet the sexiest woman in Hollywood at exactly the same time the women’s mags were all banging on about her weight… And yet, there are millions of women who seem to lap this up. What women do to each other…

  9. Madam Miaow said,

    April 10, 2009 at 11:10 am

    … Richardson and her crack team …

    Fghnrfghhhhh!!! Oh, Splinty, you are a scream.

    On body image, I am perfectly happy with my cock. Even if it is attached to a chap.

  10. Wednesday said,

    April 10, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    The stories about teenage girls upset because, at the end of their first sexual experience, their boyfriend pulled out and ejaculated on their face (because he thought that was what you were supposed to do) aren’t all apocryphal.

    Well, maybe not all apocryphal, but I would certainly be sceptical of any claims that it happens frequently. For one thing it doesn’t even happen all the time in porn. For another, it seems to me to involve a degree of self-control that teenage boys having their first sexual experience aren’t exactly famous for.

    I wouldn’t imagine those who had never seen porn would be any more clued in as to what they were supposed to do, anyway.

  11. April 12, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    […] Calder Valley. Brave woman to have a fought so hard against the NL machine! Splintered Sunrise on Anna Richardson (check out the comments as well). And come back soon […]


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