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.