sexuality

The Importance Of Body Image In Sex Education

This August, my sister and I were lucky enough to spend a few days at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When making a list of all the shows we had seen, I realised that we had both sought out shows exploring body image and body confidence. It was only after leaving the Edinburgh bubble that I realised the importance of including body image in the conversation on sexuality because these two things usually go hand in hand.

All the women in these shows talked about their body confidence, or in some instances, their lack of body confidence, and how it had stopped them feeling desirable. In one show, a woman discussed being teased and belittled by a group of men on a night out because of her size, and on another occasion, she described how a man had asked her boyfriend why he was with her.

This type of harassment is both specific to plus size women and a continuation of the harassment women receive on a daily basis; from catcalls to men asking us to smile on cue. In our society, women’s bodies are seen to be offered up to the public for judgement and affirmation. Many of the shows I saw in Edinburgh this summer combatted this idea by encouraging women to reclaim their bodies for themselves. 

In one particularly brilliant show, Hotter by Sweaty Theatre, Mary Higgins and Ell Potter use personal experiences, interviews and verbatim theatre to explore body image, sex and sexuality. In a Guardian interview, their show is described as an “interrogation of the female body, its fluids, desires and changes”. In a voice-over, women say what makes them feel sexy, what makes them feel heat, what an orgasm feels like and what their favourite song to dance to is.

As I was watching the show, I felt accepted, laughing in acknowledgement of awkward anecdotes, and taking joy in the stories being shared, however halfway through I felt a deep sadness and I couldn’t understand it. It was only when I was thinking about what to write for this’s year’s sex education week that this sadness made sense, and I knew what I wanted to talk about. I felt sad that for the first time, at the tender age of twenty-six, because I wanted to apologize to my body and look after it in the same way I try to look after my mind.

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I was taken back to being fifteen, sat in a geography classroom having the allotted hour-long sex education lesson before lunchtime. I thought how different my sexual experiences would be if this show had been part of my sex education, how I would have treated my body over the past ten years if I had made the connection between my own relationship with my body and my sexuality sooner.

As with most sex education, girls’ and boys’ bodies are represented as biological machines, going through the motions that we call puberty. I learned about body hair, periods, the sperm and the egg, and for split second, contraception. I was not taught how to respect the other person’s body and their boundaries, let alone my own. We were all asked to write down all the words we knew for penis, vagina and breasts but not what we thought of our own body parts. I was taught what sex was but not how my body would respond to arousal and how I could feel desirable or what I might find desirable in another person. As I got older, I never thought about the sex education I had received unless it was to realise how lacking it was; I wasn’t able to use it as a road map.

In my teenage years, I felt as if I had been left out in the wild looking for signposts. Books and films were used as a way to see where my desires lay. However, I was still acting as if this desire was something my mind was creating; the thought of my body being a factor embarrassed me, I didn’t want to pay attention to it. I also knew that all the questions I had about my body were making me feel isolated and confused. It was only when I discovered feminism in the form of Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman a few years later, that my body started to make sense to me.

A unique selling point of the show Hotter was that Mary and Ell were best friends who had been a couple. Throughout the show, the audience caught glimpses of this intimate relationship as a result of its many iterations. One of the most moving moments in the show was when Mary and Ell read out letters they had written to themselves, thanking their bodies and promising to love them as best they can. At a point in Ell’s letter, she addressed Mary directly, thanking her for loving and desiring her body, making Ell love her body more in the process; ‘you always loved my tummy, in a way I never could’.

At the end of the show, both women admitted that they were trying to appreciate their bodies more. They wished they could get to the end of the hour and tell the audience they loved every inch of themselves, but like all the women in the room, they knew this was a big ask. Instead, they ended the show with a promise, to treat their bodies better, asking the audience to do the same and inviting us on stage for a final dance.

As for many women, my relationship with my body has been not been easy, I spent early teenage years ignoring it and my late teens/early twenties learning about it and starting to take pride in it. After watching Hotter, I thought about what I might say to my body in my letter and again I went back to being fifteen and feeling confused about the body I was growing into.

If I could add anything to the sex ed curriculum, it would be to ask teenage girls to write a letter to themselves.  I would ask them to write about what they love about their bodies, who they desire and what desire feels like for them. If girls are in control of what they think about their bodies from a young age, maybe they can find the joy in their bodies and sexuality sooner, therefore having a better chance of happy and safe sexual experiences. We need to teach girls how to drive their own body before they allow another person to take the wheels.

Words by Lara Scott for September Sex Education Week 2019 on Anthem Online.
Image by Izzy Romilly via The Guardian/Ell Potter and Mary Higgins.

TV, Film & Sex Education

TV & Film have always been part of our sex education, and now in 2018 some writers are realising their responsibility and the power they have to change the narrative.

On the rare occasion that society discusses sex education, and the papers are full of opinion pieces, the word that always gets thrown around is ‘pornography’; specifically the dangers of its accessibility. The government, teachers and parents are so terrified of what their children are seeing online, that a debate on sex education in parliament will usually turn into a debate on pornography. While this is an important debate to be had, and we are in a unique time when people are using the internet for everything from banking to dating, in all these debates and articles I can’t help but think that society is missing a big part of the puzzle.

To access porn, you have to know where to look, you have to google and browse and be an active user, you are alone in a room. On the other hand, media within the entertainment industry will always be a communal event. You sit down with family to watch the new Sunday night drama or go with friends to see the latest film release. What always follows is conversation between family, friends, and the wider audience, which thanks to social media is more expansive and immediate.

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Porn is not where people go to find great plot devices, the end goal is very simple, and sex is viewed in the abstract. Whereas TV and film in its nature use sex as a plot device and even when a sex scene is clearly put in for titillation (take Game of Thrones for example), the writers will still argue its relevance. In the last seven years or so I have seen a shift in the stories being told; from Lena Dunham’s Girls to Pheobe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, there is a need for the narrative around sex to change and for women to control the story.

Pheobe Waller-Bridge has said in many interviews that she wrote the original play Fleabag because she wanted to talk about sex. In 2012 when Lena Dunham’s new show Girls aired in the US and the UK, all people could talk about was the awkward sex scenes. Many journalists described them as explicit and awkward, however, there had been more explicit scenes depicted on TV before Girls appeared on our screens. Game of Thrones was being commissioned for its third season, a show in which it was normal to see at least four sex scenes in one episode and seemingly, an actress couldn’t get through an episode without at least once walking into a room of men, having forgotten to have got dressed. The sex scenes in Girls were new and interesting because Lena Dunham was showing her own experiences of sex and many women responded to this with glee because it allowed them to have the conversations that society deemed taboo.

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Caitlin Moran says in her book How To Be a Woman, “the sexual imagery of teenage years is the most potent you’ll ever have. It dictates desires for the rest of your life. One flash of a belly being kissed now is worth a thousand hard-core fisting scenes in your thirties”. Up to a certain age, and I am aware that age is getting younger, parents can control what their children see on the internet and to a certain extent what they see on their TV screens thanks to the 9pm watershed, however, we can’t control everything.

Remember the time when you were younger, on the brink of adolescence, and woke up past your bed to go to the toilet? On your way back to bed you heard the noise of the TV and the chatter of adults, and intrigue led you down the stairs. You poked your head over the bannister and saw your parents and their friends glued to the telly, then you looked up to the screen to see an image that you knew not to be looking at. Laying in bed, your mind boggles and so many questions arise, but you don’t know who to ask. It feels like being on the last word of a crossword puzzle and knowing on seeing the answer it will make sense, but at that moment you feel lost. Instead of talking to your parents and friends out of embarrassment, you seek out the same image in books and films. It takes you years to finally have those conversations with friends and eventually partners when sex has become a reality. Only then do you start to question the scenes you watched and the depictions of sex in your favourite films.

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Now, in 2018, we are having those conversations, whether that be the writers of The Affair making sure every sex scene pushes the narrative along, or Rachel Weisz discussing the importance of the sex between the two female protagonists in her new film Disobedience. I truly think that one of the many reasons famous actresses who have the money and the platform are turning to producing is so they can control the narratives they are telling about female sexuality. Sex is still a taboo subject, and we still cut off conversations with the excuse of being British, but we can’t shut down conversation and then worry about the lack of sex education children are receiving, or what they are seeing when they turn on the TV.

In the wake of the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, the industry is trying to be more inclusive and give everyone a voice. People are asking for the narrative to change and the choice of stories to grow. The conversations about sex in the last year have revolved around power and abuse and what we want the next generation of women to know and experience. If we want to carry on making change for the better, and the film and TV industry wants to take responsibility, it needs to take sex seriously.

Just as we need diversity in the stories we tell, we need diversity in sex scenes and the relationships we see. Teenage girls and boys should see LGBTQ+ stories more than just once a year, and be shown different relationships and the multiple reasons people choose to have sex with each other. Our government, parents, teachers and most importantly our storytellers can’t be scared of answering questions and giving children the power of information and choice.  

 

Words: Lara Scott
Images: BBC/Two Brothers Ltd, Jessica Miglio/HBO, Sky Atlantic

 

The Absence of LGBTQ+ Sex Education

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At the start of 2017, our government blocked compulsory LGBTQ+ sex and relationship education. On reading about this decision, and being asked to write on sex education for Anthem, I realised how lacking my own sex education was in the mid-noughties. It is a crying shame that my friends and I were so ill informed back then, let alone as teenagers are now in 2017.

We were taught about biology, not pleasure, and definitely not consent. It was very male centric, with the attitude that ‘boys will be boys’. Girls were taught to allow boys to experience these new feelings and to be kind to them if they get an unwelcome erection in your presence. Female masturbation, however, was an afterthought; described to us using a video of a woman on an exercise bike (which made exercise bikes very confusing for a time). 

Being taught sex education in a Catholic school meant that the word ‘contraception’ was mentioned once in reference to the use of a condom, but no instructions on how to use one. Again sex was seen as a means to an end, that end being babies. We were not taught about consent, what it is to be in a healthy relationship, porn, sexting, mental and physical abuse, and I never once heard the word clitoris.  

I was taught that sex was all about the sperm fertilising the egg, and a woman’s main role was as a mother. This left no room for discovery or intimacy, certainly not if you identified as anything other than heterosexual. We were taught sex education with the same attitude that my great grandmother had about LGBTQ people. When my grandma informed her that there were lesbians in the WRENS (Women of the Royal Naval Service), her mother replied: ‘”Don’t be silly, women don’t do that”. She didn’t even think it was possible. When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

When I had my sex education, sex seemed a far off thing as the boys at my school either annoyed me or scared me. At this point, an attraction to women didn’t seem to be an option. It was not until I was twenty, and watching The L Word that this part of life would make sense to me. Coming out as bisexual in 2016 put a lot of things into perspective, especially how society views sex, and how culture comments on it. I was looking for representations of myself and found them to be few and far between.

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On researching the reasons behind this absence in sex education, the common train of thought behind not teaching LGBTQ inclusive sex ed was the worry behind promoting the lifestyle. This thought process is wrong on many levels, the worst being that like all prejudices, it puts one person’s life above another; it teaches that heterosexuality is the norm. I mean, when was the last time someone came out as straight? I have read many articles and watched many videos on heteronormativity, and can see that this is where the absence stems from. From the government right down to schools and parents, people assume people’s sexual orientation, therefore assuming LGBTQ+ are in the minority. This leads to exclusion, and people feeling devalued. I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

I have never understood why when teaching teenagers about sex and education, you wouldn’t teach them about every colour of the rainbow, no pun intended; it is of invaluable importance to their education. If I was an MP, a teacher, or a parent I would want thought-out, informative, joyful lessons on the subject that required more than just an hour before lunch. I would want young adults to learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, pleasurable sex, safe sex, attraction, affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community, dating, online dating, and the myth of virginity.

As a graduate of English and drama, I would also discuss how our culture views sex; the difference between a sex scene and sex, the difference between pornography and sex. I would teach people where to find LGBTQ+ representation, where to find feminist representation, and what it means to be a feminist, especially when it comes to sex. When it comes to sex we don’t give teenagers (especially teenage girls) the credit they deserve. Your teenage years can be the hardest as a period of constant pressure, questions and uncertainties about all that life can offer. The least adults can do is give them some certainty, and show them that they understand. School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

School is meant to be a place where we learn about the world, about ourselves, and what we can become. I came out at the age of 24 – a whole decade after I learnt about how a sperm fertilises an egg. I had ten years to read all the sexy books and watch all the sexy films, and I had The L Word to confirm my bisexuality. I still think of the joy I missed out on, the stupid things I could have avoided, the days spent questioning and not acting. I think of that anxious lonely girl or boy who doesn’t have the strength to wait ten years. What if one person telling them their feelings are valid, or hearing that ‘love is love’ gives them the permission to start finding joy?

 

Words by Lara Scott
Image courtesy of Showtime
Part of the September Sex Education Week, 2017.