Sex education in high school brings back horrible memories of the embarrassment of talking about s e x with teachers and peers, whether because of the rambunctious outburst at the mere mention of an orgasm or the dreaded lesson involving a condom and a cucumber. However, was it (vaginal diagrams and all) really that bad? Sophia Smith-Galer, who was a reporter for the BBC and is currently Senior News Reporter for VICE World News, certainly thinks so, which is the main reason why she has not only taken to TikTok to address the issue, but has also written a book - Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century - that has been lauded by The Times newspaper as a ‘manifesto of how to make sex education better’.
The book lists chapters that cover different areas that the sex education curriculum in England does not. Smith-Galer challenges general myths and misconceptions about sex, and sexual health and wellbeing as well as asking probing questions about society’s general attitudes to sex.
One of the things that you mentioned, and it was a bit of a theme, was the language used in discourses about sex. Do you think that language reflects a society’s culture, or do you think the culture shapes the way that language is used?
“You’re right to balance those two things against each other. This isn’t something that I’m, by any means, an expert in, but as someone who is curious about languages I’ve spent my time wanting to learn if that is the case it would be a very enticing idea to think that words impact how we perceive and believe in things. And what would be more likely the case is that it might have some influence, but in many cases it simply reflects our world back at us. It reflects the society we live in, rather than dictates it.
When I bring up words that may have fallen out of use or words that have come into use and you sit and think about why we use certain words, ideas that we hold and consider to be complete truisms are challenged, and that’s a good thing.
I mean we can certainly say for sure that patriarchy and language is a thing; we know that that has influenced a lot of vocabulary in a lot of different languages. We know that sexism is an inherent part of language because sexism is an inherent part of society, so of course our language is going to reflect that ugliness back at us. But, as a linguist, those things have always been interesting to me and come to mind and it made complete sense to drip-feed examples of sexist language that we take for granted throughout the book.”
I came across something - the virgin paradox - which is an idea that men seek seemingly ‘pure’ women but also expect them to be sexually alluring and I just wanted to have your thoughts about it.
“The pressures that are placed on all of us are often ridiculous. Obviously in this particular instance, you’re generally speaking about cis women and heterosexual, cis women, because it’s relational to their, as you said, experience with men, and expectations that the male partners hold of them. But the idea is that some expectations cannot co-exist. What I hope I highlight in the ‘virginity myth’ chapter is how the ‘virginity myth’ manifests when there is a complete absence or disregard of comprehensive sex education because when you do have a better education and the better understanding of how sex fits into our lives and fits into our sexual wellbeing we have more realistic expectations of ourselves and others.
Also, it’s not only that these expectations aren’t fit for our sexual health and wellbeing outcomes, but they’re also not fit for the modern world. They still unfairly police female sexuality and I think the paradox you’re describing in particular is a very contemporary wrestle. It’s what happens when you think you have sexual liberation and sexual freedom, but many attitudes are still rooted in old-fashioned ideas still exist, and when they meet they don’t coexist they don’t align. However, it’s worth noting that if a man subscribes to the virgin paradox, I bet you that that man also holds really damaging ideals of what ideal masculinity looks like and that he will probably be doing as much harm to himself as he may be doing to any female partners he has.”
My thoughts on the sexless myth chapter are that there's even a disconnect within the LGBTQ+ community, as you’ve mentioned, about not understanding the intricacies surrounding asexuality and those who identify as such.
“A lot of asexual people that I spoke to talked about the antagonisation that they had experienced when talking to friends within the LGBTQ+ community. This is just is kind of just sad because you think and hope that as a heterosexual woman a queer space is a safe space and the idea that people within that space may not feel like that is heart breaking and a stone wall. I think a number of groups now recognise this and are doing a lot a lot more to tackle the issue. I see some people who, when talking about asexuality on the internet are narrow minded and even nasty. They are often the same people who speak with the same nastiness about trans and non-binary identities.
There is a common assumption that sexual attraction and desire are the norm with no alternative. We are never taught about people who don't experience these feelings, or experience sexual attraction on a different spectrum, and obviously that's going to lead to people not understanding each other and feeling really isolated and misunderstood. So yeah, that was a really important chapter for me to write.”
You state at the very beginning of the book, “I'm not the one asking these questions” but you seem to be like a figurehead for the younger generation of 16–17-year-olds who want to know the answers to these important questions. Do you do feel like there's a responsibility on you to ask these questions?
“I feel like the lack of good quality sex education and the problems that come from it is newsworthy. When you’re a journalist you're so used to reporting on things objectively but when you have personal experience of something that can give you additional insight and can help you get to the nub of the issue. It's remarkable how people in positions of editorial and commissioning power who are usually of the older demographic, and often seem to belong to identities that are less likely to experience sexual problems and therefore don't think it's newsworthy. A lot of my work involves banging at the door of the algorithm and banging at the door of editors’ officers until they realise there are multiple stories in this area.”
Finally, what do you think makes a completely inclusive, comprehensive sex education that helps younger people understand their sexuality and relationships?
“There’s some interesting international guidance to look at from UNESCO that tells you all the bits and bobs of comprehensive sex education. My one little addition to that would be: just remember that the reason most of us are taught sex education in its current form is because the system still revolves around risk mitigation to prevent pregnancy and the spread of STIs. But when you are an adult having sexual and romantic relationships you're not spending 24/7 thinking about the negative aspects of sexual relationships. You’re thinking about joy, you're thinking about connection, you're thinking about looking at a sort of tapestry of experiences sexual and non-sexual and that's not what the education system is set up to tell us about … as a result, a lot of the information we get is quite negative and can be cause fear and anxiety.
I spend a lot of time following accounts of queer people and non-binary people because I want to learn. I have friends who are queer, and nonbinary and I want to make sure that I fully understand them as people. It's been a joy like to learn about phrases like gender euphoric, gender euphoria and this kind of positivity around sex which is very different to the messages conveyed through traditional sex education.
For me, sex positivity is far broader and informative in the way it also acknowledges trauma. To be sex positive is also to talk about psychosexual problems, so it's about talking about everything: the good and the bad, but discussion of the bad should always be focused on solutions and any discussion about sex should always be about empathy and understanding.”
Sex education in England still has a long way to come before we can send our young people out into the world and feel sure that they are confident and well-informed. Sophia’s book has been a great help to me in understanding the “tapestry” of experiences surrounding the growth of sexual maturity. Losing It should be used in schools to help students better learn and understand the full breadth that sex education has to offer; from sexual wellbeing and loving relationships to not feeling sexual attraction at all. A comprehensive education should be available to everyone so I don’t know about you but I’m Losing It over this book!