On Monday, I leave for a week’s research trip to Mumbai. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, and a big step in bringing a play tackling the challenges faced by young people in urban India to life.
The most amazing thing about it though is that my husband (of 15 years) is letting me go!
Now, before I am deafened by the collective outcry of my fellow Feminists, let me explain a thing or two.
I have not been out of the country for ten years. I have never travelled outside of Europe and the US, and even then hardly at all. I haven’t spent more than a night apart from my husband or kids in twelve years. We have never spent Valentine’s Day apart.
From this description, you might assume that I am a risk adverse, home-loving kind of woman, who lives her life very much in her husband’s shadow. I am not.
I’m a successful playwright, theatre maker and entrepreneur. Eleven years ago, I set up Peer Productions – a youth arts charity – and we reach in excess of 15,000 young people a year, employing a team of six permanent staff members. I am also studying for a PhD.
The thing is that I am also a special needs mum. My eldest daughter has severe brain damage and autism, and my youngest daughter too has developmental delays. Travelling, even within the UK, is a huge challenge and internationally, both practically and financially, impossible. Having disabled children is very expensive and Government benefits, whilst helpful, don’t come close to covering everything that they need. The mental load, the admin of constant appointments, form filling and fighting for their rights is exhausting and all consuming. The care required is extensive, and it is not currently really possible for one of us, on our own, to leave the house with both children.
When dealing with things for the children, I am regularly assumed to be a stay-at-home parent, who is readily available at all times. “Yes, I know we promised you your prescription and this is the fifth time you’ve come in, but could you just pop back later?” – With kids in tow, I cannot ‘pop’ anywhere.
Having disabled children strains relationships and, sadly, often fathers leave.
Going away for a week means leaving my husband to manage all of this on his own and that’s an enormous ask. Yes, we’ve booked in respite and we have carers coming to take some of the load, but ultimately the buck is going to stop with him. That’s why, when the opportunity first came up, I said no, as I couldn’t imagine being able to cope if it were me being left to my own devices.
He, however, is a better person than I am, and immediately wanted me to do this. He knew I really wanted it and he didn’t want to stand in my way.
Letting me go to India is an incredible gift and makes me so grateful for my marriage.
It talks about porn a lot, and it’s targeted at 13 year-olds.
Lots of people would view this as controversial, but with most boys accessing pornography online by eleven, sixteen year-old lads with erectile dysfunction and the prominence of a pervasive rape culture, I think what we’re doing is nothing less than a public service!
Regardless of whether it offends our sensibilities, or contradicts our views about childhood, all children are being exposed to pornography. Even those who have not actively looked will most likely have been added to social media groups where these type of videos are shared – and that’s before we even start to examine the pornification of the mainstream media. Messages which suggest that women and girls’ bodies are solely objects for male pleasure are everywhere.
From the tone of my writing, you might assume that you can tell some things about me. As you may suspect, I’m white, married, in my 30s, live in the Home Counties and am a mother. What you may not realise is that I have always been very sexually liberal, and consider myself to be body positive, sex positive and am openly bisexual. If you had asked me my views about pornography five years ago, I would have talked about our rights to express ourselves sexually, the long history of erotica and the need for women to create pornography of their own as an antidote to the prevalent male gaze. I would have dismissed any opposition to porn as a restriction of our liberties and a policing of women’s bodies.
So, what has changed?
While researching for this play, alongside talking to large numbers of young people aged 12-19 years, I have looked at quite a bit of porn – My job is weird sometimes! When I say porn, I mean mainstream, easily accessible free pornography available to any young person with a smart phone without filters, not ethical, feminist, pay-for-it niche sites. I typed the word ‘porn’ into Google and saw what popped up, which I’m guessing is what many curious young people do.
There is a vast array of material, which young people can click between in an instant.
Here’s what I discovered:
Categories: All porn sites catergorise their content, making it easier for users to find their personal preferences. Pornhub state that the most searched for term is overwhelmingly ‘teen’, with ‘milf’ and ‘lesbian’ coming in second and third. The fetishisation of youth is evident everywhere.
It is, of course, illegal to promote pornographic material featuring people under 18, but there are countless ‘barely legal’ images with young women who may or may not be of age. The brutal reality of these sites is that it is very difficult to know whether those taking part have consented, and are old enough to make those decisions.Even older performers largely subscribe to the hairless genital look, making young people think that their pubescent bodies are weird, ugly or dirty. Many young girls we talked to believed removing pubic hair to be cleaner – it isn’t.
With these catergories alone, we can see that porn normalises sexual behaviour in very young people and gives them unrealistic and destroyed views of what their bodies, and those of their partners, should look like.
Bodies: It’s about more than just body image. Many pro-porn campaigners will say that because porn promotes a variety of different body types (eg. different skin colours, sizes, ages), it is a highly inclusive art form. Whatever you are into, you will find. This is, to an extent, true, although there is still something of a “pornstar” look (i.e. boob job, no pubes) which dominates. However, what they are missing is the way in which porn assumes bodies are ready to be sexual at a moment’s notice.
Contemporary porn rarely includes any narrative, and largely excludes foreplay in its entirety. Many young women I know had miserable first sexual experiences, because they need to feel relaxed and that they need to feel turned on for their vaginas to become wet, in order to make penetration possible. Basic understanding of the female anatomy is sorely lacking. This is one of the things I have talked to lots of workshop groups about. Boys are always very quiet when I explain. They don’t want to hurt their partners, but due to watching porn, they assume that’s all there is to it.
Kinks: Everyone is different and unique; we don’t all like the same food or music so, it stands to reason, we don’t like our sex the same way either. Embracing our sexual preferences or kinks in an open and non-shaming way is great. However, mainstream internet pornography moves what would have been considered fetish or at least unusual sexual activity into the mainstream. I broke every rule in the sex educator’s handbook by talking about my own sex life when I told a group of 15 years-olds that I have never had anal sex. I made it clear that lots of people do and, if done safely by consenting adults of any gender or sexuality, it was normal and healthy, just not for me. Some of them were genuinely shocked. Anal sex is seen as so mainstream that girls are actually being labelled as weird or prudish if they don’t want to do it. I thought it was important for someone to tell them that not everyone does this, and they shouldn’t assume their partner wants this without asking first. They were genuinely surprised! It doesn’t stop there. Content of choking, strangling and multiple men with one woman, often simultaneously, are easily accessible too, and that’s really dangerous.
So yes, I have come to the conclusion that I would prefer it if young people weren’t watching porn, and that it distorts their view on sex and relationships dramatically. As we can’t stop this from happening, we need to talk to them about it.
As many of you will know, we are in the process of creating a new play about sex and relationships. It’s called Losing It, and it’s designed to teach young people all the stuff that conventional sex education misses out
– “There’s a bit more to it than sperm meets egg!”.
We have researched the play by working with young people and finding out what they really want to know. Thankfully, views have definitely moved on since I first started Peer Productions where, when touring our play The Homophobia Project, young audience members would often cheerfully share their terrifying views: gay people need to be cured, lesbians just need a good shag, perhaps we should hang them! Now, in almost every case, young people are at the very least tolerant of those who are LGB, often accepting and celebrating the diversity of who we fall in love with and choose to have sex with.
The young people we worked with felt that lesbian, gay and bisexual people were included in their experiences of sex education. On closer inspection, it seems that schools are actually doing well on explaining that lesbian, gay and bisexual people exist and have the same rights as straight people, including a right not to be persecuted. While this is not really the same thing as providing accessible sex education for all people regardless of to whom they are attracted, it is a step in the right direction.
Our play features characters in a same sex relationship who fall in love. That’s just for starters. By telling stories of, in this case, women who love women against a backdrop which is not about coming out, homophobia or the titillation of men, we are shifting the focus of the story to a narrative which we hope is more empowering for LGB young people. This 90-minute play can’t tell every story or do every bit of sex education. Each character’s story, however brief, is designed as a springboard for discussion in schools, with our comprehensive Teachers’ Pack providing valuable follow up lessons.
We’ve made a start on LGB – but what about T? The mainstream media seems to have just caught on that transgender people exist and we are starting to hear their stories in both theatrical and documentary forms. However, people who are Trans still experience multiple oppressions. They are more likely to experience hate-based violence and far more likely to commit suicide than their cisgender peers. Talking to young Trans people, they often feel completely excluded from sex education and this can lead to sexual risk taking. There is an undeniable power in telling Trans stories alongside those of their peers, and the impact of seeing yourself included in a play about sex and relationships is surely going to be a positive one. It’s a no brainer. I need to write a Trans character.
However, here’s the problem: I don’t have a Trans actor. Our charity recruits a team of actors for one year who work on all of our projects and receive free training. No Trans actors applied last year, so none are in the cohort. I thought about recruiting someone separately, but the logistics of this didn’t seems achievable or fair. Actors perform in our projects in exchange for comprehensive free training and support. A new actor coming in won’t have had that opportunity. I could start recruiting now and postpone the project for a year, but this isn’t practical as the project already has bookings, and the need for up-to-date comprehensive sex education is urgent and real. I could omit a Trans storyline, but then weave one back in next year when I have an actor who is Trans, but what if no one applies? What will it be like in the meantime if I put out a sex ed play without acknowledging the existence of Trans people? This play will reach around maybe 7000 young people this year and, with an estimated 1 in 100 being Trans, that’s 70 children who remain invisible and excluded.
There seems to be only one viable option: cast a cisgender actor as a Trans character. Whilst it’s uncomfortable for all sorts of good reasons, the alternative is far more uncomfortable. As the play is told in retrospect and we see our characters from ages 11 to 19, this means we see an 11 year-old assigned and assumed female in some scenes, before Ash starts to understand himself and come out in his later teens. Perhaps it would actually be quite difficult for some Trans people to step back into a place of oppression, even if just in fiction.
Now, I’m sure I am going to be berated for this, but I am lucky enough to have Trans people in my social circle. Okay, I’ll say it – one of my good friends is Trans. I realise it’s a cliche, but he is and he was kind enough to look over things with me and discuss the implications of different decisions. After thrashing it out, we were in the same position. In an ideal world, we would cast a Trans actor in the role but, as we don’t have one available, representation is more important. He has even agreed to meet with our actor and talk to her about his experiences.
This has definitely been a challenge, but as I watch our extremely talented young actor start to embody the role, I feel excited and I know that, whilst some may say it’s controversial, this was the right decision.
As part of my research for Peer Productions’ new play Losing It, I have been running workshops with teenagers about sex and relationships. In the workshops we invite our young participants to anonymously write down questions which they might feel too embarrassed to ask out loud. Here are the 3 most commonly asked questions and our answers.
Question: What’s the right age to start having sex?
Answer: In the UK the legal age of consent is 16 for any form of sexual activity for both men and women. The age of consent is the same regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of a person and whether the sexual activity is between people of the same or different gender. This means that people over 16 should not be having sex with anyone under 16. It is also an offence for people in a position of trust (teacher, social worker etc) to have sex with someone who is under 18. However, in practice the police are not interested in prosecuting teenagers under the age of 16 where both mutually agree and where they are of a similar age. There is however specific legal protection for children under 12 who cannot legally give their consent to any type of sexual activity. It is always an offence to have sex with someone without consent regardless of age.
The average age in the UK to have sex for the first time is between sixteen and seventeen. Although it may seem like everyone is having sex under age the more quiet majority are not. Choosing when to start having sex is a personal decision and should not be influenced by what your mates are doing. Lots of people choose to wait before they start having sex and, although sometimes waiting is motivated by religion, you don’t have to be religious to choose to wait.
Research suggests that young people who start to have sex later enjoy their first sexual experience more. Perhaps this is because they have better developed communication skills and feel more confident expressing their needs to a partner.
Question: What should you do if you are pressured into sex?
Answer: It is never acceptable for someone to pressurise someone else into having sex. You do not have to give consent just because your friends are becoming sexually active or your partner wants you to. If your partner is not willing to respect your wishes then they are not worth having sex with.
This is true for both boys and girls. Some people think that boys always want to have sex and this isn’t true. Bullying, blackmailing or in any way coercing someone into sexual activity is abuse and you have the right to expect much more from your relationship.
If you do become the victim of sexual abuse or rape it is not your fault. You can find our how to get help here.
Often young people ask us what to do in the moment when they fear that they will be pressured, abused or raped. This is difficult. When we suggest ways to try and get out of a situation like this we always acknowledge that this is not always possible for victims and that, regardless of circumstances, it is never the victim’s fault. However, this is the advice we give.
If your partner won’t accept that you just don’t want to have sex make up any excuse so that you have time to think about the situation. This might include saying you are unwell, have your period (you can have sex on your period but many people prefer not to) have a family emergency etc.
Try to physically get away from the situation to a place of safety. Prioritise your own safety over potentially hurting your partner’s feelings.
Try and shout and draw attention. This is difficult as many victims freeze with fear and this is completely understandable. However, if you can scream or shout, do so.
Whilst it is not always possible fight back, you have the right to defend yourself. The aim of fighting back is to escape the situation.
Question:Will it hurt?
Answer: This is by far the most common question we are asked. Most girls are convinced that it will be painful the first time they have sex and, in some cases, this has been reinforced by parents, friends and even, at one school, a biology teacher(!) Almost biblical ideas about virgins and blood on sheets still seem to have currency.
Although some women do find it uncomfortable the first time that they have vaginal sex it does not need to be painful. Although most women are born with a thin membrane known as the hymen which partially covers the vaginal opening, this has usually worn away by adolescence and, contrary to urban myths, it is unlikely to be ripped during first intercourse.
However, If a girl is trying to have sex with someone who she don’t trust then she might feel anxious. There are lots of muscles in the vagina and, if she feels nervous, these muscles are likely to tense up and this might make it difficult to insert a penis into the vagina.
Although internet pornography makes it seem as though women are always ready for vaginal intercourse, in reality most women take some time to become aroused enough to comfortably have sexual intercourse. When a woman feels turned on the blood rushes to her genital area in the same way as it does when a man has an erection. The women’s clitoris becomes engorged and her labia and vaginal opening become wet. This wetness lubricates the vagina making it far easier for a penis to comfortably be inserted.
Although there are some medical conditions that can make sexual intercourse painful (like vaginismus) in most cases women experience pain because they feel anxious and their muscles are tense or not enough time has been spent ensuring that the woman is aroused enough to be engaging in sexual intercourse.
This is usually a question asked by girls expecting to have vaginal sex. However, it is worth mentioning that some people choose to have anal sex and we get asked about this too. Like any sexual activity you do not have to do this unless you want to. Contrary to the message sent out by internet pornography, although there is nothing wrong with consenting people having anal sex, not everyone has anal sex. If you are trying to have anal sex for the first time you will need to go slowly and gently and will need to use some kind of lubricant. Remember you can still catch STIs through anal sex and if you have a vagina, whilst you can’t get pregnant directly from anal sex, as the anus and vagina are near each other, you need to be careful that semen doesn’t get into this area and cause an unplanned pregnancy.
Regardless of your sexuality and how you are having sex, if you are finding sex painful and are not enjoying it then you should tell your partner and expect them to stop. You can always try something different or try again another time.
The process of researching and creating my new play for Peer Productions, Losing It has really gathered momentum and, as it does, I have been losing it on an alarmingly regular basis.
Let’s rewind a bit. Back in 2008 I wrote a play inspired by the real experiences of local teenage mums and that play, called The Teenage Pregnancy Project, toured for a further 8 years educating young people about the consequences of unsafe sex and unplanned pregnancy. During those eight years things changed rapidly for young people. Teenage pregnancy rates went down but at the same time access to hardcore online pornography increased exponentially. The number of reported rapes in the UK has risen by 29%. Over the past three years, the number of contacts to Childline about online sexual abuse has surged by 250% with 1 in 5 indecent images of children shared online being taken by the child themselves. It was clear that our once risqué and challenging play just wasn’t going to cut it in today’s climate so, despite continued demand, I made the foolhardy decision to retire our award winning production and go back to the drawing board.
To make sure that this new play really speaks to this generation, together with our peer educators, I have been running sex and relationship workshops in secondary schools. The aim is to find out what they know, what they don’t know and what they need to know. It’s a challenging area. The young people taking part in this research are aged between 12 and 15 years old. They are well below the age of consent and, by anyone’s standards, are still children. A handful of their teachers are skeptical – “Surely they’re too young?” I understand their concerns. I really do. Especially as a group of tiny, largely prepubescent people surge into the classroom. Unfortunately, as an experienced educator in this field, I know that this cannot be avoided. In this sea of awkward, giggling silliness I know that statistically many will already have accessed pornography, some will have been coerced to send pictures of their own bodies and a few will have been sexually abused. As uncomfortable as it might feel we have to talk to these children about sex. We have to try to undo their pervasive misconceptions and frankly dangerous misunderstandings.
So what have we found out so far? Their knowledge is patchy at best, wildly inaccurate at worst. Whilst some students have more of a solid grasp (whether from sex education at school or parents) others seem completely in the dark. This is perhaps to be expected but it is the strange combination of wisdom and ignorance, worldliness and innocence within individual students that baffles me the most.
One of the first questions that I ask the students is, ‘Where do you find out about sex?’ The answers vary: school, family, friends, books, but pretty soon the internet comes up and someone is brave enough to talk about porn. When I asked that question to one group of twelve year old lads they quickly began to reel of the names of different porn sites. Five or six sites in I ask them whether they think this is a good place to get accurate information and they’re not sure. Then one of them turns to me and asks, without any hint of irony, ‘What is pornography anyway?’ So, now I’m confused. So I ask them if they are looking at the sites they confirm that they have been and yet they ask me again, ‘what is it?’ This is something I wasn’t expecting. So I start to explain what makes something pornography as opposed to a sexy bit in a mainstream film and I get as far as explaining that the people in those films are actually taking part in sexual acts and their jaws drop. They are genuinely shocked. They thought it was faked. They are even more shocked when I explain that there is no real way to know if the people taking part have consented and that they could be being abused. They have no idea.
And yet at the same time this ever present pornography that is one click away on their smart phones at any given time, drills into their psyches consciously or unconsciously affecting their views on gender, sex and sexuality.
We give the students the chance to ask anonymous questions. In all groups the girls are concerned about sex being painful especially the first time. Modern pornography largely does away with any foreplay, build up or narrative and jumps straight into penetration where the frankly ludicrously endowed menaggressively plough in and out of a woman who looks pained and humiliated. This is the image that young people are seeing and no one is deconstructing it for them. I take time to explain that that the average penis is 6 inches when erect, that the vagina is a muscle and so sex is more likely to hurt if they feel uncomfortable and tense, which is why it is better to wait until they are with someone that they really trust. I explain about the hymen. I even explain about the importance of foreplay and how the vagina needs to be wet for sex to be pleasurable. This is news to all those listening and the room gets very quiet whilst they listen. My frankness makes some of the teachers look uncomfortable and it is uncomfortable but, unless we address this, we are breeding a generation of young men who are so addicted to pornography that they cannot function sexually when the time comes to having real sexual experiences and young women whose own sexual agency has been erased whilst they try in vain to emulate the women they have seen online.
Most students don’t know about the age of consent.
Most students think that it is not possible to get pregnant the first time and, when asked why they think this, several tell me that you would have to have a period first! Attempting to unpick this has blown my mind.
Lots ask what to do if they don’t want to have sex but someone forces them.
Most assume a rapist will be a stranger.
So, as I continue to research and I start to write, I realise the enormity of what I am taking on and I feel angry. Really very, very angry. I feel angry that these conversations are needed. It’s not that I mourn the loss of these children’s innocence. I am angry that porn and rape culture (as encountered by children unable to filter what they see) sells just one form of sexuality and that it is brutal, aggressive and misogynistic. I mourn the loss of their right to discover and explore for themselves and to develop their own unique sexual identity.