Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer (HarperCollins), £14.99.
My sex education at school consisted of putting a condom on a banana, watching a graphic video of a woman giving birth and giggling at the red face of a teacher as she read out our anonymous sex-ed related queries from a tissue box.
The universal (or national) experience of lousy sex education was highlighted in 2019 by the popularity of Netflix’s Sex Education series, in which Otis Milburn, the teenage son of sex therapist Jean, sets up an incredibly popular “sex clinic” at school to pass on his mother’s wisdom and fill in the (many) gaps in the student’s sex education, with varying degrees of success.
The show sparked meaningful conversations about relationships, sex and the failings of sex education in a country where 27 per cent of the population have sex in any given week, but half of us could not identify or describe the function of the urethra (58 per cent), labia (47 per cent) or vagina (52 per cent).
After the show’s release, it quickly became apparent that the real world needed its own unabashed sex therapist, someone who was unafraid to talk about sex, banish taboos and wanted to revolutionise sex education. Enter Sophia Smith Galer, a senior news reporter at VICE and author of Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century.
Smith Galer’s debut work of non-fiction is a small but hefty investigation into the myths surrounding sex and the inadequacy of sex education in the UK. A skilled journalist, the author unearths the many failings of our current system, along with personal anecdotes from both the author herself and a selection of interesting sources ranging from A-sexual actors to Catholic earthly brides.
Smith Galer unearths some shocking facts and figures; our sex education curriculum in England, for example, was unchanged from 2000 to 2020. During those two decades, dating apps and social media revolutionised sex and dating, especially for young people, and yet sex education stayed the same.
Even with this updated curriculum and long-overdue mandate for sex education to be taught in all schools, Smith Galer discovers that in 2018, “only 29 per cent of schools thought they had the training to deliver the new Relationships and Sex Education statutory curriculum and only 10 per cent thought their existing RSE was of good quality.”
“School is the number-one place where young people want to learn information about sex, before their parents and healthcare professionals,” Smith Galer explains, and the potential benefits from a robust sex education curriculum are endless. Yet it is an area of public health education that is so often overlooked.
Is it English prudishness that stops us from talking about sex (and issues of gender, consent, domestic violence, coercive control and fertility that stem from this topic)? Or is it the old fashioned fear that “teaching young people about sex is going to make them have sex”?
Either way, the failures of sex education seep into our lives far beyond school. There is five times more research into erectile dysfunction than into pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), for example, despite PMS affecting 90 per cent of women.
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Harley Street surgeons in London still offer virginity testing medical reports confirming intact hymens and £5,400 hymen repair surgery. And even more disturbingly, the global vaginal rejuvenation market is estimated to reach $5 billion by 2026, whilst the breast augmentation market is estimated to meet $3.05 bn in 2027.
The misguided notion that sex education is merely about avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases means every day, people are putting themselves at risk and falling victim to myths about how their bodies should look and feel.
When it comes to sex, “we have fostered a society where condom use has been pitched as the best way to protect ourselves, with very little preparation on understanding what it truly means to be in control and happy,” Galer Smith surmises.
The book consists of eight chapters addressing seven myths; “The Virginity Myth”, “The Hymen Myth”, “The Tightness Myth”, “The Penetration Myth”, The Virility Myth”, “The Sexlessness Myth”, “The Consent Myth” and “The Future Story of Sex”. But the common thread running throughout the chapters is how our use of outdated language reinforces misconceptions and negative stereotypes around sex and relationships.
For example, when it comes to sexuality, “we describe it as an orientation, as if love and sex were some kind of force that points to the object of our affection, which we simply charge towards.”
In comparison, in Arabic, the word for attraction is “al-hawa” which “gives a sense of rising and falling”, more accurately describing sexual orientation as more ontological rather than something we control.
Smith Galer advises we take heed of the Swedes who, in 2009, began to replace their word for hymen “mödomshinna” literally meaning “virginity membrane”, with “slidkrans” or “vaginal corona” in an effort to bust the myth that a hymen defines a woman’s sexual history.
Ten years later, the effectiveness of the change was reviewed; 86 per cent of surveyed health professionals had used the word and whilst only 22 per cent of young people had heard of it, more were showing signs of viewing the hymen more correctly and parroting sex-positives phrases from the pamphlets distributed by the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education. “Language planning doesn’t happen overnight,” Smith Galer writes, “but it’s a start.”
Perhaps the most insightful and important parts of this book look at the relationship between sexual and mental health, especially in men. In “The Virility Myth” Smith Galer shares a 2015 study that found 12.5 per cent of men with sexual disorders also had depression and nearly a quarter of them had anxiety.
“Men could be helped if they were given more diverse, realistic depictions of male happiness that decentred virility,” the author explains. Many men attach a high sex drive specifically to their male identity and nobody tells men or women that “there is nothing wrong with being a virgin or indeed feeling lonely”.
Monitoring the r/suicidewatch forum on Reddit, Smith Galer finds forty posts referencing a user’s virginity over the course of one month. Smith Galer’s understanding of the incel community also goes beyond anything I have ever read before.
Rather than dismissing them all as dangerous and ridiculous, she looks into the psychology and failings of sex education that enable men to only find sanctity in dark corners of the internet. When tragedies such as the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa take place, people often ask, “what can be done?”. Better sex education seems a vital place to start.
Losing It is a book I will pass to all my friends and family, keep for my future children and wish I could travel back in time to give to my younger self. Sex education is an essential part of a happy, healthy and functioning society; Sophia Smith Galer has written 232 pages of concrete evidence to prove it. It’s time to shed our prudish sensibilities and start talking about sex.