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Review: Sex & Lovers

SEX & LOVERS
A Practical Guide

Would you let your child read this book?
Sex education in schools is outdated. An explicit new manual, Sex & Lovers, is the real deal for the digital era, argues Katie Glass.

If you are offended by pictures of hipsters necking, look away now. If you would rather get through today without viewing a selection of soft-focus photographs showing tattoo-covered twenty-somethings having sex, if you don’t want to hear the words porn or boobs and you could happily end the day without ever knowing what latex sheets and love swings can do for you, then turn the page, there is nothing here for you.

You are also unlikely to want to discuss Sex & Lovers: A Practical Guide, an explicit new book that is reinventing sex education for internet-age children.

It would be a pity if you ignored it, however, because this is a book worth talking about. It is being marketed as an antidote to the grotesque online pornography that children are being exposed to from an early age.

Sex & Lovers is a guide to the birds and the bees that some people may think is so pornily graphic that it may as well have been co-authored by Ann Summers and Peter Stringfellow, with Hugh Hefner and Terry Richardson helping out on illustrations.

Written by a Danish sexologist and first published in Germany, it is filled with the kind of images that teenagers once saw only if they managed to snag a copy of Penthouse or steal their mother’s Better Sex Guide. It tells sex like it is. And then some. And then a bit more.

The book is aimed at post-puberty children and is crammed with talk about tantric sex, orgies and swinging. It offers advice onsex positions from the Frog to the Viennese Oyster, features information about “lip service” and includes a guide to slang names for genitals. The illustrations include colour photographs that are as explicit as pornography while aping the seedy glamour of American Apparel advertisements.

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The problem for British parents is: if this is merely soft porn passing as educational material, why is it stocked in school libraries in Germany? It is so popular with sexually liberated German parents that it has stormed the bestseller lists and sold 200,000 copies. Should prudish British parents overcome their qualms and hand the book over to their teenage children?

Its author, Ann-Marlene Henning, says it is important and relevant. She believes that today’s youngsters, who live in a culture that is saturated with porn,will not be shocked by the book. She thinks it is the only way to get through to them with its core anti-pornographic message.

The book’s introduction argues that it is a necessary tool for sex education in an age when technology has made pornography so widespread that children are relentlessly exposed to unrealistic images of sex long before they consider engaging in it.

“Porn films are full of bizarre practices and misinformation,” Henning said. “What they definitely do not show is real, fulfilling, genuinely shared sex. In this book we want to talk about sex as it really is. That’s why the photographs are such an important part of it: they show real couples having real sex.”

She is right to some extent. We live in a porn-addled culture that inundates youngsters with sexual imagery. The single largest group of internet porn consumers is children aged 12-17, while one in three 10-year-olds has seen pornography on the internet, according to a study by Safety Net, a campaign to protect children online.

Some 81% of 14 to 16-year-olds regularly look at explicit photographs and footage on their home computers, with 13-14 being the peak age at which boys access porn for the first time.

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A study earlier this year found the problem that most concerned children online was the sending of violent, vulgar or sexual content. Younger children complained that they encountered this material by mistake: it popped up on their screens while they were looking for websites, games or information they needed for homework. Older children, who were more likely to see such material deliberately, still bemoaned its effects.

One study found that 75% of young women believed porn put pressure on them to behave sexually in ways they were not comfortable with and 56% of young men agreed.
Other studies have found “sexting” to be prolific, with 46% of teenagers agreeing that sending sexual pictures or messages is now part of everyday teenage life.

Yet the sex education they are offered at school is hopelessly outdated. The guidance for schools from the Department for Education on sexual and relationship education (SRE) was written in 2000, before internet pornography became ubiquitous. No wonder Ofsted has found that SRE requires improvement or is inadequate in 40%of schools.

When Girlguiding polled more than a thousand girls aged 7-21, asking what they most wanted from politicians, the answer was better sex education at school, for which Girlguiding is now campaigning. “Girls are growing up surrounded by things that can make them feel bad about themselves: images of women Photoshopped beyond recognition, sexist music videos and song lyrics, lads’ mags . . . the list goes on,” said Nikki, a 22-year-old Girlguiding advocate from Southampton.

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Last week the Everyday Sexism Project, which catalogues experiences of sexism, along with End Violence Against Women, a coalition of more than 60 UK organisations, launched the #SREnow campaign calling on David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband to make an election commitment to compulsory sex and relationships education.

At the moment there is no statutory requirement to teach it, although Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, was reported to have praised the campaign for highlighting the issue’s importance to teachers.

“I know from the many testimonies we’ve received from young people that some of the porn they see online is very violent and misogynistic and they come away with negative and confusing ideas about what sex is,” said Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project.

“When so many young people receive no information at all in the classroom about healthy relationships, those norms can go unchallenged and be deeply problematic.”

Sex education at my school involved giggles of confusion as we put condoms on bananas. In one lesson a girl dared to ask about anal sex, only to be shot down with: “We don’t need to know or talk about that.”

Others fared worse. A 62-year-old man, who had attended a boys-only boarding school, told me: “We had absolutely no sex education — just diagrams in biology lessons.”

Incredibly, a young man of 20 also told me much the same: “Most of our sex education was in biology classes but we did have a talk given by some random woman about the dangers of sex. She was like: the safest sex is no sex. We were 15.”
Perhaps Sex & Lovers is not such a bad idea in helping children and parents to acknowledge the complexities of modern relationships.

“The book is much needed,” said Holly Baxter, editor of the feminist website The Vagenda. “Frankly, I think parents who are embarrassed by it need to get over themselves — their offspring will be seeing so much worse online. Sex should be about pleasure and communication, but schoolchildren are taught little more than the mechanics of sex. Urgent reforms are needed.”

Sex & Lovers is not perfect. It preaches an aesthetic where only young, fit, cool couples in trendy apartments get laid. And for all its explicit pictures and descriptions it still fails to tackle the real-life dilemmas that haunt rough millennial “love”. Such as what you do when someone Snapchats you an obscene photograph in a maths lesson or sends you a sext asking for a BJ when you do not know what that is.

Even if the book has its limits, it is still a powerful starting point in ridding sex of negativity and shame. It also acknowledges that you cannot simply push a book in front of young people and let them start having sex. It consistently encourages people to communicate.

One of its tables indicates that for most children the main source of sex information is school. Asked who they would like the main source to be, the majority said their parents.

What is clear is that young people need role models: older people they can turn to for frank discussions and advice. Books such as Sex & Lovers challenge not only young people but also adults to be more honest and open.

Is it too explicit? Not for someone who has grown up with the internet. On the contrary, this soft focus sex will seem like the pictorial equivalent of Mills & Boon.

 

Katie Glass, additional reporting by Oliver Thring

THE SUNDAY TIMES | 28 September 2014

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£18.99 hb | 9780906506288 | CAMERON & HOLLIS