Photography by Brian Prentke

Sophia Smith Galer on achieving radical sexual freedom through education

The renowned journalist and author’s new book, Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, debunks the world’s most damaging sex myths and leaves readers feeling empowered.

When Sophia Smith Galer was a teenager growing up in Barnet, North London, she felt frustrated and ill-equipped to enter the world of sex without proper education on the topic. Most of us can probably remember the shoddy sex ed in UK schools: stretching a condom onto a banana and calling it a day. In the same way that valuable life skills like taxes aren’t taught in schools, sex education programmes are seriously lacking, often leaving young people to figure it all out for themselves.

Now 27 and a senior news reporter at Vice World News, Smith Galer spent four months in lockdown writing Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, an invaluable book debunking particularly pervasive sex myths one chapter at a time. Does virginity really change a woman’s body? Does foreplay count as proper sex? And how does toxic masculinity affect a guy’s sex life?

As a journalist who pioneered the use of TikTok as a news gathering tool to add depth to her stories, Smith Galer applied these skills to conversations with ordinary people for Losing It, pulling them together with statistics and insight from experts. The result? A proposal for a new, radical and more empowered sexual future. She doubles down on the importance of sex education as a starting point for healthy relationships and the way we navigate our lives in general, while trying to understand what a population’s sexual wellbeing looks like beyond stats about teenage pregnancies and STI’s (which is how it’s currently, rigidly, determined).

In 2020, primary and secondary schools were set to start teaching compulsory relationships and sex education. Then the pandemic happened, which allowed the Department of Education to delay introducing the measure to the following year, thereby stopping vital information from reaching the ears of impressionable young people on the cusp of sexual maturity.

Natsal did a survey about how Covid has affected young people and it’s like a generation has missed out on a normal sexual debut and normal sexualisation,” Smith Galer says. Over the pandemic, there was only one in four young people who’d spoken to their parents about sex, which is bonkers. What are we doing to make up for lost time and to make sure these people don’t lose access to comprehensive sex ed?”

We’d say Losing It is a pretty good place to start. Below, Smith Galer gets into the power of information, the pitfalls of getting sex education from social media and her hopes for a brighter, healthier and sexier future.

Hi, Sophia! When did you realise it was important for you to write about sex?

I had a lightbulb moment. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a resource that candidly addressed myths surrounding sex, particulary first-time sex. That’s where the idea [for the book] originated. When I went to see if anyone had ever written about virginity, for example, I was stupefied to find that most books were either written by psychologists or academics. There was nothing for the layperson.

I was so surprised that no one was talking honestly about pressures that are put on young people and why old fashioned ideas [still] exist. On the other hand, it sometimes seems like there’s this relentless sex positivity, almost to a toxic level, constantly demanding us to endlessly seek out pleasure, endlessly orgasm. There was nothing meeting me where I was as a young person.

Did you enjoy writing it?

It was cathartic but it also angered me a lot. With every chapter, I was able to qualify that certain sex myths exist. But two things would endlessly piss me off: one was the high number of people you can find, especially online, endorsing said myths – many of which should know better and hold positions of authority, whether that’s in healthcare or whether they’re an influencer.

The other thing that got on my nerves was how much research data there is out there. There could always be more and there are many areas that are desperate for more research and funding. But for every myth I found, there was research that outlined stigma people face or harmful effects that were being caused by people believing in sex misinformation. The thing about information is that it doesn’t necessarily protect us from harm, but it informs us on what to do when we may confront it. Hopefully, what it might also do, is stop such harms from happening in the first place.

Did the thought of helping soon-to-be readers help you deal with that anger?

Yeah, it brings me a lot of hope to think about that. If someone turns to their mate and says: Guess what? Remember that thing we thought was true? Well, it isn’t,” or here’s a really good creator to follow because Sophia mentioned them,” that’d be amazing, for the book to open up a curiosity around sex misinformation.

It seems like a lot of young people often rely on one another to help answer each other’s questions around sex.

When you’re entering into sexual maturity, a lot of the chat has to do with the panic that comes with sex, or what it means to be good in bed and feeling like, if you’re not, you might get teased or dumped. When we speak broadly about the ethics of sex and the sexual competence” of young people, that doesn’t mean the mechanics of sex. There are other things young people should be pressed to think about, like being ready. Is this the right time for you? Are you dealing with any pressure right now? This perniciously affects women, but men, too. If guys are being pressured to have sex because that’s how they’ll be seen as masculine or cool, that’s not going to lead to positive sexual health.

People who report the most positive sexual health are those who cite school as their main source of sex education. The minute that source becomes your friends or anything other than school, you start seeing more negative sexual outcomes”

SOPHIA SMITH GALER

How do you feel about social media as a means of filling in sex ed gaps when actual sex education falls short?

What we know from pre-pandemic data is that the people who report the most positive sexual health are those who cite school as their main source of sex education. The minute that source becomes your friends or anything other than school, you start seeing more negative sexual outcomes. It’s really difficult – I champion the internet and its use as a positive tool, and that’s why I always champion high digital literacy for young people. We need to think critically about whatever content we consume on and offline.

Social media helps people fill in the gaps, but we have to bear in mind that when there are vast health inequalities, people who are digitally literate and quite privileged are also the ones who can fill in the gaps with online resources. What about groups with less privilege where, historically, sex ed services have struggled to fully serve? That’s why we need a proper, standardised system teaching everyone about sex. Lots of people can’t patch up missing sex ed as easily as others because of systemic discrimination and flaws in the system.

In your research, did you come across anything that gave you a bit of hope about what the future holds for sex and sex education?

In public health here in the UK, there are some great researchers who are looking into different ways of measuring the sexual health and wellbeing of the population. They’re constantly rejigging survey questions to ask in order to get a sense of stuff like this, like trauma-informed care and support. That phrase is difficult because it maybe makes you think of negative things, but it actually allows people to access positive and equitable sex. We could start asking questions like: did you feel regret around a sexual encounter in the past week? Or, is there someone you can confide in about difficulties you’re experiencing sexually?

Getting this rounder picture of sexual health is going to be so much more informative. We’re steadily departing from an archaic world that only measures a population’s sexual health by their teenage pregnancy and STI rates. Those will never stop being informative to a level, of course – the more data the better. The point is they can’t be the gold standard! We need to incorporate so much more than that.

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