Wednesday 6 July 2011

SPUC's new education manager reviews Channel 4's "The Joy of Teen Sex"

Anthony McCarthy, SPUC's new Education and Publications Manager, has kindly sent me his review of Channel Four's programme "The Joy of Teen Sex". An abridged version of Anthony's review is below, but do read his review in full on the SPUC website.
Review of Channel Four's "The Joy of Teen Sex" by Anthony McCarthy

The title of this series of programmes put out by Channel 4 is instructive. It refers back to Alex Comfort’s multi-million selling book of 1972, "The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking". The series under discussion follows a number of other ‘sex education’ vehicles put out by Channel 4. More importantly, Channel 4 also produces the widely-used "Living and Growing" schools programme which is shown to primary school children across England (Antonia Tully of SPUC's Safe at School campaign can provide more information about this). This fact should be borne in mind in reading what follows.

Almost the very first thing the programme tells us (episode 1) is that the average teenager has had three sexual partners by the time they reach 16. That message is repeated in the intro of each subsequent programme in the series, together with a blasé clip of a teenager telling viewers he has slept with between 110-120 girls. A letter signed by a number of health professionals and sex educators – many of whom favour early and explicit sex education - draws attention to the inaccuracy of the former claim and cites research indicating that most teens have not had any intercourse before 16. The same professionals also found that the programme “frequently used unreliable statistics to back up points made.” Why has this programme broadcast highly dubious information without citing any research, let alone reputable, research to back it up?

One obvious answer to this question is that misinformation serves ideological purposes: to undermine many people’s belief in traditional sexual morality. Why? Well, the implicit argument is that actual sexual behaviour bears little relation to sexual restrictions and that, therefore, traditional restrictions are unreasonable.

This combination of fraudulent statistics and the idea that if something is prevalent in a society it must therefore be morally right in some sense (right and wrong are somehow ‘empirically determined’ by ‘scientists’) is present throughout "The Joy of Teen Sex". Thus we are told that 80% of people have had sex before their 18th birthday and a boy is shown plaintively asking why it’s never happened to him – a ‘problem’ that therapists, whose qualifications are not mentioned, proceed to ‘treat’. Similar ‘advice’ to teenagers includes jocular talk about doing the ‘fresher’ thing ‘full-on’ (i.e. engaging in promiscuous sex). There are many many more examples that might be given that would further reveal the moral and intellectual standards of the programme.

In short, this programme was unapologetic propaganda for sexual liberation and aimed at a particularly vulnerable group, many of whom would be below the legal age of consent. The letter below indicates that even fervent promoters of sexual liberation are embarrassed by it, not least because it appears to ignore even the health issues that at least some sex educators feel the need to tell teenagers about.

What both groups share is [a lack of] any sensitivity to the nature of sex and the special role sexual ethics needs to play in the life of the young if they are to have fulfilling and virtuous lives. That sex is something that can ‘take life over’ is well-attested to in literature through the ages and its ability to control and to pervade our life means that it must be treated delicately and with proper respect for its dignity. To treat it as something akin to sport is to distort a central element of our lives – the one which allows for intimate conjugal union in self-giving love. "The Joy of Teen Sex" shows no interest in such notions, implicitly mocking them. In doing so Channel 4 betrays young people, again.
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