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Sex education faces a misinformation crisis, says TikTok pioneer Sophia Smith Galer

Sex education is in crisis, with schools failing to equip young people for the real world, and myths spreading online. What can be done?

Encountering harmful myths about sex led journalist Sophia Smith Galer to develop a painful psycho-sexual disorder. Angry at how she had been let down, she set out to investigate sex education in the 21st century. From classroom to doctor’s surgery to social media, she exposed a “sex misinformation crisis” with serious consequences for women and men’s mental and physical health.

“I identify as a victim of sex myths,” she says. “My sex education was extremely limited. I’m angry about that, and I want it to change.”

Smith Galer is well placed to take on that battle. A news pioneer on TikTok, her informative videos have been viewed more than 100 million times, and she boasts more than 400,000 followers around the world. Her book, Losing It, is a myth-busting call-to-arms that gives us the tools to be smarter and kinder in the bedroom.

This is an abridged version of the conversation on this week’s BetterPod, The Big Issue’s weekly podcast. Listen to the full conversation below, or at your normal podcast provider.

What’s wrong with the sexual education most of us had?

A huge problem with sex education curriculums across the world is that they focus on risk mitigation. This may be to not get pregnant, or not spread STIs. But if you only teach people about risk, you’re fronting education with negativity. You are not focusing on what happiness and health looks like, you’re focusing on what unhappiness and harm looks like.

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Sexual health interventions that have a focus on pleasure can be more useful than programmes that completely ignore pleasure. So that is often where our education fails us.

If young people are being failed in their sex education at school, where are they turning to and what does that education look like?

If you think about the diversity of the online world, there are pros and cons. As a journalist, I make sure that the information I give is not only accurate, but also engaging so you’re likely to hopefully watch the whole video rather than just five seconds of it. We also have fantastic science communicators, health communicators, doctors who are trying to populate internet spaces with information about the body. 

But this is also the space where you may encounter quite grim podcasts: male-only spaces that talk about how to get women into bed. Sometimes these conversations will deliberately say, “don’t respect women’s consent”. They’re all over my ‘For You’ page on TikTok at the minute. 

You’re going to get a whirlwind experience on the internet. You may get more accurate information than you’ve ever had access to in a classroom, but you also get access to more inaccurate information than you could possibly dream of. So, for me, that doesn’t mean: be terrified of the internet. It means I need a digital literacy toolkit that empowers me to use the best tool humankind has ever had to keep me happy and healthy. So, it’s a minefield, but it’s also fantastic and glorious.

When I talk about sex with my friends, we talk about the pain associated with it. How can we educate young women that it’s normal to enjoy sex?

That is a myth that needs to be debunked when young people are still in educational settings. Pain during sex is more common than you’d think and about one in 10 British women experience it. But just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s normal or right.

It’s often the case that people will be experiencing pain because they haven’t been aroused enough, or they might be feeling a bit of anxiety. We’re still really rubbish at bringing mental health conversations into talking about sex.

We need to eradicate the belief from society that pain is normal. It’s not that it’s normal, it’s that it’s unfairly common. It was being told that sex was painful that made me develop vaginismus.

What is vaginismus and how did it affect you?

Vaginismus is a sexual pain disorder where the pelvic floor spasms and prevents entry, insertion, anything like that, and immense levels of pain are caused. When I had it, it felt like I was being stabbed.

I just remember thinking, I’m not built right down there. I’m never going to be able to have children. I’m never going to have a relationship because no one will want me because I can’t have sex. My mental health was at one of the lowest points it has ever been during my entire life.

Vaginismus is like most psychosexual disorders, especially those affecting women, in that it is very under researched. Psychosexual services across the UK are very strained, waiting lists are incredibly long. And this isn’t a problem where you can kind of be medicated with a pill and get over it. This is a mind-body issue that demands mind-body treatment.

I now have completely painless sex. But if we aren’t having these conversations with people, a lot can go wrong and really impact our wellbeing and health outside our sex lives.

Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century by Sophia Smith Galer is out now (HarperCollins, £14.99)

This is an abridged version of the conversation on this week’s BetterPod, The Big Issue’s weekly podcast. Listen to all episodes here, or wherever you normally get your podcasts

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