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‘If you’re going to watch porn, know it’s not real’: meet Britain's sex-positive influencers


Despite being a sex blogger with more than 86,000 Instagram followers, Oloni isn’t getting any. “I have to be careful about who I’m sleeping with,” the 29-year-old influencer says with a laugh. “It has to be with someone really low-key. The last person I was having sex with, it went pear-shaped. So I’m avoiding that right now.” But the impact of celebrity status on her sex life doesn’t seem to bother Oloni – real name Dami Olonisakin – too much. “I don’t feel like having sex with anyone at the moment.” She cracks a wide smile. “There’s no one worthy of me sleeping with them!”

We’re sitting in the plant-filled Ilford recording studio in which Olonisakin, Shakira Scott, 31, and Shani Jamilah, 23, record their no-holds-barred sex and relationships podcast, Laid Bare. They eat sweets and catch up about their week – Olonisakin has been unwell, after partying too hard – as they prepare to record. “I definitely want to do the TI thing,” Olonisakin says. (In the week that I visit, US rapper TI made international headlines after revealing that he takes his 18-year-old daughter to doctors for hymen checks, to ensure she is a virgin.) Scott squeals in agreement. She has views on TI.

When the recording starts, it’s outre fare. They talk about Scott’s recent sexual encounter. “I was in slut mode,” she says. “I put his balls in my face.” But salaciousness aside, there’s a serious purpose to their sex chat. When they get to talking about TI, the women speak passionately about how the concept of virginity is inherently misogynistic. “If you’re with someone who thinks your value is based on your virginity, it’s not,” Olonisakin says. With customary bluntness, Scott agrees: “Fuck a hymen!”

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If Laid Bare had a message, it would be this: respect yourself, be safe, and make sure you’re enjoying sex at least as much as the person you’re having sex with. It’s a winning formula that has gone down well with their listeners, who are mostly women of colour. (Last year, a live recording in London was attended by 400 people.) It has also put the young women at the forefront of the UK’s growing sex-positive movement.

For the uninitiated, sex-positivity is characterised by a general spirit of openness towards sexuality in all its forms, along with an emphasis on sexual pleasure. Advocates encourage sex to be seen as something to be celebrated, rather than a source of shame, and provide practical, sometimes explicit guidance on how to experiment safely in the bedroom. Someone who is sex-positive would be equally accepting of a four-way polyamorous relationship, BDSM casual sex, and garden-variety heterosexual monogamy: as long as everything happens between consenting adults, all expressions of human sexuality are permissible.

For the most part, sex-positive advocates congregate online: you’ll find them documenting their sexcapades on blogs such as Kayleigh Daniels Dated, written from the perspective of a fictional woman who “owns her sexuality”; and The Casual Sex Project, which invites real people to share their one-night stands. The movement has spawned a number of influencers: not just Olonisakin, but also feminist pornographer Erika Lust; Zoë Ligon, owner of a Detroit sex shop and self-styled “Duchess of Dildos”; and Vogue columnist Karley Sciortino, author of sex blog Slutever. Together, these young women have an enormous reach: Ligon has 277,000 Instagram followers, while a video Sciortino made for the website Vice has had more than 50m YouTube views.

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It’s not surprising that, frustrated by the dearth of high-quality sex education in British schools (it will become a compulsory part of the curriculum only from this September), young people are looking online for answers. This, after all, is a generation that grew up watching porn on their smartphones on the bus to school, before sliding into sexting in their teens. A predominantly female-led movement (although there are high-profile male LGBTQ+ YouTubers, such as Riyadh Khalaf and Calum McSwiggan), sex-positivity also intersects with contemporary feminism by prioritising consent, and educating people about healthy, non-coercive relationships, as well as advocating against slut-shaming and sexist double standards.

As with any emerging youth movement, though, there’s been a pushback. Sex-positive influencers have found themselves on the frontline of a vicious globalised culture war with religious and conservative groups, which favour an abstinence-based, non-LGBTQ+-inclusive approach that has less in common with Netflix’s Sex Education and more with the hapless gym teacher satirised in Tina Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!” exhorts Coach Carr. “Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up, just don’t do it!”

In the US, rightwing Christian bloggers burned copies of Teen Vogue after the magazine published an anal sex guide by sex educator Gigi Engle in 2017. (“It was crazy,” Engle remembers of the furore. “To have so many people coming after me over a piece of educational material.”) Often, so-called family values groups are the hammer used to crack the sex-positive walnut. One Million Moms is the best-known: in December 2019 it called for a boycott of the Hallmark Channel over an ad depicting a same-sex couple. Such groups often wage ferocious state-level campaigns to block sex-positive sex education in classrooms.

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These attitudes are not unique to the US. In the UK, parents at one Birmingham primary school reacted with fury in May 2019 after its headteacher decided to teach LGBT-inclusive sex education to its pupils, the majority of whom were from Muslim families. The programme was amended, but tensions between teachers and parents are ongoing.

Sex blogger Dami Olonisakin of no-holds-barred podcast Laid Bare, and BBC Three dating show My Mate’s A Bad Date



‘If you’re with someone who thinks your value is based on your virginity, it’s not’: sex blogger Dami Olonisakin. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

Sex-positive influencers are also facing a crackdown from legislators and internet platforms. In the UK, the digital economy bill – bitterly opposed by independent porn creators for its age-verification requirements, which they view as draconian – passed into law in 2017. Platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, more usually under fire for failing to police extreme content, have been accused of censoring sex-positive influencers, demonetising their channels, or limiting their visibility. Sex educators on Instagram have found their accounts suspended, or even deleted, for violating the US’s controversial Sesta-Fosta legislation (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act/Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act).

There are legitimate questions to be asked of the sex-positive movement. Should its influencers be giving public health advice without being qualified to do so? Is there a danger that they’re encouraging curious-minded young people to experiment sexually before they’re ready? In other words, is it possible to be too positive about sex?

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“Do you want your tea in a penis mug or a boob mug?” Reed Amber asks, after answering the door to her London home in fluffy slippers and leather trousers. (I opt for boobs.) I’ve come to sit in with Amber, 29, and Florence Barkway, 28, as they record the latest video for their sex-positive YouTube channel Come Curious. The topic of the week? Fingering.

We decamp to Amber’s bedroom, where lights have been set up on either side of the bed. On the bedside table is a bottle of lubricant and a large vibrator. Both women arrange themselves under the duvet, occasionally pausing to stretch. “Sitting like this really hurts your legs,” explains Barkway, who is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Love is Strange”.

After checking that the camera facing the bed is working, the women begin filming. “Hi guys! Today we’re going to be talking about fingering.” They wave their fingers in the air. What follows is a mixture of explicit sex advice (the women mime different fingering techniques) told in a big-sisterly, accessible way. I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on a chat between two women in neighbouring nightclub toilet cubicles. It’s not for everyone: the women channel the peppy optimism and over-the-top, campy tone that has become de rigueur for teen-focused YouTube channels, and can be jarring for older viewers. But their message is resonating with an audience of 112,000 YouTube subscribers, who turn to them for advice on blowjobs (at 2.4m views, their most-watched video), nipple play (1.5m views), and to find out what it’s really like on a porn set (2.1m views).

“Breaking stigma is a big part of what we do,” Barkway says. “Making people feel less abnormal for having fetishes or desires.” After she and Amber posted a video titled “We BOTH have HERPES”, they were inundated with responses from viewers thanking them for tackling the taboo around the sexually transmitted infection. Of course, they aren’t motivated solely by altruism: as the movement has grown, being a sex-positive influencer has become a viable career – Olonisakin was recently tapped to front the BBC Three dating show My Mate’s a Bad Date.

Are they qualified to give sex advice to impressionable teens? Amber and Barkway admit they aren’t trained public health experts, but they are diligent in their preparation: before uploading their herpes video, they spent hours pulling together the latest research, which they put online in their video notes. Most experts agree that, on balance, it’s better that young people learn about sex from well-meaning influencers rather than porn. “I welcome this community,” says Amanda Mason-Jones, a senior lecturer in global public health at the University of York. “They promote sex and intimacy as something positive, and not something to be ashamed of.”

And besides, if sex-positive influencers simply wanted to be famous, there are easier routes. Come Curious has received some sponsorship from Durex, but brings in a fraction of the remuneration YouTubers with comparable followings making nonexplicit content would expect; most brands don’t like to have their ads placed alongside sex content. Both women have full-time jobs (Amber as a webcam sex worker, Barkway as a video director) although they hope eventually to make Come Curious their main source of income.

Of course, it would be ideal if young people learned about sex from their families, rather than the pseudo big sisters represented by Amber and Barkway. But that’s not possible for the great majority of their audience. Many of their fans come from conservative or religious households where heterosexual sex, let alone being LGBTQ+, is taboo. They tell me that every week they receive emails and Instagram DMs from vulnerable young people, including sexual abuse survivors, and do their best to respond. The Laid Bare podcasters also have an email address for listeners to send their queries. Providing nonjudgmental sex education is particularly important to them, because evidence shows that STI rates are higher, and go undiagnosed for longer, in black-African communities. “Laid Bare is about having a forum where you can feel free,” Jamilah says. “Because normally, in black communities, it’s taboo to talk about sex. You keep it private.”

I wanted to hear from some of the educators’ fans, so Come Curious put a call out over Instagram. I talk to Grace Halksworth, a 19-year-old student from Surrey, who discovered the channel in 2018, and talks about its presenters reverentially. “I like how raw and open they are,” says Halksworth, who credits online vloggers with changing her attitude to sex. “All the sex education I’ve had, I felt as if they were stumbling around the real words,” she adds, characterising her Catholic secondary school as “shockingly bad”. She goes on: “They told you the gist of what sex is, but not how to stay safe. They just said, don’t do it, basically.” Three students in her year got pregnant between the ages of 15 and 16. “Most people were doing it,” she says. “Maybe if they’d taught us to be safe, the pregnancies wouldn’t have happened.”

Sex educators Sophie Whitehead (on left, in green top) and Amelia Jenkinson of Sexplain, in January 2020



‘Who can give me an example of verbal consent?’: school sex educators Sophie Whitehead (left) and Amelia Jenkinson of Sexplain. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian

Halksworth tells me that she felt shamed by her peers for expressing sexual desire at school, and experienced bullying after her classmates found out she watched porn. Frustrated with these attitudes, she found solace in the sex-positive community. “I went down a black hole and ended up watching all the Come Curious videos in one go,” Halksworth laughs. Her experience isn’t uncommon, says Amber: “We are the last resort for young people, when their parents and teachers don’t fill the gaps.”

Halksworth credits sex-positivity with helping her discover sexual pleasure. “I love watching videos about the female orgasm, and how you shouldn’t feel as if it’s only the man who can finish.” She says she internalised so much shame around female sexual pleasure that she found herself in a 10-month relationship during which she never orgasmed: “For that whole time, he never pleasured me – and I thought that was normal.”

I ask Halksworth whether she thinks young people are mostly learning about sex from porn. “Yes, 100%,” she responds quickly. “I’ve had people say, ‘You weren’t moaning much, was it OK?’ I told them that just because that’s how people act in porn doesn’t mean it has to be like that. They were stunned.”

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Educators from Sexplain, an organisation running sex-positive workshops at schools and universities, are working to ensure that children in British classrooms aren’t reduced to learning about sex from porn. I’m tagging along for the day as they teach a sex-positive approach (no condoms on bananas here) at Sir Robert Woodard academy, a mixed secondary school in Lancing, West Sussex.

“Who can give me an example of verbal consent?” Sexplain educator Sophie Whitehead asks of the classroom. Tumbleweed. A table of three girls sitting near me shift in their seats. Eventually, one girl breaks the silence. “Yeah… baby?” she volunteers. Whitehead beams. “That’s great.” She explains how to spot signs of nonverbal nonconsent, such as someone’s body stiffening, or them pulling away from you. “The most important thing to remember is that consent is ongoing,” Whitehead says, drawing out the word for emphasis. “The person you’re with has the right to change their mind.”

For the most part, it’s sedate stuff. But when the teens split into groups to write down examples of verbal consent, things turn explicit. “I’m going to put my dick in you,” notes one table of boys, carefully. “Fuck me, daddy.” Whitehead is nonplussed, and asks: “Where do you hear people say these things?” The teens bow their heads. “Porn isn’t bad,” Whitehead says, “but it can make us think that sex should be different from how it is in real life.”

We head into a year 10 assembly, led by Sexplain co-founder Amelia Jenkinson. In the front row, a group of boys competitively manspread and occasionally burst into overloud laughter at obscure jokes. There is a fug of hormones and teenage bravado. Still, we cover important ground: coercive control, healthy relationships, and how to break up with someone in a respectful way.

After the assembly, Jenkinson and I catch up. “That was a fairly typical session,” she tells me. “It’s always hard in a big setting like this.” I don’t envy the Sexplain educators, who sometimes find school staff will undermine the message they’re trying to get across. “Teachers say: ‘You shouldn’t ever send a naked photograph in the first place,’” Jenkinson sighs. These attitudes aren’t helpful, she thinks, because they’re not realistic: teens will send nude photographs regardless of whether adults tell them not to, and shaming them for doing so might discourage victims of revenge pornography from coming forward. (She emphasises that this wasn’t an issue at Sir Robert Woodard.)

The sex education I’ve seen today hasn’t been perfect. Some of the more rambunctious boys in the year 10 assembly had to be taken out by teachers, and the educational video Sexplain used was outdated – the acting was stilted, and the performers were clearly adults in their mid-20s dressed in school uniforms, rather than teens. But in attempting to correct the false expectations about sex and relationships that young people have picked up from porn, educators are doing a valiant job. Attempting to stop young people from watching porn is like patching a gunshot wound with a plaster: it won’t work. And the same could be said of abstinence-based approaches to sex education. “They are known to be ineffective,” says public health lecturer Mason-Jones. “They essentially withhold information, are often heteronormative, and can be stigmatising for young people.”

There are already indications that a greater openness about sex is having a positive effect: teen pregnancy rates plummeted in the UK and the US in the noughties. And reactionaries who are worried that sex education leads to promiscuity might be chastened to know that young people seem to be having less sex than before. As parents tie themselves in knots about what their children may or may not be doing, their progeny are getting on with things – or not getting on with things, depending on how you look at it.

Leaving Sir Robert Woodard, as we thread through bustling corridors full of students eating pizza and talking in that indecipherable slang known only to teenagers, Jenkinson makes the stakes clear. “If one person is able to identify that they’re in an unhealthy relationship, and seek help because of it, that’s success for us.”

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How to talk to young people about sex, by YouTubers Come Curious

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When should I have the birds and the bees chat with my kids?
“Don’t wait,” Florence Barkway says. “If you suddenly have the chat one day, it’s going to be awkward. Have conversations about sex, genitals, and bodily functions from an early age. The worst thing you can do is wait until they bring home a partner and say, ‘Don’t forget to use a condom!’”

How should I talk about sex with my children?
“Never say anything that would cause them to feel shame or guilt around sex,” Barkway says. “You can give children hang-ups that will follow them into their adult lives. So instead of saying, ‘Watching porn is dirty,’ say, ‘If you watch porn, understand it isn’t real.’”

What if they ask me something I don’t know how to answer?
“Be honest,” Reed Amber says. “If you don’t know the answer to something, say, ‘I’m not sure – why don’t we find out together?’” Amber suggests seeking out sex-positive educators online: “Erika Lust has a great website for parents looking to talk to their children about porn, while the Family Planning Association’s SexWise is also a good online resource.”

What should I teach my kids about sex?
“Always talk about consent,” Amber says. “If they have an aunt who always kisses them on the cheek, for example, and that makes them uncomfortable, say: ‘It’s OK to tell them you don’t like that.’ In future, they’ll have the confidence to say no in situations where they feel uncomfortable.”

What should I never do?
“Don’t snoop in a teenager’s diary or bedroom,” Amber says. “If they know they can tell you anything about their sex life without shame or judgment, they’re more likely to confide in you when they become sexually active.”

If you would like your comment on this piece to be considered for Weekend magazine’s letters page, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).





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