Numlock Sunday: Sophia Smith Galer on Losing It
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
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This week, I spoke to Sophia Smith Galer, the author of the new book Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century.
Galer’s an outstanding journalist who you may know from her work specifically on TikTok, where she was an early adopter among reporters striving to use the new medium for reporting.
Her new book explores all the urban myths about sexuality that thrive in an information-poor environment, how the lack of comprehensive sex ed causes pervasive and at times lifelong hangups, and how other places are able to secure better long-term outcomes through different approaches.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
You have a new book out this week called Losing It, and it dives into a lot of myths and myth-busting around sex and sexuality. What drew you to this topic?
What didn't draw on me to this topic? I think when you talk to people about their own experiences of sex education — and I'm being quite broad with that; that doesn't only mean what you were exposed to at school, it also means the conversations and ideas you were exposed to growing up and in your formative years — I've never met anyone, in any part of the world, of any generation, that gives you a glowing review of the information that they were given.
I grew up in the generation that watched films like Mean Girls, where there's that really funny clip with the coach who's delivering sex ed and says, "Don't have sex because you'll get pregnant and die." And the reason that moment is so funny is because it's so relatable to a lot of people about the messaging that we get as young people. Looking back if you've had a pretty unproblematic sex life, you might look back and just look at it sort of with a little bit of humor, but the truth is that misinformation around sex or messaging that is particularly sex-negative, all of which would qualify as not being the kind of comprehensive sex education you deserved growing up and that we all have a right to, it could have devastating effects on our lives. It can affect our happiness, it can affect our health, it can affect our access to human rights.
It goes far beyond simply how it impacts us around our relationships. I think we talk a lot more about that. We talk a lot more about dating advice, sort of habitually in society. And what we don't do is really seriously address some of the misinformation that we go on to believe as adults and goes on to affect us as adults. My whole book is very in the spirit of my journalism, so it's narrative nonfiction. It is very much me doing a ton of interviews with experts and interviewing so many people who either do or don't have sex and have an interesting story associated with that.
But certainly I was drawn to this topic because I see myself as a victim of a lot of sex myths and misinformation as I was growing up that I fell victim to. And that personally feels like I was failed by the environment and society I was growing up in.
Where do you think some of the biggest failures are?
I think some of the biggest failures lie in how I begin the book, and how the idea of the book began as well, I call it sort of the origin myth, like this villain origin story. The origin horrible sex myth that we all first get introduced to is around early and first sexual experiences. That is normally defined as a singular moment. It's normally labeled as the moment you "lose your virginity," a word that frankly should have long fallen out of all of our modern languages, because it's so archaic in the original sense from which it comes.
To start positing in the minds of young people that, yeah, you are going to have this, you're going to lose your virginity and overnight you switch from one person to the other and you only really lose your virginity if you have this one particular kind of sex. And if you don't have that one particular kind of sex, it's not valid. You start immediately introducing a lot of the labels, a lot of the societal pressure that young people begin to feel around sex that they really shouldn't do. It's this virginity myth that really impedes what could be an easy and equitable entry point into sexual maturity.
I would certainly say that is one of them. Ultimately that myth continues to confer the idea that you have a kind of label or status depending on your sexual activity or history. Obviously it's out of that, that we need to undo towards other really problematic ideas in which people are judged by their sexual identities and may face a lack of justice or a lack of respect and empathy in society as a result.
The final myth I address in the book is the consent myth. I think generally speaking as a society, you find that consent becomes a bit of a buzzword and certainly we are addressing it more and more in the media. But in my investigation for my book, and the research I was doing about how young people today are being taught about consent, it didn't feel much more improved, certainly in a UK perspective, than in my day, where consent is presented as a binary, “say yes or say no.” If you say yes, that means you want it and that's consensual sex. And if you say no, that means you don't want it and so you won't have sex.
Presenting consent and how to navigate consent and express it in sexual scenarios, presenting it as this binary is not useful for young people. You're not equipping them with an understanding of how things like power dynamics and how gender and how privilege impact all our many sexual experiences. You aren't equipping them to understand how much normalized coercion may exist in the society that you live in, which ultimately may contribute to a non-consensual experience you find yourself having.
And in the book in particular, I look at how lots of us experience incursions to our sense of sexual agency and autonomy every day, especially as a woman and being subjected to street harassment, or being subjected to being sent illicit images non-consensually online. Lots of us, we don't necessarily always have the vocabulary to call these acts of abuse and non-consensual acts, as it were. Rather than simplifying it to young people as this binary, that if you nail the understanding of this binary, you'll be fine, no, it's actually about presenting nuance to young people and equipping them with as much information as possible.
It seems like a lot of the social contract changed with the internet, but one thing that you kind of are hammering here is that the social contract around sexuality and conversations about it was pretty broke to begin with, and that we are fundamentally ill-equipped to confront how new technology is exacerbating already existing issues and how we understand and communicate about sex.
I'm always really vocal in my own journalism where I'm constantly criticizing platforms for doing this and that, and not, for example, protecting users in the way that they should be, or allowing users to be abused in a way that they shouldn't be. I've always tried to counter that with tech positivity in that we are so lucky in the world that we live in to have the digital toolkit that we have. For me, it's all about pushing to make people literate enough to use this technology, really building digital and critical literacy to use the online world. That the more information we have, the right information we have, the better, and the more access we have to it, the better.
What I find in my book time and time again is obviously people, everything from bad actors using the internet — so for example, shops, or even doctors and surgeons, themselves advertising procedures like labiaplasty or vaginal tightening, and telling people it's going to improve their sexual function and improve their sexual confidence. When that is not been found. That's not been found by the scientific community at all.
Everything from that to people spreading misinformation, so things they believe to be true, and they do not believe to be causing harm when they're sharing it, but they're posting it anyway. A brilliant example of that would be the countless websites and posts you see online of people telling others that, "Oh, sex is painful for you? Don't worry. That's really normal, sex should be painful for women." That's a really common piece of misinformation that you hear, which is in fact entirely baseless, that should not be the norm for anyone, never mind only women.
What I address in the book is that we have the internet, we actually have a way to not only make sure the generations still at school can get comprehensive sex education, but we have a means with which to try and bring information and debunk misinformation to generations and generations of users who missed out on comprehensive sex ed.
This is so interesting because in particular it seems like the internet has not necessarily been a positive force in sexual education so far! You can see from incels to other people who are capitalizing on misinformation here that there's rampant misinformation out there. Because the kind of prevailing source of ostensibly officially sanctioned information is so muddled, it’s trouble coming through. How do you fix this?
You're really right to raise that because I have a chapter about the virility myth. It addresses the myth that a lot of young men are told, which is that, to be male and masculine, you need to be sexually prolific and you need to perform. It's interesting how “perform” is not a word necessarily ascribed to heterosexual women, but often “perform” and like “performance anxiety,” that's all terminology that's become associated commonly with heterosexual men.
I look at the pressure that this causes for a lot of young people, especially young people who find themselves with conditions like erectile dysfunction, things that are eminently curable, but that society may make you feel like is the absolute worst thing in the world have. I've spoken to young men and I've seen posts online in which it drives people to having suicidal thoughts, it's that bad.
We know from data, certainly in the UK, and I imagine it exists in the US as well, but men are less likely than women to seek out medical support for an issue like this. Lots of young men would rather break up with their partner than actually talk to them about what they're going through and explore a way out of it, as it were, and a way to a cure or treatment. When you look online, you see that community forums, for example on Reddit, are often full of misinformation, but that it's well-meaning misinformation, it's young people thinking they found something that worked for them and telling someone else, "Oh, you should try this."
I mean, I even interviewed one person who's tried to make their own platform that they are in control of, which is a paid-for platform where men can access sex therapists and be part of an online community to tackle things like erectile dysfunction. It tries to copy the community feeling of a place like Reddit, but fill it with qualified therapists and factual information. When he spends time online, this guy who runs it, he said, "I've seen men saying, 'Oh yeah, you might be able to help yourself out if you rub stinging nettles on yourself.'" It's just like some of the solutions that are presented are completely bonkers.
But if you haven't got people filling these spaces with factual information, that's what happens. It becomes this internet wormhole where you find everything from quack cures to, like you mentioned, community building in the wrong way, community building and inclusion from groups who don't have your best interests at heart and may be spreading harmful ideology.
I want to kind of hang out a little bit on the internet community space, because one reason that I'm familiar with you and your work is that you were a journalist who was really at the forefront of a lot of the new journalism being done on TikTok. You've done some really outstanding work there, both reporting on it and in it and all that. I would love to hear a little bit about that part of your experience and potentially how that's affected your journalism and what you're interested in and how you cover it.
Yeah, so I'm 27 and even when I was at school, my life was very much always online. It was how my friendships were formed. It was how my earliest relationships were formed. There's always been this formative relationship with the online world in practically everything that I've done. And I can't imagine how it must feel for young people who've been growing up in the pandemic. It must feel like that times a hundred, perhaps, because of lockdown.
I trained to be a broadcaster, so my journalism masters was in radio and television. My first job out of journalism school was as a social media producer. My next job was as a video journalist, primarily making videos for social channels and the BBC website. The internet has always been a part of the journalism I've done. It's not only the internet, it's understanding the internet, understanding what does well on the internet and always having the drive behind the work I do to reach wider and new audiences.
I find that's quite distinctive to a lot of people who enter journalism in the digital pathway, as opposed to others. It really gets drummed into you like the role you may have in reaching new audiences, I'm really passionate about that. That's something that's really important to me. It's no good to me if I do good work that I'm proud of, but that no one finds, it doesn't find anyone on busy content feeds, as it were.
So that's why when TikTok came along, I was a VJ at the time, a video journalist, and I thought, "Oh, I may have to cut TikTok videos for work. So I better figure out how it works if that happens." And that's how it began, figuring it all out as a tool. And obviously it's gone on to become a huge part of my toolkit. It's a real powerful way of news gathering as well as publishing for me. And that's what I've pioneered here in the UK. A lot of people instantly saw it as a place to publish, and I saw it as a place to publish as well. I also thought I could find stuff on here. It's not only about the end point of the story, it's about the beginning point of it as well.
A hundred percent. I also came up in internet media predominantly, and haven’t been printed on dead trees yet. I completely empathize, and one thing I admire about your work is that it is just so much about the reader. It's very much journalism that exists not for the edification of the writer or the video producer, but rather for readers. I've always liked that about your work.
That's really nice to hear. Another task that I've always had by every employer I've worked for has been reaching wider and newer audiences, especially in news, which often means doing the kind of storytelling that news commonly fails at and it's why it hasn't reached those audiences in the first place. With a lot of the journalism I've done, that has been young women. Obviously for the time being, I remain somewhat of a young woman and having that identity and standpoint has helped me find stories that matter to us because yeah, I'm one of them.
It's also from that this book really came to life. I could see, not only for myself and my friends and my social groups, but from the research I do online that these really powerful topics around sex and the body, so many of them remain taboo and we are desperate to get more information about it and desperate to hear more about it. These are not the stories that are put at the top of website home pages. They're not the stories that tend to be put on the front pages of dead trees, as you said. They're stories that are often buried in women's sections or health sections.
I deliberately wanted to be provocative with this book. I want this book to not only be of interest to people who already think that society should pay a lot more attention to how it educates young people and all people about sex, but get it in politics sections and get it in health sections and get it in more general places as well.
At that, the book is called Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century. Why don't you tell people about the book and where they can find it?
It's available on the internet. If you go to my link in bio everywhere, it gives you a bunch of different shops that you can preorder it from. But it's basically my manifesto for challenging the sex education and awareness around sex and our bodies that we are given in society and campaigning for inclusive and equitable sex.
It's a phrase I didn't hear before I wrote this book; we often hear about people campaigning or advocating for pleasurable sex, closing the orgasm gaps, stuff like that. I think it has to go a step further. I think we need to work so much harder in addressing the misinformation that is impeding lots of people's access to the sexual freedom that they would like to enjoy and are entitled to. That's a step more than pleasurable, that goes really quite a bit higher. It includes respect, it includes ethics, it includes knowledge. So that's why I say equitable sex. It goes through different myths that you may have encountered not only growing up, but today. Myths that you may be endorsing today, several years and even decades into your sexual maturity.
Really been looking forward to this one. And also at that, where can folks find you outside of the book world on the various media platforms upon which you produce content?
Yeah. If you want to follow my work and my chatting about my thoughts about journalism, Twitter is best. If you want to see my daily life and achievements I'm proud of, go to my Instagram. And if you want to see everything from journalism to etymology videos, to language videos, to sex misinformation debunks to general debunks, go to my TikTok.
Anything else you want to get in there?
Oh gosh, I think I've said quite a lot, but I guess it's worth saying that if a lot of your readers are in the US, I really feel for you. In my research that I did, it's really, really, very obvious that it's a zip code lottery in the US about access that young people have to sex education and people's rights are really getting intruded on. It feels like sometimes every other week when I check the news about sex ed in the US.
So if my work sounds interesting to you, you are already barking up the right tree. What I hope my book can help present is lots of examples from other countries, sex educators around the world, that present the kind of comprehensive sex education that we all deserve.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.