Hannah Witton’s Zoom background puts the rest of us to shame. She is sat in an armchair with a tidy but colourful bookcase to her right and a bright white wall to her left. Professional yet relaxed, the room is crying out to be turned into a thumbnail. As soon as the call connects, I cannot help but sit up straight, rearrange my hair, and shift the angle of my camera slightly, so as to obscure as much as possible of my own background: my childhood bedroom strewn with the remnants of a recent ten-day isolation.
Youtuber, author, podcast presenter and sex educator, Hannah Witton has dedicated her career to campaigning for and providing holistic sex education in the UK. “Whilst [sex education] is covering important things, it’s just not giving people the full picture of sexuality and sexual relationships,” Hannah tells me. “It is very much in the preventative realm surrounding contraception, pregnancy and STIs and it never really goes into the fact that sex is meant to be pleasurable”. According to the 2019 Relationships and Sexual Education Survey, only 31% of students feel they have been taught all they need to know about sexual pleasure. The figure for contraception, on the other hand, is 86%. Instead of focussing on “all the things that could go wrong”, Hannah advocates for education that covers “the ways to make your social, personal and romantic relationships healthy, fun and pleasurable in the widest sense of the term”.
But before she can even begin to broach the subject of pleasure, Hannah is stuck “having conversations about the fact that sex, or any kind of penetration, should not be painful”. “We were all lied to,” she says, for the first time raising her voice. “I remember thinking that there was no way around it, that if you had a vulva, the first time you have penetrative sex, it will hurt […] what a messed up thing to be taught”. Painful sex, society would have women believe, is “the price we’ve got to pay for having a vulva […] it’s our eternal punishment”.
Sex education fails on another front too, in its “narrow and rigid view of sexuality and sexual behaviour”. Whilst our normative approach to sex education impacts many intersectional groups, Hannah’s central focus is on the ways in which the disabled community are let down. “Disabled people often aren’t seen as sexual beings, as having any kind of sexual desires, needs or wants, but are also not being seen as viable, desirable sexual partners. So many people would just automatically write off somebody if they saw that they had a visible disability, but it’s because there’s such a lack of education around it”.
At the moment, she says, we are asking all the wrong questions: “How many times do you have sex? How often do you have sex? What kind of sex are you having?”. The hierarchy of sexual acts allows society to define what it considers to be ‘real’ sex, a definition that can often exclude people who have physical disabilities. “If we put pleasure first rather than metrics […] we’ll all have more sex”. For Hannah, the question we should really be asking is “what feels good?”.
Hannah admits that this was an intersection that she had never considered before it impacted her directly, which she regretfully calls a “symptom of a society that often ignores disabled people”. In 2018, after a bad flare of ulcerative colitis, Hannah had an ileostomy, which means that she now has a stoma, an opening in the abdomen that allows digestive waste to be diverted out of the body. “There was a lot to overcome in terms of feeling like my body was mine again. Feeling like I had control and agency, feeling like it was connected to me and feeling like it wasn’t this thing that was trying to kill me – because my body definitely tried to kill me”.
“When you are suddenly in a different situation where you can’t do the same things that you used to be able to do, you start thinking more creatively. You start to think outside of the box, you can’t follow this script that we’ve all been given. What else can you do instead? […] There may be limitations, there may be restrictions, but there can still be pleasure. One of the things that it’s opened up in my world is crotchless underwear […] it’s something sexy that keeps the stoma bag out of the way”.
I ask Hannah how she thinks COVID-19 restrictions have impacted the ways that people are having sex. “It’s hard for people. But there are ways to still feel that kind of connection. And there are also ways to be sexy with people remotely […] it’s about deciding if that’s what you want to do, exploring it by yourself and with other people and seeing how it feels”. “Whilst I don’t like to put romantic and sexual relationships on a pedestal, they do serve their own purpose. We can’t deny that. […] Flirting is so fun and energetic, and there’s that exciting feeling of meeting a new person and seeing if there’s any chemistry. […] It’s a shame that people are not being able to experience that”.
But Hannah is hopeful that there will be a silver lining. “We now have this shared language in our society, this collective understanding around public health – and sexual health is also a public health issue […] in theory, in an ideal world, we don’t treat disclosing our STI status any differently than we would to disclosing our COVID status”.
The label ‘sex-positive’ would seem to apply to Hannah pretty unproblematically. But when I ask, she is hesitant to accept the term outright. “The problem is, if you go so hard and so enthusiastic down that route, you forget that a lot of people have negative or even traumatic experiences when it comes to sex. And then it can also alienate asexual people as well”. For Hannah, the term ‘sex critical’ is more representative of her beliefs, incorporating both the good and the bad when it comes to sexual experiences.
Taking the porn industry as an example, Hannah tells me that whilst someone who is sex-positive might view porn as a healthy way to discover sexual preferences and a liberatory avenue of female sexual expression, someone who is sex critical would scrutinise the industry itself, its exploitation of sex workers and its unsafe labour practices. “We need to be listening to all sex workers. There are lots of different reasons why people will go into sex work”. She leans in and lowers her voice; “there’s lots of different reasons why people go into any kind of work. We really need to be treating sex work in the same way that we would treat any work”.
At the time of our conversation, Pornhub has just announced its decision to remove all unverified content from its platform in order to combat the scourge of child abuse videos that had been found on the site. “We’ll see how that works”, Hannah tells me, “but there is just this general pattern of ‘save the children’ – which is absolutely a noble cause – but the way that governments and businesses try and go about it tends to actually not save the children; […] it trickles down and then consenting adults, sex workers and sex educators as well are being penalized. […] I’m all for holding Pornhub accountable for its shit”.
“There’s really no good places online for sex workers to make a living safely without the risk of platforms deciding that they don’t want to be associated with them anymore. We saw Tumblr do it. We saw OnlyFans this year. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening with PornHub right now. I imagine it might be a side effect. [Sex workers] are already at the bottom of the barrel of society. It doesn’t matter if we squish them more. That’s what it feels like”.
We say our goodbyes and hang up the call. Thinking back now, I can’t quite believe how comfortable I had been to talk so freely about sex with a stranger on the internet. But Hannah’s attitude was infectious. I had been given a glimpse of what conversations about sex should look like; never condescending, never exclusionary, always honest. Whilst sex education in the UK continues to be embarrassed by its own existence, it is down to people like Hannah to remind us that sex is something worth talking about.
Image credit: Rebecca Need-Menear