Three weeks ago documentary film-maker Susi Arnott and I started a new 7 week group film-making group at Brook Brixton. The aim of this group was to build on the insights, successes and failures from the summer workshop and have another go at reanimating sensitive interview material and bringing it to life through film. This time all the data we have been looking at is related to first sex. I have selected all the excerpts of data relating to first sex and have given them to the group to decide how and why we might want to use this material to make one or two short films. The idea for this came from the summer workshop when some of the young people commented that it was unusual to hear the kinds of ‘real’ stories about first sex that were captured in the research data and that it would be good if more young people were able to hear these kinds of accounts. As result, one of the volunteers has started her own social action project and this has become the focus of the new film-making project.
When selecting the extracts to give to the group I noticed for the first time that all but one of the twelve participants who had described a sexual experience sex (some young people I interviewed were not yet sexually active) only one described a positive experience. The rest were unwanted, regretted, uncomfortable or abusive. As several of the young people in the group have commented, the extracts are a ‘depressing’ read- 11 examples of bad sex. As a group we don’t want to make films that suggest that first sex is something to be feared or that pain and distress are to be expected – on the contrary -the aim of the project is to emphasise that bad sex is not ok and that everyone is entitled to have good, safe sex. When I asked a colleague at Brook to look at the extracts she commented – ‘the transcripts seem to normalise coercion or abuse. I think it’s important that YP understand that just because something may be common, that doesn’t necessarily make it ok.’
We cannot however, change the research. I didn’t go out and look for young people who had experienced coercion or who regretted their early sexual experiences but this was what the majority of young people in my small sample described. The data tell a different story however if we focus not just on first sex but on each young person longer sexual story of how they have been gradually learning about what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, about how to experiment with their partners and talk about what they like and what they don’t. Their experiences seem to support what Dr Rachael Jones said when Susi interviewed her for this project – ‘often it takes a really long time to know what you enjoy when it comes to sex and it takes a lot for a person to say this is what I like and this is what I don’t like.’ With the group in Brixton we are trying to work out how we can incorporate this into short films – how can we capture both the reality of my interview participants’ experiences of difficult early sexual experiences, as well as sense that for most of these young people sex got better as they get older, more experienced, more confident and more comfortable with their own bodies in their relationships with their partners.
Working with the data has been challenging and provocative – leading to debates about consent, religion and sexual abuse. On week one I read out an extract from an interview with a young woman called Kat in which she describes her first sexual experience. After I read the extract the group started to discuss whether or not Kat consented to the experience and the group disagreed – was this consensual sex? Or was this sexual abuse? For me, this extract was one of many examples in the data of an experience that was ambiguous – both wanted and unwanted, coercive and desired. This was not example of the kind of explicit, clearly communicated consent that we would advocate in a classroom, but the murky, painful territory of uncertainty and ignorance. Reading the extract out to this new group of young people I realised how difficult this material could be when transferred from the intimacy of the interview encounter, to the more public space of a newly formed group.
We set the group the task of generating images inspired by this extract – many of which, as you can see in this post, capture the often blurred boundaries between pleasure and pain, consent and coercion. We have also started experimenting with adding these images to audio – what happens when we take a recording of someone reading an extract from Kat’s interview and add Elesha’s photos of hands entwined on the bed? Or what happens if we strip away the photos and just have a black backdrop and a voice telling us Kat’s story? We have 4 weeks to go – lets see.