Over the summer I worked with a film maker, theatre director and group of young volunteers to explore ways of ‘reanimating’ research data. At a two day workshop we worked with interview and survey data, using a range of creative techniques to create 4 different films. Two of these were made using the survey data – one capturing young people’s definitions of ‘good sex’ and the other of young people’s definitions of ‘bad sex’.
This project is based on my PhD research which used different methods of data collection to try to understand how young people understand and experience ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure. At the first stage of the research I conducted a survey of 278 young people in London, using this method to ask young people about their views on sex and relationships. The survey included a question that asked young people to complete the following statements:
Good sex is…..
Bad sex is…..
These questions generated hundreds of responses that were so diverse it was often difficult to categorise them. For example, the most common theme in young people’s definitions of ‘good sex’ was love, yet this was only mentioned by 19% of participants. The other 81% of participants expressed a range of different values, ideas and concepts, suggesting that young people understand ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex in a variety of different ways. The tag cloud below show some of this diversity as well as some of the patterns in young people’s responses. It was created through running the lists of responses through data analysis software that counted the frequency of the words used and made the most common words large and bold.
At the young people’s film workshop held in London last August we used these lists of responses – handing out three pages of definitions of ‘good sex’ to each young person. Theatre director Lucy led the activity, asking each young person to choose three responses from the list and write each one on to a post-it note. As they read through the list of responses, the group laughed, agreeing with some definitions and feeling offended, disgusted or unsettled by others.
Next, Lucy informed the group that we were going to make a short film using the definitions that the group had selected. To do so, we needed to think of different ways of writing these definitions and capturing the text with film. Lucy kicked off the brainstorm by suggesting that we could have a shot of someone writing a text message. The ideas flowed – facebook, graffiti, lego, spaghetti, writing on or with a person’s body, photographing the words in a newspaper, using magnetic letters, footprints, the contraceptive pill.
After the brainstorm we sprung into action. Each person was assigned a ‘good sex’ quote and a method of reanimation. After each masterpiece had been created we captured them on film, using the iPod touches or the skills of film maker Susi. The day ended with Mattias stretched out on the floor as enough group member wrote on his torso with pink icing and Susi stood over capturing this strange moment of performance art on film.
We resumed the next day (after a trip to Primark and Sainsburys for supplies) to finish off: writing on a t-shirt, sending messages on Skype and spelling out quotes with alphabetti. At the end of the 2 days all the footage went to Susi to edit together into a stream of images and clips.
After viewing the montage of clips together the following week we decided that the film needed voices and set about recording each of the statements. Each group member read a few – leaning forwards into Susi’s magic foam recording box and speaking into the microphone.
The film is not quite finished yet – in its current form it’s a medley of clips and voices, each animating and articulating definitions of ‘good sex’ in different ways. To me, the film captures something of the diversity of young people’s understandings of ‘good sex’ that was documented in the research data . It is also bright and colourful – and funny. The different ways of animating the data are creative and the voice recordings make me laugh as I remember each young person with their head stuck in a box, their faces disappearing as they filled their voices with passion, humour, or desire…. ‘Good sex’ – one young woman reads with passion and intensity – ‘is when I’m left shivering on the bed…’.
We have yet to discuss how the film could be used, but to me it would work as a discussion piece – firing off ideas about ‘good sex’, offering statements to be agreed with and disagreed with. I don’t agree with all the definitions included in the film, just as I didn’t subscribe to many of those that I encountered in doing my research. The next step will be to decide whether to keep in definitions that we know could be offensive and/or normalising (i.e. ‘man + woman + condom = good sex’) as the basis for discussion about sexual norms – what they are and how they are created, sustained and challenged, or whether we take them out, cautious of adding fuel to the fire of powerfully dominant values that frequently remain unchallenged. These are editorial decisions that we will have to make that point to a tension I explored in the final chapter of my PhD thesis:
‘Evidence of the diversity of meanings and resources for making sense of ‘good sex’ in young people’s sexual cultures suggests that this is a rich area for research/practice; for exploring conflicting moral values, experiences of difference, inequality, loss, desire, exclusion, fear and pleasure. Analysis of the data suggests that whilst some of these meanings fit closely with accounts of ‘good sex’ framed in sexual health and education policy – delay, love, reciprocity, intimacy – others such as the pleasure of anonymous sex and the sharing of sexual partners may be more challenging to explore in the ‘official’ spaces of schools, clinics and other institutional environments.
Evidence of this discrepancy is perhaps not surprising but raises questions about whether the function of the pleasure project is to challenge young people’s accounts of ‘good sex’ and offer a more feminist or ‘health-promoting’ (UNESCO 2007) alternative or to create spaces, as I did as a researcher, to give voice to a range of sexual meanings and experiences and allow young people to ‘find their own way’ (Jessica, focus group two).’
I’ll be discussing the films with the project team next week and whilst most of the definitions of ‘good sex’ included in the film are not particularly contentious, we may find ourselves addressing a recurrent question: what do we do with the understandings of ‘good sex’ recorded in the data that we do not believe to be ‘good’ for young people’s sexual health and wellbeing. As researchers disseminating findings and as educators working with young people how much ‘diversity’ of sexual meanings and values to we make available? And to what extent do we guide young people towards particular understandings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex and to what extent to we, as one focus group participant suggest, let them ‘find their own way’.