Is Love Island replacing sex ed for teens?

Written by Milly Evans, sex education campaigner and founder of I Support Sex Education.

I was kindly asked to comment for an article written by Sophie Gallagher for HuffPost which can be found here. I had some more thoughts to share about Love Island and sex education so here goes…

Love Island Sex Ed

I chose not to watch Love Island this year and did my best to mute it from my social media feeds, which proved to be somewhat impossible. Love Island has become a phenomenon, watched by and obsessed over by millions during the summer. For young children, films, TV and the internet are their sources of education for various things, with sex and relationships being one of them. Love Island offers viewers an “authentic” look into relationships, friendships and drama. It’s addictive.

It’s also the kind of entertainment that many families will sit down to watch in the evening. It’s easy to get immersed in it. The whole premise is about sex and relationships so obviously people are going to learn something from it, even subconsciously. Sadly, the target audience is very impressionable and may not have had the chance yet to have explored relationships and sex for themselves so can’t identify wrong behaviours.

The state of sex education

Sex ed just doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough for many young people. They’re having to turn to the internet and popular culture to figure out relationships and navigating sex. We can blame porn for young people learning negative relationship and sex ideals, but I think popular culture has a big role to play too. What people see online, on TV and hear from friends will inevitably be their education if they’re not getting one in school. I’ve heard some of the most educated people I know saying things like “you don’t get a vagina until you turn five” or “my boyfriend didn’t want to have sex but I wanted to so we did”. Love Island, or porn, or social media alone aren’t to blame for all of the social and emotional issues that we tend to blame them for – but combined with a lack of education and nowhere to talk about and understand the lessons they are teaching us, this kind of media can be dangerous.

The majority of the information that young people are receiving online about sex and relationships is not from experts. It tends to be from peers, companies or media, rather than trained sex educators. I personally try to do my bit to educate young people about sex and relationships but it’s harder than it might look to engage people in factual content about a subject we are traditionally very squeamish about, despite being bombarded by it in advertising, on social media and on TV all day every day.

What is currently being taught in schools is a curriculum from 2000 – schools were still bound by the infamous Section 28 which prevented them from talking about LGBTQ+ issues until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in the rest of the UK. That old curriculum is vague and very open to interpretation, especially by religious groups. When it comes to consent, health and pleasure, there is little to nothing. For me, having only left secondary school last year, it’s worrying that I never had a lesson in school about how to put on a condom. We were taught about abortion in religious education lessons from a video of actors, pretending to be doctors, telling us about how unethical it is. My school tried to get a local vocally homophobic group to come in and talk to 17 year olds about the “divorce epidemic”. This was all at a locally renowned state grammar school.

There is a new curriculum coming in September 2020 which shows some improvement but there is still only a single paragraph on LGBTQ+ inclusive education and it leaves schools to decide how they want to teach it. So whilst they have to teach LGBTQ+ sex ed and are encouraged to integrate it into the rest of the lessons, there is no clear ruling on whether it has to be accurate or positive. Sex positivity, masturbation, casual sex and online dating are largely missing. There isn’t much room for the nuances of sex and relationships so it feels like young people will have to muddle through and hope for the best. The government could have done so much more with this curriculum update, as they were pushed to do by campaign groups.

It’s not normal

Whilst I don’t view Love Island in a positive light and I think that there are better ways that the producers could go about it, I don’t think we can blame it for everything. If the programme was used to analyse and deconstruct abusive behaviours, it could even be a useful tool for young people to see, on their screens, the signs of unhealthy relationships. But the fact is, without sex ed, young people and especially children have nowhere to unpack that – it’s unlikely they’ll be searching out articles or commentary on the negative behaviours. And Love Island isn’t the only show out there portraying sex and relationships in this light. You only have to look at a couple of TV shows and movies to find that abusive behaviour is normalised and romanticised all over the media.

Being forced to spend a couple of months in a villa with a film crew and a bunch of strangers is completely alien– no one enters a relationship and then has to spend all day every day with them in swimwear for weeks. It means that we’re watching relationships develop and break down at hyper speed, which is not the best way to learn about sex and relationships. Perhaps as a social experiment it makes interesting viewing, but it certainly can’t replace sex ed.

Some of the behaviour on Love Island is scary – but what’s even more scary is the idolisation from young people of these abusive behaviours. Love Island has come under criticism for the way it handles contestant mental health but on top of that, almost every day there is a criticism of the behaviours of contestants from a major charity like Women’s Aid. The contestants themselves can’t be fully to blame – their learnt behaviours are a symptom of our culture, and the sex ed that they likely had (or didn’t) is what young people are still getting until September next year.

Having met plenty of Love Islanders in person at events, it’s fascinating how much goes on behind the scenes. We’re not seeing the bowls full of condoms dotted around the villa or the testing for STIs that has to happen before they can go on the show. We don’t get to be involved in the therapy session that all Islanders have to have after sex. We don’t see the conversation about consent. 

Starting conversations

In some ways, it’s opening up a conversation about unhealthy relationship traits, and giving charities like Women’s Aid a way to get their message out to the masses on Twitter. People at school would show me clips from the show and talk about how it made them feel uncomfortable or how it could have been handled more positively. People are starting to notice patterns of behaviour and it could potentially help people to identify those behaviours in themselves and their own and friends’ relationships. But with millions of people watching, there’s no denying that people are being hurt by it and it is absolutely not harmless.

It’s concerning that abusive behaviours are being normalised. The jealousy and possessiveness displayed by the Islanders is not normal – and yet it is. Girls at my school would talk about scrolling through their boyfriend’s phone, speculating about his female friends and getting upset if he didn’t want to have sex. These are not normal behaviours. Treating someone like they belong to you is not flattering. We tend to only talk about possessiveness from the perspective of men, which is clearly visible on the show. But I think the questioning of loyalties and the breaking up of friendships over the male love interests on Love Island highlights that women are also partaking in this behaviour.

Love Island’s social responsibility

Obviously there are other debates at play – why are we parading size 4-8 women in bikinis and men with defined six-packs on TV and then treating it like these are normal and representative body types? Why are the initial islanders “coupled up” based purely on looks and then forced to sleep in the same bed on the first night that they meet? Why are there kissing and lap dance competitions? Why is there so little diversity of race, body type and sexuality? It’s not a matter of the Islanders themselves being unwilling, and it may make for interesting entertainment, but nothing is then stopping young people and children from mimicking that in the playground or at parties. If it happened on Love Island, why can’t it happen at school? No one answers that question for children.

Children need sex education. It’s a human rights issue. Young people don’t have the tools to be able to dismantle the bad behaviours they’re seeing. We can’t offer children content like Love Island and be surprised when they start mimicking the behaviours. If children as young as 7 are watching the show, and I’m sure there are children even younger, it’s not simply a matter of preventing them from watching, although that is sensible. It’s about helping parents, schools and groups of young people to facilitate conversations about what they’re seeing and analyse it from a real-world perspective.

Love Island themselves have a massive platform to be able to call out behaviours, offer support and be vocal about healthy sex and relationships, whether on the show itself or on the after-show. Rather than sensationalising gaslighting and jealousy, they could encourage contestants and viewers to question these kinds of behaviours. When a show has the viewer numbers that Love Island has, especially with the number of those who are under 25, they have a responsibility to open a conversation about healthy portrayals of sex and relationships.