Sex films: 'I didn't learn much, but the movies did make me laugh'

Teenager's view: Ella Thorold, 15
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The Independent Culture

Didn't the grown-ups know anything about sex back in the previous century? If you watch the 1917 sex education film aimed at adults, it would seem that they knew less about sex than people my age these days – because if someone had tried to show us that video in our sex education classes at school, we would have booed it off in the first five minutes.

The early sex education videos, on first impressions, seemed completely ridiculous. The puritanical and conservative message which emerged from them shocked my friends and me when we watched them. The clear message is: DO NOT EVER HAVE SEX OUTSIDE MARRIAGE – BECAUSE IF YOU DO, BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU.

That one made us laugh – I'm 15 and I already know some peers who are having sex.

In the first couple of films, such as Whatsoever a man soweth, it was as if all the problems associated with sex, STDs being an obvious example, were the fault of the woman. The clear implication is that promiscuous women lead the men on and were no more than distractions to the hard-working soldiers. The sexism is very apparent. The women were portrayed as dangerous creatures who would take the money off their innocent, naive victims and give them a sexually transmitted infection into the bargain.

It's easy to observe society's changing attitudes as the films continued throughout the 20th century. In some ways the 1960s videos were quite similar to the films I see in PSHE (personal social health education). The moralising tone stopped, and instead of warning us off sex the films starting banging on about how important it was to use condoms, drumming into our heads that teenage pregnancy is a bad idea – as though we can't work that one out for ourselves! There was lots of footage of distraught teenage mums trying to look after their babies. But in general these later films were much more liberal and entertaining, and the overall attitude to sex was quite laid-back and broad-minded.

What the early films have in common is that they seemed to be aimed at two-year-olds, with lots of infantile cartoons and patronising voice-overs. In fact, the more serious the message, the more they made us laugh. I think it's true to say that nowadays, general attitudes to sex aren't that serious – but who knows if that's a good or bad thing?