I can’t remember when, exactly, I started watching Hannah Witton’s YouTube channel. I’ve backed her on Patreon for over a year now, though, because she’s doing important work. YouTube has a fantastic community of people who care about discussing and educating on topics like sex and sexuality in a way that is accessible to young people. Given that many countries’ sex education curricula are lacking, to say the least (Ontario’s is better than many, especially with the recent overhaul, but we still have plenty of room for improvement), I’m a big supporter of young people having access to reliable information on sex, sexuality, and romance. Witton has been doing a fantastic job with her channel and numerous efforts beyond it, such as the Girl on Girl show, and the Banging Book Club she started with her friends. Now, in Doing It!: Let’s Talk About Sex, Witton has finally brought her knowledge, curiosity, and personality to the page, which is of course my preferred form.
An alternative title for this book might have been something along the lines of Is It Normal That I …?. Much of Doing It! is focused on addressing the reader directly and fielding hypothetical questions about sexual attractions, appetites, arousal, and actions. When you think about it, this makes so much sense. Adolescents going through puberty and experiencing things for the first time, especially when they aren’t equipped with open and informative sex education, really just want to know if what they’re feeling is “normal”. Is it normal to be attracted to certain types of people, or not to feel attraction at all? Is it normal to want to do certain things in bed, but not other things? Is it normal to ….
Witton’s overarching message, the theme of Doing It!, is that the answer to all these questions is a unequivocal yes. Yes, you are normal—or rather, there is no “normal”, there is no “acceptable” and “unacceptable” way to be a human being. People experience attraction and arousal to differing degrees, from none at all to being attracted to everyone of any gender; people have differing attitudes towards different expressions of sex and love. Witton reminds us time and again that there are only two overriding factors to consider when it comes to judging the expression of one’s sexuality: is it safe, and is it consensual?
In her quest to be as inclusive as possible, Witton acknowledges that as a straight and cis person, she has certain privileges and biases. So she includes contributions from numerous other people of different genders, sexual orientations, and abilities. As much as I love Witton’s voice and want to hear more from her, I really like that she made the space to amplify those voices instead of speaking over them or for them. This inclusion is far from perfect or comprehensive, of course. For example, although there’s a piece by Rikki Poynter about consent and deafness, which is super interesting by the by, Witton herself has remarked that she wishes she had sought out more disabled people to contribute their perspectives. Similarly, the chapter on body image and confidence could be more robust. Although Michelle Elman and Jimmy Hill both contribute some interesting thoughts on the subject, more views from fat people and people who have struggled with body image issues, with regards to sex, would have made the chapter even more informative.
By far for me, though, the biggest deal is the inclusion of asexuality in the conversation about sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ identities:
The definition of ‘asexuality’ is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone. Sexual orientation and romantic orientation are different; often they match up, but not necessarily. Asexual people can still experience romantic attraction. There are also aromantic people who don’t experience romantic attraction. And just as with everything else, asexuality is also on a spectrum.
Not only does she include it, but she distinguishes between asexuality and aromanticism! The chapter goes on to include a piece from Amelia Morris busting a bunch of myths about asexuality and basically, as one would expect from Morris, assuring the reader that it’s A-OK to be ace.
I’m lucky in that I’ve always been pretty comfortable with my identity long before I knew the terms and labels I could use to describe it. Other aces and aros, I know, have not been so fortunate. Just imagine being a 14- or 15-year-old asexual person coming across this term for the first time here in this book and seeing that, actually, it’s totally normal and OK not to feel sexual attraction—but that, at the same time, that isn’t necessarily the same thing as being celibate or abstinent or romantically uninvolved. This unequivocal inclusion and acceptance of asexuality and aromanticism in the LGBTQ+ chapter in a book aimed at younger readers is hugely important.
There are so many other cool parts to Doing It! I’m not sure where to start. Witton is both funny and honest, such as when she confides about her ambivalence regarding masturbation, particularly because it took her a long time to first orgasm:
As I got older and was less grossed out by the idea of self-pleasure, and growing more and more painfully aware about the lack of orgasms in my sex life, I became increasingly frustrated. Even though I knew it was normal for some women, I just couldn’t let it go. At this point I’d started making sex education videos on YouTube and I felt like such a fraud.
I love that, although Witton has the confidence to write a book and share her learning with us, she doesn’t position herself as an expert who has it all figured out. She demonstrates quite aptly that there is no age, whether it’s 18 or 25 or 50, when someone should be expected to have it all figured out. All of us are always still learning, whether it’s about sex or about life in general, and that’s a positive attitude to model. The very closing line of the book, without spoiling it, emphasizes and reaffirms this attitude.
Witton often addresses the reader directly, and she manages to do it in such a way that comes off as impressively agnostic. That is to say, I don’t feel like Doing It! is aimed specifically at, say, young women just because Witton herself is one. This is particularly noticeable when discussing things that are often assumed to be specific to one sex or gender, such as periods. Witton says things like “people with vaginas” or “people with penises” or “people who have periods” instead of “women”, “men”, etc.—because not all women have vaginas, and not everyone with a vagina is a woman. The section on emergency contraception and abortion (“well, if you don’t want to get pregnant and have a child then there are still options”) only mentions the word “women” once, when quoting a statistic. These turns of phrases are so deliberate but at the same time are definitely not awkward.
Like any book that tries to provide a comprehensive overview, Doing It! isn’t perfect. Indeed, most of my criticisms are structural rather than content-oriented. The book’s design is quite whimsical, with a varied and shifting use of fonts and decorative illustration—which is fine, but on occasion it can make things more confusing. In particular, the table of contents’ layout makes it hard to locate a chapter at a glance—which one might very well want to do, if one is reading the book piecemeal or wants to go back and refer to a specific section. Similarly, I wish the individual pieces within the chapters were listed somewhere. There is an index at the back (I love indices so much!), but it’s less helpful when you want to read, say, the piece called “Orgasm” and the index has several listings for that word. It’s also difficult to quickly locate specific contributors’ pieces or get a sense, just in general, of how many people contributed pieces on which topics.
Obviously, these are minor quibbles. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, both at work at lunch time and at home. I’d be hard-pressed to say if I learned anything specifically new from this book (though the urine-injection-into-a-frog pregnancy test thing might count, I guess), but my understanding and awareness of a panoply of issues has certainly been deepened and broadened. Doing It! is informative and educational without sounding dry or academic. If you’ve watched Witton’s videos, you’ll know what I mean—and if you haven’t, then go do so. I mean you basically will get a sense of her voice and from there be able to decided whether or not you’ll like the book.
Most importantly, though, is the way in which Witton and Doing It! encourage people to have more conversations openly about sex. That’s not to say, of course, that you need to talk about sex or your sex life with just anyone, or that everyone must be comfortable talking about sex (i.e., if you are sex-repulsed, that’s totally OK). Rather, sex is not something to be ashamed of, and we will only benefit if we do away with the stigma of, for example, discussing periods around men, or talking about masturbation and self-pleasure. I’ve long been intrigued by human sex and sexuality (probably, I think, out of an anthropological kind of curiosity because it’s just something I have no interest in experiencing firsthand). It’s only within the past year or so, however, that I’ve started taking steps to have more open and deliberate conversations with my closer friends, and to discuss my own identity to that extent. Watching Witton’s videos and reading along with the Banging Book Club have definitely helped me in this journey. I can only hope that Doing It! does the same for many other people of all ages, but particularly young people who are just starting to discover their own sexuality.