By Olivia Adams
Over the last week, Zoe Sugg (otherwise known as Zoella) has been brought to the forefront of news headlines due to her ‘masturbation row’ (Gruet, 2021) with a GCSE exam board. The YouTube star posts articles on her website aimed at women aged 25-35 as she discusses mature topics including sex, revenge porn and fertility. The one article that has been of main focus is her review of “The Best Sex Toys to Spice Up Your Life in 2021” and was the trigger that resulted in her being removed from the Media Studies syllabus for AQA.
Through this article I aim to delve deeper into whether AQA made the right decision in removing Zoella’s content or if actually it has only encouraged audiences to keep taboo topics out of the conversation. I will also discuss the expectation for celebrities to uphold a particular appearance in line for a young audience.
(Image taken from Zoella.co.uk)
On February 1st AQA released a statement explaining their decision to remove Zoella’s website from their syllabus as they state their belief ‘that it isn’t appropriate…to ask children as young as 14 to study a website that includes sexual content aimed at adults’.
Although Zoella was unaware that her website was being used, she has responded to the controversy of the situation in an Instagram post as seen below. Zoella hit back at AQA for not researching her website well enough, while also mentioning key points like the fact that female pleasure NEEDS to be talked about more, just as she wishes she had been taught more herself.
AQA agree that ‘effective relationships and sex education in schools is vitally important’, but they don’t think that ‘studying adult-focused lifestyle websites in GCSE Media Studies is the best way to do it’. Now this can of course be understood and it’s hard to argue against the fact that children shouldn’t have to study these topics if they aren’t comfortable in doing so. However, should they not be given the option? As schools educate teens on sexual health and puberty when they go to secondary school, the conversation should be normalised from that point forward; it shouldn’t be viewed as embarrassing or inappropriate. The curriculum seems to miss out on SO much content that teens actually should be taught, including masturbation and pleasure, more so for women than men. Could AQA not have kept Zoella and given further explanation to the students on the subjects discussed if they wanted and required it? Once reaching a certain age, we enter the world wanting to explore our sexual desires, but we don’t have enough knowledge from school to match. This can make it a much more nerve-racking experience, when it should be an exciting and joyful one.
The removal of Zoella’s content from the syllabus has also shed light onto the double standards in exploring sex for women and men. Although AQA state that the ‘decision was due to the whole range of adult-focused content that the website has started publishing’ and is not considered to be linked to gender, the removal does reiterate society’s old-fashioned standards. It gives the impression that the conversation regarding women’s sexual pleasure and health is one to be pushed away. This is not the right message that should be sent to teenage girls and I for one can say that I used to view female masturbation as “dirty” and “wrong” because I was never taught otherwise! Male pleasure and masturbation have been accepted and normalised in society, but women have been left in the dark. If schools took the time to educate teenagers on female pleasure, it could teach girls that it is a good and normal thing to explore their bodies as they get older. As Zoella said best: ‘WOMEN DO MASTURBATE & FEMALE PLEASURE IS A THING (even if we’re shamed and “dropped” for speaking about it)’.
The final point I wanted to make is linked more generally to celebrities who started out with a younger target audience. There seems to be an expectation surrounding child stars, Youtubers and young celebs that they have to maintain a certain persona to suit their audience. They will start out with a squeaky, clean appearance in order to keep their audience interested and also simply because they were younger and hadn’t entered the world as adults. Then as the natural way human aging goes, these stars grow up and so their style, interests and lives change. For many, the simple fact that they have gotten older and don’t aim to please the younger audience anymore has received unjustifiable backlash. For example, these stars include Bella Thorne, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Miley Cyrus is a key figure in this as she grew up on TV and then changed her image massively. On August 22nd 2019, she even felt she had to tweet to remind people of the fact she makes mistakes and isn’t young anymore:
“I’ve learned from every experience in my life. I’m not perfect, I don’t want to be, it’s boring. I’ve grown up in front of you, but the bottom line is, I HAVE GROWN UP.”
“I am proud to say, I am simply in a different place from where I was when I was a younger.”
This relates to the conversation of Zoella and her content as the exam board failed to recognise that since 2017 (when they began using her for their syllabus) she has gotten older. Her content is things she wants to ‘share or shine a light on’ and that has ‘naturally aged up to suit’ her lifestyle. What I’m trying to point out is that it is NORMAL for people in the spotlight to alter the way they share themselves and what they share with the world to fit their age. They have every right to do this and should not be shamed for it!
So, in conclusion, we all need to remember:
1. Masturbation is NORMAL for all genders! Women enjoy sex too and the discussion shouldn’t be shamed.
2. If you feel you haven’t been educated on this topic, then go and learn! There’s no time like the present and you never know what you might find out. The internet allows easy access to many topics and conversations – don’t be afraid to research!
3. Sexual education is key. Let’s all make an effort to normalise the conversation, along with the fact that even though pleasure is often forgotten, it is actually the priority.
4. Let’s stop shaming celebrities for living their lives and growing up! Aside from all the fame, they are just normal people, like you and me. They might make bad decisions while in the spotlight and under pressure, but don’t we all make mistakes? Many of them use their platforms to spread positivity and awareness of topics that aren’t often spoken about, so really, they should be praised!
Gruet, S. (2021). Zoella and the exam board masturbation row. BBC News. [online] 3 Feb. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-55889311 [Accessed 4 Feb. 2021].