SHAG or ‘Sexual Health and Guidance’ is a project run by Ellie Softley. The project aims to “educate, entertain, and help our generation to express and explore their own sexuality.” It features photography, videography, essays, and poetry, pushing sexual expression into the realm of art. I spoke to Ellie about her reasons for starting SHAG, and the need “to stop being so bloody British about sex.”
The idea for starting SHAG came when Ellie “was shocked to find no platform for young adults that engaged in sexual health existed at university.” She expresses that she “was lucky to grow up in a liberal environment where sex was spoken about openly between friends and family,” but soon found that other girls she met at university were embarrassed to speak about their sexuality.
Ellie blames the narrowness of the sex education curriculum in schools as one reason for people’s discomfort surrounding sex. “We should be speaking about relationships, emotions, consent, and non-hetero-normative relationships.” The benefits of widening conversations are simple: better, safer sex, and the ability to make informed decisions. As with all education, knowledge is empowerment which can prevent crises.
“We need to explore and understand our own sexuality before giving it away. We need to respect, take care of one another and learn to accept that sexuality is not a choice. The younger we ingrain that into children’s minds, the healthier we can be.”
Expressing a moment of self-doubt, Ellie said “sometimes I question what I do. I know that sex is private and that secrecy can be imperative. However, there are a lot of people struggling, who don’t feel accepted, who feel scared and lonely. They need a platform to create and express, and also to ask questions and better understand.”
SHAG is highly concerned with integrating art and sex. The website is aesthetically bold and beautiful, but also stresses the importance of unfiltered imagery. “Sexual expression is art. They bleed into one another in every single aspect. When you produce art, you open yourself up to a certain type of vulnerability; you let somebody see a private side to you, an intimate side, the honest side, just as you do when having sex.” Sexualized bodies have been the muse of artists since time immemorial. Yet the imbalance of power between artist and subject has led to an understanding of sexuality as inherently unequal.
Speaking about the overwhelming amount of pornographic imagery we encounter daily, Ellie said “we are not able to get rid of pornography and to be honest, I don’t think we should get rid of it. What is needed is a change in its production.” The trend in ‘ethical porn’ focuses on equal representation within the porn industry. It aims to encourage more female directors so that both “the male and female gaze are represented.”
All submissions to SHAG are anonymous. It helps protect people, and according to Ellie, is “a good way to start conversations.” However, the anonymity of the contributors acknowledges the existence of intense fear still surrounding conversations about sex. “That is what we need to change. I wanted to create a place where people do not feel ashamed of how many people that they have slept with or how many mistakes they have made. I want people to know that they have a voice, and they can use it.” SHAG’s ability to open up conversations surrounding sexuality in a safe and creative manner is integral to its success.
You can visit the website here: www.iwanttoshag.com.