a sex and relationships guide to its a sin

A Sex and Relationships Guide To It’s A Sin

Here is another one of my ‘Sex and Relationships Education Guide to … ‘  articles, this time for It’s A Sin. I’ve done these before for Normal People and I May Destroy You, other popular shows about sex and relationships.

It’s A Sin is a drama about young people living through the Aids crisis in London in the 80s. It’s on Channel 4 (free in the UK and you can watch online at 4OD). Later in the year it’s on HBO Max (whatever that is). Because it’s about HIV and Aids, there’s obviously a lot for a sex educator to say. So this article is bloody long, I’m sorry about that. 

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About HIV and Aids

I’ve got a pretty comprehensive article about HIV and Aids here. Also a more general guide to sex infections here. The main thing to know about HIV is that it’s a virus that lowers the immune system and make people vulnerable to illnesses. Where usually someone with a strong enough immune system would be able to fight off common infections, someone with a low immune system will end up getting very ill.

In the 80s many people died because treatments hadn’t been available, or weren’t as effective as they are now. This is not true now, certainly where free healthcare is available to people (as it is in the UK). Treatments are now so successful that someone with HIV can expect to live for as long as anyone else. Also without fear of passing the virus onto someone else. It’s A Sin is not about now, it’s about then, and there’s a lot to learn from it. But it’s important to also get up to speed on current tests and treatments for HIV. So go read this article too.

Spoiler alert

Below are massive massive spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens to everyone, stop reading now. I’ve pulled out some themes and moments that come up in the show. It’s vaguely in chronological order, kind of, but not really. It’s not a review of the show, but it’s a resource to help you get thinking about some of the things that come up. I’ve also got a few interesting bits of information, some links to great organisations, and hopefully it’s interesting. 

The shagging

Just like Normal People (the first of these series of articles) there’s a lot of shagging in It’s A Sin. The sex always looks to be a lot of fun for everyone involved, even when this awful song is playing in the background. They show the sex being joyful and orgasmic, which is great (because it soon won’t be so joyful, spoiler).

They don’t show how they are enjoying the sex. One of the criticisms about pornography as a sex education tool is that they show people having what looks like very enjoyable sex, but they don’t show how to make it enjoyable. In real life, sex isn’t always enjoyable. To make sex that enjoyable we can’t just rely on chemistry, or vibes. So here’s some advice on how to enjoy sex more.

Anal sex and norms

Also, there’s a lot of (what we presume to be) anal sex in the show. Even though we can’t see penises going into anuses (like in porn) I’m assuming that a lot of the sex is anal because it’s a drama about Aids. Unprotected anal was and is the most common way of transmitting HIV for men who have sex with men.

However, it’s important to remember that not all gay men (or men who have sex with men) have anal sex or enjoy anal sex. It’s thought that around a third don’t regularly have anal sex. So it’s important that even though we are assuming that most of the sex they are having in It’s A Sin is anal, we don’t equate that with ‘gay sex’. There’s a lot more to sex than just anal for gay men: oral, masturbation, humping, etc.

As we see in shows about straight people having sex we are led to assume that the sex scenes are about vaginal sex. What our culture tells us about what ‘counts’ as sex is that is has to be about a penis going inside someone else. So when we watch a TV show they lead us to believe that these are the sexual norms we should assume are happening. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe they were all doing naked humping, or intercrural sex (squeezing the penis in between (eg) thighs or bum cheeks). Anyway….

Condoms

Although condoms have always been used to prevent getting and giving STIs, before HIV they were mostly associated with not getting someone pregnant. This is why when Richie’s dad gave him some condoms on the ferry he threw them into the Solent. 

In a later episode when he would try to use a condom with his then partner Donald it was all a bit of a faff. What they should have done was to prepare in advance, open the condom, put it the right way up on the side. Then when Donald’s dick got hard he could have just more quickly rolled it on, stuck some lube on, and away they go. 

Read how to make condoms easier

Also, side note, the recommended condoms for anal sex back then were pretty thick and they didn’t smell so great. Nowadays it’s okay to use thinner condoms, just make sure you also use water based or silicone lube too. Read more about condom types.

That whole ‘I’m clean’ and ‘you can trust me’ thing isn’t really very helpful. Though it is still definitely a thing that people said then and now. Having an STI is nothing to do with cleanliness. But it is a good idea to wash the anus before rimming – that or use a dam. Also it’s good to remember that we sometimes need to prepare our bodies in some ways before sex – washing, warming up, cushions etc.

Read What we need before sex

Most of the time, STIs have no recognisable symptoms or they have very mild symptoms. Back in the 70s and 80s there were sexual health leaflets telling you to look for symptoms like rashes and blisters. Richie did this in that scene with Donald. Nowadays the emphasis is on getting tested.

Read how to talk about safer sex

‘Non Normative’ Sex

A lot of the show is about non-normative sex. Sex that is fun but, for some reason, seen as naughty and wrong. The history of sexuality is about society defining what is ‘normal’. The kinds of sex that we saw in It’s A Sin were seen (and still are seen) as being ‘not-normal’. Sex without knowing their name. Outdoor shagging. Group sex. Watching others have sex. Porn. Transactional sex. Sex for the sake of having sex (and nothing else).

Read Why do people have sex? 

There was also some unsafe sex and some attempts at non-consensual sex. What a lot of people do is to just put the ‘not-normal’, ‘unsafe’ and non-consensual bits all together and say ‘look, it’s all wrong and unethical’. When we’re thinking about sexual ethics it’s important to separate the idea of ‘what is normal’ from ‘what is consensual’ and ‘what is safe.’

You might have your own thoughts about this, and what feels okay to you. We all have our own ideas of what kinds of sex might feel okay to us and what our boundaries might be. But if sex is safe and consensual, what is the use of the word ‘normal’? If you want to learn more about this stuff read more about Gayle Rubin’s Charmed Circle of Sexuality at my mate’s website.

Sexualities

You might think that this show was just about one kind of sexuality, being gay. Richie said he was bi at first but it seems pretty clear that he meant ‘gay’. But there was another very important sexuality going on: ‘allosexuality.’ 

As I’ve already explained here, an ever increasing number of people now identify with the term ‘asexual’. This is where people don’t experience a lot of, or any, sexual attraction or desire. The asexual community have helped us (me) to understand that this is a spectrum. It goes from ‘asexual’ at one end to ‘allosexual’ at the other. So allosexuality would be where people experience a lot of sexual attraction and desire. 

There’s a lot between these scales. I’ve included a couple of terms that are sometimes used to describe people between the two ends of the spectrum. 

I bring this up not to call out the show for not specifically talking about asexuality. It’s just to help us to understand how different sexualities are at play. Consider all the characters in the show, where might they be on this scale?

Colin’s sexuality

So perhaps Colin was less ‘allosexual’ than Richie and Roscoe, but he was still very much a gay man. At one point Roscoe low-key shames Colin when he says “have you ever had sex” (after Colin low-key shames Roscoe for sleeping with someone who’s name he doesn’t know). The important thing about the Colin story-line is that it shows that being gay doesn’t mean that you are only interested in having sex with men. 

Colin might have been more interested in sex within an intimate close relationship. This is how a lot of people relate to the term ‘demisexual’. He really admired (and was surprised by) the long term relationship of Henry and Juan Pablo and his quiet desperation at their passing was so sad. 

Then and now, there are a lot of Colins in the world. There isn’t only one way to be gay (or to be straight, or bi, or a lesbian) and having sex doesn’t ‘prove’ your sexuality or gender any more than anything else. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years 

A really powerful moment at the end of the first episode was when Richie was being asked the question ‘where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years’. We get a sense that these characters will either not see themselves in 5 or 10 years time. Or they will increasingly understand that this question lands very differently for them than other people living in their 20s. 

I’ve always hated that question myself, but it’s also a question that has so many assumptions with it. It assumes that you won’t encounter life-changing illnesses, or disabilities (when most people do sooner or later). Richie’s response is to say that he just wants to be happy. Does this happen?

I wonder whether it might be better for us to think more incrementally about ourselves. How might we slowly change from day to day, from week to week, from month to month. What might happen with our relationships? Are there ways our relationship to ourselves changes?

Try my Teach Yourself Sex Ed course – You and ‘The Self’

Feelings and grief

We don’t see Colin being able to grieve the loss of Henry and Juan Pablo. He didn’t seem to be able to talk about it with anyone. This was also true for Jill when she had some sense that Gregory was not going to survive his illness. As the show progresses there is more time for shared feelings. 

How might Colin’s story have changed if he was able to feel his feelings and have those recognised by other people? Would Jill’s story have changed if she could have told the others what was actually happening with Gregory and her worries and anxiety about Aids? 

Fear and shame are also feelings, but in what way did they prevent people from feeling sad, or anger, or joy? 

Blaming the parents

Apart from Jill’s parents (that’s the real Jill playing Jill’s mum by the way) and Colin’s mum, the parents don’t seem to have been doing a great job at accepting their kids. Other characters were kicked out of their homes for being gay. Or had to leave their homes because they knew they wouldn’t have been accepted. (More on homes below). 

That bit in the hospital where Derek’s mum, Sandra, has a go at Richie’s mum, Valerie, for not knowing he was gay was brutal. Compare this with Colin’s mum, Eileen, and how she was trying to gently get Colin to open up about his sexuality. I like how she cooks him faggots for his tea but I’m pretty sure that faggots just meant faggots then. Mmmm, faggots. 

Sandra said that she was sure that Derek was gay from the moment that she was born. I’m not sure that’s that helpful either. What I like about Eileen’s way of doing things was to gently allow for Colin to be him, whatever that was.

Parents might be able to pick up on a few things when their kids are growing up. If they have unpacked their own prejudices from what they learned when they were growing up, they might be able to be as cool as Eileen and give their kids permission to be who they want to be. I’m 100% Team Eileen on this.

How can parents be more chill about their kids being gay?

I think it’s unfair for the responsibility for ‘coming out of the closet’ to be put on the person who is gay (or bi, lesbian, trans etc). We need to recreate society as a place where we don’t have closets. This is what Eileen was doing. I wonder why Eileen was more accepting than Richie or Roscoe’s parents?

What was going on with Richie’s parents do you think? How would they have reacted if Richie had told them he was gay in the first episode (rather than just telling them he was in drama school). 

I was glad to see Roscoe’s dad come round and ask for forgiveness. And yes there is a lot of homophobia (still) in Nigeria – but remember that homophobia is something that the UK and other colonising countries exported around the world. There’s a good article about this by Stonewall and another good one by Gal-dem on this.

Lastly, you might recognise Gregory’s dad is actor Gary Lewis, who also played Billy Elliot’s dad, who was also a right bastard! Just to show he’s a nice guy in real life, here’s a cute video of him I found. 

Housing 

One theme that keeps coming up is housing. Roscoe had to run away from home because his family couldn’t accept his sexuality and were threatening to take him to Nigeria (see above). Gregory was made homeless by his dad and lived in a council flat in London. Colin lived as a lodger in a house but was not allowed to bring girls back (though, as we find out, he did shag someone there). When Colin got ill everyone else had to chip in to cover his part of the rent so he still had somewhere to live. 

Sadly, we still have this kind of housing insecurity. A lot of young LGBTQ+ people are made homeless or have to leave their homes because of their sexuality and/or gender. This is going to be much worse nowadays because rent prices are so much higher than £20 a week. Also the Tories sold off most of the social housing in the 80s and 90s, thanks for that. Akt are a great LGBTQ+ housing charity. Think about supporting them next time you’re doing a sponsored Twitch stream in a bath of baked beans.

The protest

Pharmaceutical companies who were making drugs therapies, were accused of making way too much profit from their drugs. In the UK we had (and still have at the time of writing) the National Health Service, so people didn’t have to pay for the treatments that were available. However in the US things were different.

The protest in It’s A Sin mirrors the protests that started in the US and then happened around Europe too, from a group of activists called Act Up. They were instrumental in changing policy, pushing for better treatments, and in turning HIV into a manageable illness rather than the ‘death sentence’ it was in the early to mid 80s. I haven’t watched it yet, but this documentary is meant to be great. 

Public information

When did you first find out about coronavirus? Can you remember when you first saw a leaflet or some official information about it? When was the first time you saw something on the TV about it? If you’re in the UK I’m guessing this would be February or March 2020, which is around 3 months after the first reports of the virus started circulating in Wuhan. 

Compare this to how well informed the public were about HIV and Aids in the 80s (which I remember, because I am old). It took years. One of the most important parts of this drama (for me) was how many years it took for the government to inform the public about it. For many people the first they heard of Aids was a very scary tombstone advert and a leaflet through the post in 1987/8, five years after the first people in the UK died of an Aids related illness.

The shame and stigma that Jill received from her doctor when she asked for some information about it in 1983 was shocking. This lack of information and transparency bred some of the conspiracy theories that Richie was talking about in episode two. It also created a vacuum for homophobia to thrive (more on that below). 

Community sex educators

I was really pleased to see the community activists (that Jill and Colin ended up joining) giving information in pubs and on the phone. I bet they were the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and Switchboard, two great charities that are still incredibly important today. 

Here’s a really interesting timeline from THT about the UK response to Aids in the 80s. This other timeline, by the brilliant charity Avert, is also super interesting. You can see how most of the support and health education was led by communities affected by the virus. The US president first mentioned Aids in public in 1985, four years after the first cases were found. 

Safer sex information in the US didn’t just start in the early 80s either. Here’s a really interesting article about the safer sex pamphlets, films, and even porn scenes, being made in the 1970s. So this lack of public information wasn’t just because there wasn’t a world wide web, it was an example of homophobia.

Homophobia

I’m straight, but I imagine the hardest thing about being gay is homophobia. See also being trans and transphobia. There’s a lot of homophobia (prejudice, hatred, and discrimination of gays and lesbians) in It’s A Sin. There was (and is) a lot of biphobia in the 80s too – especially about Aids. 

There’s so much homophobia in the show, but it’s not the kind of ‘name calling’ homophobia that you might be aware of. It’s more embedded and within the culture and society. You’ll probably notice that there wasn’t any name calling or actual physical threats to any of the characters until the fourth episode, which is when the general public start to be aware of Aids. 

They didn’t show any of the mainstream newspapers at the time but here are some of the hostile headlines in the Sun and the Daily Mail about gay men and Aids from 1983 onwards. Millions of people bought these newspapers and millions more saw them on kitchen tables and in shops. 

Government response

I’ve already talked about the lack of public health information from the government. Despite HIV / Aids not being something which only affects gay and bisexual men (more on this below) government policies began to mirror and strengthen the increasing homophobia of the time. The bit where Colin is imprisoned in hospital actually happened due to legislation the government passed in 1984. 

Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister at the time of the Aids crisis, wanted to tone down the information leaflets about safer sex. This was because she was worried that it might encourage people to have risky sex or ‘non-normative’ sex. In the show, Richie, like a lot of young people at the time, voted for her.

Although it was no longer a crime for two men to have sex in the UK, the age of consent was 21 (as opposed to 16 for a man and a woman). It’s now 16 for everyone. 

The bit in the show where Ash has to go through the school library and remove any books referring to homosexuality, that was because of what we call section 28, which was a law banning local authorities from promoting homosexuality. This was only repealed in England and Wales in 2003. For the first 4 years of me being a sex educator I was not supposed to teach about being gay. 

A lot of leading politicians and public authority figures were openly hostile towards gay men. The bit where the Policeman in Wales talked about gay men  “swirling in a human cesspit of their own making”. This Police chief actually said that in public (also adding in drug addicts and sex workers). 

This eventually starts to feed public opinion and homophobia intensifies and increases. It makes Aids a ‘gay illness’, where in actual fact it was anything but. 

Aids killed women too

There was so much homophobic messaging of Aids being a ‘gay plague’ it was overlooked that Aids was responsible for the deaths of thousands of straight or bi women (or any woman who had sex with men) too. In the US, Aids related illnesses killed 12,000 women aged between 15 and 44 by 1991 and it was the 5th biggest killer in that age group. As the UK public information campaign in 1987 said “anyone can get it, gay or straight, male or female” but by then much of the damage had been done. Many many women lost their lives because of Aids in the UK. It’s important to know and remember that, even though it’s not covered in the show.

Jill does so much work

In It’s A Sin the women are not at risk of Aids themselves, just their loved ones. It’s interesting how women take on the roles of caregiver or mum. Jill does so much work for other people. She helps Richie to come out and sets him up with Ash. She supports Richie in changing course and even goes to the Isle of Wight to help him tell his parents. 

Gregory asks her for help when he is very ill with an Aids illness. Jill is the only person that he trusts and she can’t get any support because he’s asked her to keep it quiet. When Gregory’s dad tells her to fuck off she’s got no-one to turn to. She spends hours at Colin’s bedside with Eileen and she is instrumental in getting him legal support when he is locked away. Then she helps out with those nice leather jacket sex educators and volunteers for Switchboard. 

Her career takes off but that just helps her to pay rent for the others and then presumably to pay the mortgage for the flat. It’s Jill that does most/all of the emotional work of looking after Richie and then the confrontations with Valerie. She goes to the Isle of Wight (again), with Roscoe, to try and see Richie again. 

There’s no storyline for Jill other than that of someone doing the care work for everyone else. She even gets castigated for it by Valerie in the hospital. Jill is amazing, and steps up when others can’t. She’s still living in the time where cooking, cleaning, and care were very much expected to be women’s work. Has that changed much? 

Shame

Another job for Jill is to deal with the confrontations with Valerie and to be the moral truth teller of the story.

“Actually it is your fault, Mrs. Tozer. All of this is your fault…. Right from the start, ’cause I don’t know what happened to you to make that house so loveless. But that’s why Richie grew up so ashamed of himself…. He was ashamed, and he kept on being ashamed. He kept the shame going by having sex with men, infecting them and then running away.

Cause that’s what shame does, Valerie. It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, yes, this is right. I brought this on myself, it’s my fault because the sex that I love is killing me. I mean it’s astonishing, the perfect virus came along to prove you right. So that’s what happened in your house. He died because of you. They all die because of you.”

Shame is definitely a huge barrier to preventing HIV and Aids and all STIs. People who are punished for being gay (or queer more broadly) by being made to feel ashamed might be less likely to come forward for testing and treatment. As Jill says, they may have a poor relationship with themselves where they are convinced that they are deserving of bad things happening to them. Homophobia (just like any prejudice and discrimination) can do that. When it’s all around, from: newspapers, politicians, the lawmakers, religion TV, school, work, pubs, the street, home it can feel like it must be true. That’s how the shame works. 

Individuals vs society responsibility

This is why HIV and all STIs can be difficult to treat, because there’s so much shame about. People working in sexual health organisations have to do so much work to show to de-stigmatize the issue and to be friendly and trustworthy. It’s a testament to them, and to the free healthcare we have in the UK, that we’ve made so much progress at reducing controlling the virus and treating people so that they have undetectable levels of HIV (and so can’t pass it on). 

However, for me, I’m not sure the moral message of the show should be just about individuals like Richie and his mum and dad. It should also be about what society could be doing to eliminate shame and thus also helping to eliminate HIV. In sex education there’s always this tension between a person ‘doing the right thing’ and the uneven distribution of people’s ability and capacity to ‘do the right thing.’

If there was no homophobia, and no sexual shame in society, many fewer people would have died because Aids. Making societal problems purely the fault of the individual is incorrect IMHO. Just like Covid-19 isn’t because of individuals choosing not to self isolate, for example.

It’s A Sin: the song

Lastly, the song It’s A Sin is by the Pet Shop Boys and it’s a banger. Richie plays it on the jukebox in the pub. It’s a song about shame, but apparently it’s more to do with the kind of shame that the singer experienced from being told at Catholic school that so many things were a sin. It’s definitely a queer power anthem though (as my queer friend told me). The Pet Shop Boys would also later write a song about surviving Aids epidemic.

Here’s an amazing performance of It’s A Sin

Okay that’s it! Hope you found it useful. If you have any other questions you think a sex educator might be able to answer, let me know. Put them in the comments or head to the Ask Bish page.

© Justin Hancock, 2021.

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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. Find out more about Justin here

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