Daniel Harding: “Inclusive sex education should have come a lot earlier.”

The author and journalist tells Vada how he is using his own experiences of sex and relationships to support the student-led sex education charity Sexpression UK on its mission to empower young people.

Daniel Harding remembers sitting in a classroom with the other boys in his class, watching a demonstration of how to put a condom on a banana. The other boys, he recalls, were all laughing. Meanwhile, the girls were whisked away into another room, to talk about something else, unbeknown to him. It’s an experience that he remembers vividly. At the time, Harding tells me over video call, he felt as though there was a disconnect between what was being taught and himself. “I very much felt like, Will I ever want this sexual life or whatever this is? As nothing was connecting with me,” he says.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Harding has now become a patron for a charity which is attempting to join up the dots when it comes to sex and relationships education. Having written a book that came out in 2022, Gay Man Talking, where Harding retells his own experiences of dating, sex, relationships and discovering his sexuality, Sexpression UK reached out to him. They were looking for a new face for the charity. “I loved everything that they said and stood for,” he says of the student-led organisation, which goes up and down the country to provide sex and relationships education to high school and university students.

The charity’s mission is to provide free sessions for students on a range of topics, including STIs, body image, sex, relationships and more. Effectively, as Harding puts it, the charity wants to fill in the blanks for people who may not have received sex education at school that was helpful for them. “I fell in love with that idea,” he tells me. “And as a person who definitely didn’t have that education when I was growing up, I felt like there was a huge void there.”

RELATED ARTICLE  Brad Johnson: saving lives at sea

Growing up, Harding says he felt awkward and uncomfortable about sex. Although he acknowledges that being taught how to put on a condom is helpful, the way that it was taught made him feel uneasy. “It just felt so alien,” he says now, looking back on the experience. At one point, he recalls, he thought he might never have sex. He would eventually find himself in the news agents one day, his eyes wandering up to the top shelf, where gay magazines would be stacked. “Something was definitely happening in my pants,” he laughs.

But having worked out that he was attracted to men was one thing, the next was working out how to have sex. If he wasn’t able to get information from school, where was he going for his information about having sex with other men? “My education was very much coming from whatever I could find online,” he replies. Like many queer people, Harding turned to watching porn and speaking to other gay men on chatrooms. “Yeah, weird chats,” he adds. But it was all that was available to him as a teenager. While the mechanics of sex became clear from watching porn, Harding still had questions. “You couldn’t exactly put up your hand in class and ask, How do two men have sex? Or, Does anal sex hurt?” he says.

The context within which he grew up was also significant. These were the years of Section 28, whereby teachers were not allowed to talk about same-sex relationships. Moreover, the scaremongering of sex between two men was palpable. “My mum grew up at a time when everyone was scared they were going to get AIDS and there were those horrific adverts on TV,” he says. “When she found out I was gay, she was worried I was going to get HIV, and that sort of pressure was put onto me.” He doesn’t blame his mum, saying her reaction was as a result of societal homophobia and a lack of awareness.

RELATED ARTICLE  GoFundMe matches donations to Broken Rainbow fundraiser

Harding would later become friends with other queer people, learning from them and going to sexual health clinics to understand more about sex and making informed decisions. “I ended up talking to the right people,” he says of how his view of sex changed. “But this sort of inclusive sex education should have come a lot earlier.”

I can tell that Harding is motivated to help other people figure out who they are, by using his own experiences as a catalyst for that. Even before becoming involved with Sexpression UK, his book Gay Man Talking filled gaps in knowledge and understanding for many. “It was really hard,” he says of the book writing process. At first, he felt he was holding back and worried about what other people might say. “Do I really want to write about my first time for everyone to read about?” he says, mockingly grimacing.

Yet he came to the conclusion that if he wasn’t going to be completely honest, then the book wouldn’t help people. “I’ve got to lay everything out there,” Harding would tell himself. “I needed to share my thoughts on every single thing from STIs, to three-ways to porn. I had to be completely open, because if I wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be an honest account. And it wouldn’t help people to see themselves in there, or help them to talk to other people.”

Of course, he considered the other people at the centre of the stories he retells in the book. Harding tells me it was important for him to protect the two sides to each story, changing certain details, so that readers wouldn’t recognise the people he was writing about. “I’m sure people will recognise certain elements of that,” he says. “But I also hope that the stuff that I’ve shared people can relate to and see in themselves.”

Becoming a patron has allowed Harding to bring his voice and experiences to a wider audience. What does the role entail, I ask. “For me, it’s very much to be a spokesperson and to talk about the issues when it comes to sex and relationships education, as well as what the charity are doing, and what they’re trying to do,” he explains. Promoting awareness of the charity is also important for him, as he believes the uniqueness of the charity makes it more accessible than other sexual health charities. “It’s run by university students, so the sessions feel very down to earth and at a peer level. I think that’s what makes Sexpression UK so special and why I’m particularly proud to be a part of it.”

RELATED ARTICLE  Friends characters from bad to worse

As the largest youth-led group in the UK, the charity trains university students to deliver sessions that empower young people to make safe, informed and consensual decisions about sex and relationships. “We believe passionately that everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, has the right to good quality sex education,” says Jack Liepa, the national director of Sexpression UK. “At a time when LGBTQ+ discrimination persists, gender based and sexual violence remains prevalent and STI rates are skyrocketing, especially among young people and the gay community, our work is vital because it promotes: LGBTQ+ equality and wellbeing; consent, gender equality and healthy relationships; and good sexual health for all.”

Raised in a house where sex wasn’t talked about, I ask Harding what his family think of his activism today? “They’re very supportive and I’m so lucky,” he replies. They’ve even read his book. Harding feels as though he has gone on a journey when it comes to talking about sex. Having previously wanted to sweep everything under the carpet when it came to his sexuality, to writing and talking about sex publicly. “I’ve found comfort and happiness about talking about sex,” he says, before joking that his family think he talks about sex a bit too much.

Daniel Harding is a journalist and author of Gay Man Talking. To find out more about Sexpression UK, visit their website.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.