What is the difference between porn and real sex? Natasha Devon is unequivocal. “A lot of (in particular) teenage boys claim to use porn to ‘learn’ about sex,” she writes. “Which is a bit like watching a Disney film to learn how to be a talking lion.”
This year, Ms Devon was appointed the government’s first mental health tsar for schools. And her new book, The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs and WTFs?!!, co-authored with singer Grace Barrett and showbiz journalist Nadia Mendoza, is intended as a how-to guide to teenage mental health.
As the Self-Esteem Team (pictured), the authors have visited schools around the country and worked with more than 50,000 teens. This book collates pupils’ most frequently asked questions.
First off, Tasha, Grace and Nadz – as they call themselves throughout the book – tackle the issue of whether self-esteem will inevitably lead to arrogance. Ms Barrett compares self-esteem with love and arrogance with infatuation; Ms Mendoza says: “Self-esteem smiles. Arrogance smirks.”
These are smart, thoughtful answers, often illustrated with heartbreakingly honest examples from the authors’ own lives. Ms Barrett, for example, refers to her negative thoughts as “the Brain-Worm of Doom”.
Ms Devon used to be a model and struggled with eating disorders. “The first time I made myself vomit,” she writes with disarming openness, “I told myself that it was a method of weight control and that I just wouldn’t let myself eat that much again.”
Ms Mendoza, meanwhile, discusses her years of self-harm. “The last thing I wanted to hear was ‘talk to someone’ but, when I eventually did, it felt like a world of sumo wrestlers had been removed from nesting on my shoulders.”
‘Epic brain farts’
These women tell it like it is. Their chapter on drugs has the freshness of a blast of Lynx in a school locker room. Here is Nadz on taking weed: “Menial tasks like making a tea feel like you deserve an Olympic medal for getting off your arse and accomplishing them.”
So, when they add that there are some clear risks to taking drugs, you believe them. They have no agenda except the truth.
They are also very funny. Take Nadz on comedowns: “Profound statements like, ‘I can feel the yellow of the sun in my heart’ are just dumb drivel.” And, similarly, Tasha on porn-film narratives: “Man produces his penis, with a self-congratulating flourish.”
These are 30-something women, yet their prose is sprinkled with phrases like “epic brain fart”, “*blush*” and “#normal”. By rights, this should be at best patronising and at worst an excruciating #cringefest. Somehow, though, they get away with it.
Perhaps this is because they clearly completely understand what it is to be a teenager. Yes, they speak with the wisdom of age and bitter experience. But they are empathetic and likeable and, ultimately, the friend you wish every teen could have.
Review by Adi Bloom
The Self-Esteem Team’s Guide to Sex, Drugs and WTFs?!! is published by John Blake and priced at £7.99