Interview: Hannah Witton

© Rebecca Need-Menear

Hannah Witton is the sheltered teenager’s saviour. The 28-year old YouTuber and author, whose content includes sex and relationships education, and is a refreshing voice among the often-sterile government mandated courses. Witton had an ileostomy in 2018 after a bad flare up of ulcerative colitis, and she also has frank and honest discussions of life with her stoma, affectionately named ‘Mona’.

Attending a religious, single-sex secondary school, my feminist voice blossomed throughout my teenage years, but my “sex-pertise” did not. Sex and relationships education (SRE) was lacking on the curriculum, so when I stumbled across Hannah’s channel aged 16, I found both a friendly guide and a sex-positive community, which I’ve stuck with into my 20s.

Like me, many young people are left clueless by the curriculum, so they turn to the internet for answers, as evidenced by the fact that Hannah’s videos have had over 80m views on YouTube.

Hannah says this was her experience too. She says: “It sucks that sex ed isn’t good enough in schools and that people are resorting to the internet. One of the reasons I started making content was because that was where I learned it too and if young people are going to the internet anyway then at least hopefully I put up a fighting chance that it will be good content they find, not harmful content. I’m hoping that things might change with the curriculum changing in September.”

The current government SRE guidance is nearly 20 years old and Hannah hopes that the changes to the curriculum that come into compulsory effect this September will make a difference. Currently, government mandates SRE, but is vague on the specifics. The current guidance does not include any LGBTQ+ content and focuses on the anatomy and biology of sex for heterosexual, cisgender couples.

Hannah questions the current regulations. “From my experience and the organisations that I talk to, it’s great that it’s compulsory but is the guidance any good? Does it have good LGBTQ+ content, and why aren’t they also teaching this at primary age? Where is the funding going to come from? How are teachers going to fit it into a schedule? There’s no rules about how often our SRE classes should happen. If you do one hour a year, tick the box, covered. There will be some schools that simply do not have the resources to do it properly.”

While school SRE lessons are clearly lacking, they are at least mandatory on the curriculum. When teenagers away from home for the first time to go to university, they often experience the worst of sexual experiences. Oxford is particularly bad on this front; from the drinking society culture and public school attitudes to the intense pressure, I’ve seen and experienced more toxic behaviour, consent violations and peer pressure than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Hannah agrees, and looks back to her university-age self. “I think I would have gotten more angry about everything. Now that I think about it, it never really crossed my mind that in secondary school, even though I had poor sex ed I still had sex ed and then once you turn 18 they’re like “right never mind”. It wasn’t that we had bad sex ed at university but it just didn’t exist. There was no effort made by the SU or academic staff to engage students in any form of sex education and now that I think about it it’s really bad. I was at uni making sex ed videos and there was nothing on campus that was made aware to me. I would have got more angry about it and done more stuff on campus rather than on the internet.”

One of the things that continues to draw me to Hannah’s channel is ‘Mona the stoma’. Recently, my grandpa had an ileostomy as part of his treatment for bowel cancer, and although Hannah is over 60 years his junior, her videos provided a helpful insight into what he was experiencing.

Hannah reflects on why she decided to include content about her disability on her channel. “When I got ill I wasn’t making any content and I was absent from online for a while, so I did some updates like “fyi I’m in hospital”. I think when I came back home in recovery and my whole life had changed, the first thing I wanted to do was make videos. I needed any kind of normalcy in my life.

“When I was in hospital, I was watching lots of videos and reading blog posts of young women that had stomas and I had a ready-made audience.

“It’s definitely moved my community not just in the sex-positive space but into the disability space.”

© Rebecca Need-Menear

While Hannah started on YouTube, she has since expanded to other media, and can add podcaster and bestselling author to her list of accomplishments. Her second book The Hormone Diaries, came out last year and is based on her YouTube series of the same name. It documents her journey of coming off the pill after 7 years, and it’s all about periods and contraception. I ask her about why she decided to start writing.

She says, “there’s a few different reasons. It’s fun to experiment with different media and the types of messages I’m trying to get across. Some content I want to make might be more suited to a particular outlet.”

Witton also produces a podcast, ‘Doing It! with Hannah Witton’, where she brings on guests and experts to have open and honest conversations about all things sex and relationships related.

“Having long form conversations with guests is something I’ve always wanted to do and it works much better in podcast form. That’s one side. The other side is that when you’re a freelancer and work for yourself it’s generally important to have multiple revenue streams to have added security. I think a lot of people can relate to that now when something completely out of your control cuts off one stream of revenue from you. That’s always why I’m trying new things – who knows when the YouTube algorithm will take me out of rotation.”

We do inevitably chat about COVID-19, the elephant in the room that makes this interview a phoner. One thing I ask for her thoughts on is how we can talk about sex during this crisis.

“It’s a tough one. Do all of our passions and causes that we care about even matter during a pandemic? Should I even be talking about them right now? I do think it’s important to be hammering on about the causes you care about in an appropriate way. For instance, if I started rambling on about sex education in schools and doing workshops with young people, they’re completely irrelevant right now. But if I were able to show digital sex ed resources then I still think that’s important. We also have to be aware that domestic violence is also on the rise and you’ve got people isolated with their abuser. We absolutely should not be ignoring these things.”

One sexual health reform that has been achieved in this crisis is women are now allowed to take the early-stage medical abortion pills at home, after sexual health organisations wrote to the Health Secretary urging him to change the law.

“If you don’t still have people talking about these things and campaigning about them and fighting for causes in this crisis then this necessary action would not have happened.”

I ask Hannah if she has found any good sex-related resources for people struggling in lockdown.

Bish has been producing really great articles about safer sex and social distancing, Lindsey Doe of sexplanations on YouTube made a video about how to have phone sex, I’ve got a video about long distance date ideas. There’s lots of good stuff out there!

As someone who talks (too) openly about sex, I often find men are much less honest about sex than women, and I ask Hannah about her male audience.

“It’s a mixed bag when it comes to men who watch my channel. Most of my education youtuber friends, their channels are 90% men, especially in science. For me, it’s 75% women but other female friends of mine who make videos have 90% women. Sometimes it’s men who are also in their 20s and they’re my peers, the same as the women, and it’s like they’re my male friends. I have lots of male friends who are also in their 20s who engage with my content so it’s just like them. They’re genuinely interested in it and find my videos interesting and educational. Great!”

Hannah elaborates on the less great side of her audience.

“Then you get the ones who aren’t subscribed but who find my videos who don’t like women having opinions on the internet. And then you get the ones who think they’re being really lovely and supportive and maybe they do genuinely find the content interesting, but what got them interested in the first place is because they like how I look, and so most of the comments from them have this undertone of complimenting my appearance, but they probably think they’re giving me a really nice compliment. But it actually makes me feel very uncomfortable.”

Most public figures get a certain degree of online hate, whether from anonymous trolls on social media, or even vocal critics. I frequently see columnists bemoan influencer culture, and I ask if Witton is bothered by it.

Witton seems less than bothered (a very good thing). “I don’t really see a lot of it anymore because I read the comments on my videos for the first day and then after that, the comment section is dead to me! For the most part, I’m quite lucky because my channel isn’t growing as much as it used to so it’s not finding new audiences and it’s usually in the new audiences where you find the hate. My audience are pretty chill.

“Whenever I do get hate on Twitter it will be replying to something and I look at their page and they’re not following me and I realise they’re some random person who has come across my tweet and decided to aggressively disagree with me.”

We end chatting about books and her inspirations, a lovely way to finish up what has been a great chat.

Witton recommends Holly Bourne’s new novel Pretending, saying “it’s about love and sex after trauma and hating men and loving men.” I’ll definitely be picking it up. She’s also currently reading Amber Spyglass, revisiting Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy; she suggests returning to “any books that you read when you were younger- they’re cosy.”

Hannah Witton is a YouTuber and author. She produces weekly episodes of her podcast, which is available to listen to here, and on all good streaming services.