Goedele Liekens wants better, safer sex for all of us
Flemish celebrity Goedele Liekens has made waves in Britain with a TV show about improving sex education. She tells Flanders Today that it’s time for our neighbours to get past the smirks and sniggers and have a meaningful conversation on the subject
Let’s talk about sex
Yet Liekens is also serious about sex education, so she’s quick to undercut her media image as a flirty TV cougar. “You must be very disappointed,” she laughs when asked about it.
She is still a picture of bold glamour, in a wool and leather jumper, with a silver necklace and dark burgundy fingernails. Speaking over coffee, her hands twist and wave as she works up her case for a better understanding of the birds and the bees.
But first, there is the smirk factor. Does she enjoy seeing people squirm when she delves into sex talk, or pulls vagina cushions out of her handbag? “Yes, it’s fun seeing people get embarrassed,” she says, chuckling, before leaning forward conspiratorially. “But I get embarrassed as well. It’s not very easy to talk about these things.”
Of course, there’s a pay-off in pushing the conversation. “What I enjoy most is when you can find a way to open people up,” Liekens says. “Like if you have a mother who starts off with her arms folded and then she ends up using the word ‘penis’ every five minutes.”
We meet on an auspicious day: Playboy magazine has just announced that it will drop nude pictures from its pages. Liekens relishes the moment, yet also puts it into perspective. “They will keep using erotic pictures; the models just won’t be naked,” she says. “It’s not economically viable anymore: You can find thousands of pictures on the internet. They’ll switch to the more highbrow, like the Victoria’s Secret Angels.”
The move, she feels, reflects the way modern men are avoiding classic pornography. “It’s much more arousing if they have nice bathing suits and lingerie.”
More sex education, please, we’re British
Pornography, once scarce, is now almost ubiquitous, thanks to the internet and smartphones. “Now, everyone has their own computer, boys and girls,” says Liekens.
She notes that she is not against pornography per se. In the right context, she says, it can stimulate sex lives, especially if couples watch it together. The problem starts when it creates misconceptions. If men are only seeing very skinny women, “and you keep on using the same pictures to get aroused, you will have real problems if the women in your life are not very thin,” she says.
This is a theme that runs through Sex in Class, the programme that recently ran on Channel 4 in the UK. It followed Liekens as she visited Hollins Technology College, in Accrington, Lancashire, to teach a sex education course to 15- and 16-year-old students.
The girls don’t have a voice; they’re not empowered because they have no clue themselves
Liekens is seen asking the children frank questions about their sex lives and their relationships. The influence of pornography was clear, with the teenagers describing unreal scenarios that could only have come from hard-core movies.
“My problem with porn that it’s used by teenagers for information about what sex is about,” Liekens says. “In my programme, all the boys say that the most common way to have sex is that in the end, you come in the girl’s face. I don’t need a lot of research to know where that comes from.”
Pornography, she continues, has filled a gap because sex education is so lacking in Britain, which trails its neighbours. There are other consequences: sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies in the UK are among the highest in western Europe. By contrast, countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium, with liberal and open attitudes towards the subject, have some of the world’s lowest teenage pregnancy rates.
“It’s not that I’m panicking, that young people are ‘monkey see, monkey do’. But the danger is that if we don’t give them a counterbalance, that’s their only information,” Liekens says. “And the girls are just sitting there; they don’t have a voice; they’re not empowered because they have no clue themselves. They will think, ‘These boys, they will know how it’s supposed to be…’ Now, more than ever, we need to provide very good sex education.”
In Sex in Class, Liekens makes some canny suggestions. After the boys say they prefer girls without pubic hair, she gives them a razor and shaving foam: They are instructed to go home and find out what shaving really means, including the inevitable rash.
“What are we so scared of?”
“These are not bad boys who want to be perverts,” Liekens says. “On the contrary, they want to be the perfect boyfriend; they want to have a loving relationship. So they think, ‘I’ve looked it up, I know how it works’.”
The broader issue, Liekens argues, is about the damage to personal development. Society is expected to teach children everything: to be healthy, eat well, be polite … but sex education is strangely lacking in Britain. “It’s something we all agree is important,” she says. “It’s a huge part of our lives. What are we so scared of?”
That also means teaching children, she insists, “about attraction and falling in love. And boundaries. Touching. If you don’t want to be touched, how do you say it in a nice way?”
Liekens says successful sex education needs three pillars of support: the schools, the parents and the media. It is that last element, she says, that helps counter the misconceptions. The biggest misconception, she says, is that if you teach sex education early, young people will have sex earlier.
“There is some very good research from Unesco showing that this is not true,” Liekens states. “On the contrary: the more explicit and solid sex education they get, the later they will have sex. They will have fewer partners, and they are less likely to experience harassment or rape.”
Getting the word out
Liekens has an unlikely background as a sex education champion. Born in Aarschot, Flemish Brabant, in 1963, she shot to fame when she became Miss Belgium in 1986. It was almost by accident: She was in her final year of a clinical psychology degree when a friend sent a picture of her as a bridesmaid to the contest organisers. A few days later, Liekens received a letter embossed with a golden crown inviting her to take part.
She won, and then took part in the Miss World contest at London’s Royal Albert Hall, meeting future actress Halle Berry. She later became friends with Miss Denmark, future supermodel Helena Christensen, at the Miss Universe pageant in Panama. It was there that she made headlines by refusing to shake hands with the country’s military dictator, General Manuel Noriega.
I realised how important sex is as a driver for us in life – for good or for bad
“I’m the middle of five girls,” she says. “An ordinary Catholic family, a small village with one priest and a cafe. No way could I ever have done this job if I had not been Miss Belgium.”
But it was her studies that showed where her career lay. “Working with prisoners as a psychologist, I realised how important sex is as a driver for us in life – for good or for bad. It’s the reason you study, why you get angry, why you go for a run.”
She has written many best-sellers, including 69 Questions About Sex, and made a series of self-help therapy films. And she did TV talk shows for 20 years, often closely copied on Oprah Winfrey’s model. She still has a private practice specialised in relationship therapy.
“Many people think this is about buying handcuffs or doing it in public places, but that’s not it at all. In fact, people who do that are more likely to end up in therapy! You have to find ways to stimulate both the body and the mind.”
Liekens’ celebrity led to her being named a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund 15 years ago. She has made a number of documentaries on key related issues: fistula in Nigeria, HIV/Aids in Botswana, refugees in Afghanistan and, most recently, female genital mutilation in Ethiopia.
As for her own sexual fantasies, Liekens is coy. However, she does point to a favourite movie scene, from 1985 Japanese film Tampopo. Tellingly, there is no intercourse. “It’s where they pass egg yolk from mouth to mouth without letting it break,” she says. “It is so sensual.”
Photo: Goedele Liekens in her Channel 4 show Sex in Class
©Courtesy Channel 4