Recently, I was able to speak with multi-award winning author, reporter, and TikTok creator Sophia Smith Galer. The Durham alumnus went to St. Mary’s College, and graduated with a degree in Spanish and Arabic in 2016. Her current role is senior news reporter at VICE World News, although she has previously worked as a social media producer and a visual journalist in faith and ethics for the BBC.
Sophia has a following of over 400,000 people on TikTok, and has pioneered how the social media platform can be used as a journalistic tool to gather and publish news. She has been named as a ‘Voice of Change’ for two years running on TikTok, and is listed among their top 100 UK content creators. Beyond this, her journalism has had her placed on this year’s Forbes Under 30 list.
Following the recent publication of her first book, ‘Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century’, Sophia held a careers talk and book signing for St. Mary’s FemSoc. I took this opportunity to speak with her about her journey as a journalist, as well as to glean some insight into the motivations behind her book.
First, we discussed how she initially started to dabble in journalism as a student. She described how “most of what I did was at Palatinate… first I was deputy music editor, and then I became music editor in second year. Then in fourth year I did a tiny bit of Purple Radio”. I asked how her experiences in student journalism had impacted upon her as she gravitated into more professional territory. She explained that “it gave me confidence… from the super basic stuff like how InDesign works, to learning how to interview people… I guess it was quite a relaxed format to do that in. I was asking musicians about their work, and they wanted to talk about their work. It’s a very different journalistic style to interviewing people who don’t want to be criticised, which is what I’m increasingly doing now as a news reporter. So, it was a really safe space to get confident with that skillset before I did work which was a bit more ‘newsy’, for want of a better word.”
Once she graduated, Sophia became accepted onto a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism at City University. This was when she first started to have paid work in journalism. She told me that she “really enjoyed” her time there, despite having “an issue with the pay-to-play culture that we have here in the UK. I, like loads of other people, feel like you have to do something like that in order to get considered for a job opportunity. That being said, I really valued my time there, it gave me a lot of confidence and understanding of how to find a story that I’m not sure a newsroom would have invested the time in giving me.”
Our conversation then shifted to her recently published book, and where her interest in sex education stemmed from. Sophia expressed that “I had for a long time from my own personal life and my journalism had an awareness of how poor sex education in my life and in the lives of my friends had affected us as adults. The minute I spent some time putting my journalist hat on and looking at academic research, I instantly recognised that this issue is massive. Sex misinformation is causing so many problems, and it’s just not being highlighted as an issue, and therefore it’s not being resolved. And it’s when I had the opportunity to write a book that it made sense that this is what I was going to try and do.”
I asked which particular issues surrounding sex education were addressed by her book. She explained that she looked a lot at “first time sex and the myths held around it”, as well as “misconceptions we hold around the anatomy, especially looking at vaginal and vulval health”. She also looks closely at “experiences of male sexual health, and things like erectile dysfunction”, as well as “debunking myths around penetration, and that that’s what sex has to be. Or the myth that it’s normal to want to have sex, and weird to not want to have sex. The myth that consent is a simple yes or no binary.”
Although the book was published only a few months ago, in April 2022, I asked whether Sophia had been made aware of any impacts that it might already be having. She told me that several people have reached out to her; “a lot of teachers have been reading the book and applying it. I know that people involved in health policy have been reading it. That importantly, a lot of young people who like me feel they were victims of sex myths have told me this is an empowering read. Because that’s the whole point – when you’re debunking and criticising information around sex, it’s easy for it to sound very doom and gloom, and it’s important that it does sound a bit like that, because you have to really highlight how much of a problem this is. But you also have to provide solutions. So I put forward the fact-based evidence, and then I also put forward examples of how people are trying to navigate themselves and the people they love out of these myths.”
I next asked Sophia what her opinions are on viral media that is centred around the topics addressed by her book, such as the hit Netflix series Sex Education. Sophia responded that she thinks platforms like this are “really useful. I had vaginismus and now loads of people know what vaginismus is because of the programme. Had I had that come out before I turned eighteen, I would have at least known what I had. I would’ve been able to tell a doctor what I thought I had. So, in terms of raising awareness about the diversity of what our sex lives look like, it’s been really valuable.”
Sophia also offered some advice for students who feel driven to pursue careers in journalism. Her primary suggestion was to “just send a million requests for work experience, but make sure that you really know the outlet very well before you ask them. Also think about what your unique selling point is; in a very competitive field, what makes you different? What’s helped me in my career is obviously TikTok, it made me different at a point when I was the only journalist on there. But even very early on, some of my earliest opportunities came because of the other languages that I spoke in addition to English. So, for someone else their first gig might come because they’re the one person that has journalistic expertise and a chemistry degree. For lots of people it can look quite different what their unique selling point is, but everyone has one.”
Finally, I asked Sophia how she handles the pressure of being so deeply influential online, and how she manages to detach herself from it. She explained that “I feel less pressure than I used to do, as I’m starting to distance myself from it a little bit. Me and my boyfriend have been away on so many trips lately and if I was there feeling pressured about posting, that’s not how I’d want to feel on a holiday. I’ve started taking the attitude where when I’m having a break, I’m having a break. And equally, I want to start researching for book two, so that’s only going to happen if I make time for myself, which will mean not making a TikTok every day.” Ultimately, Sophia closes with the importance of being passionate about your career. “I still feel like I have to feed the beast, and I love doing it, and I love the connection that I have with my followers. So it’s about making sure I keep loving it, and I don’t grow to dislike it. Because I do really enjoy doing it.”
Image credits: Brian Prentke