Last week I was given some publicity about a condom scheme for young people. Generally it was brilliant. But there was a sentence that worried me. It described their policy on confidentiality as being about keeping a secret. I fully understand the message it was trying to convey to young people and yet to me the words ‘secret’ and ‘sex’ should not go together. Too many people with huge courage and dignity who I know personally and professionally have told me that as a child they never told anyone about the sexual abuse they experienced because they were told it was a secret between them and the adult who hurt them.
About a decade ago, Brook published a poster with the simple and powerful statement, here to listen, not to tell. It was produced because young people told us they worried their parents or carers would be told if they asked for contraception or sexual health advice. Ten years on, confidentiality continues to be one of the top concerns of the young people who come to us. Brook is the leading advocate for confidential services for young people and I believe absolutely and passionately in young people’s right to confidential services. But still I am unsettled by the word ‘secret’.
If sex is not talked about openly and sensibly children learn to be embarrassed and ashamed by it. Nowadays many live in two worlds – one where sex is everywhere, with sexually explicit images easily available via new technologies; and another where sex evokes virtual silence. With silence there is inevitably shame, embarrassment, guilt and secrecy.
So when I read publicity for services that says ‘we keep everything secret’ I worry about the message this gives young people about sex. Yes, we must recognise where we are now and the importance of confidentiality. But to really change the world, we must also open up the conversation and help create an environment in which young people can talk about sex so they can enjoy it, take responsibility for it, and get the help they need from parents and professionals. I look forward to the day when young people are as confident about going for sexual health and relationships advice and counselling, as they are about going for a haircut or to the dentist.