Monday, 21 December 2009

Editorial in the New York Times

It was with great delight that I read the editorial today. Almost a decade ago I was lucky enough to go on a study tour to the USA to learn more about abstinence education - the why, the what and the how. In the report of the study tour, 'Just Say No! to abstinence education published by NCB ( we wrote 'we returned to England proud of what we had achieved and determined to build on our successes. The potential for the development of abstinence education in the UK was just not something we wanted to imagine, and we were determined that any attempts were they made to do so were curtailed.

Now, at last, the official policy of the USA is taking a somewhat different and more positive approach to educating young people about relationships and sexuality.

The colleague who sent it to me, was even more elated - she has spent years living with and fighting federal and state policy and can now see light at the end of the tunnel.


End to the Abstinence-Only Fantasy

The omnibus government spending bill signed into law last week contains an important victory for public health. Gone is all spending for highly restrictive abstinence-only sex education programs that deny young people accurate information about contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. The measure redirects sex-education resources to medically sound programs aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy.

Federal support for the wishful abstinence-only approach, which began in the 1980s, ballooned during George W. Bush’s presidency. As the funding grew, so did evidence of the policy’s failure. A Congressionally mandated study released in 2007 found that elementary and middle school students who received abstinence instruction were just as likely to have sex in the following year as students who did not get such instruction.

Many states rightly declined to participate in the abstinence program, forgoing federal money. Most of the nation’s recent progress in reducing the abortion rate has occurred in states that have shown a commitment to real sex education.

The last Bush budget included $99 million for abstinence-only education programs run by public and private groups. The new $114 million initiative, championed by the White House, will be administered by a newly created Office of Adolescent Health within the Department of Health and Human Services with a mandate to support “medically accurate and age appropriate programs” shown to reduce teenage pregnancy.

Unfortunately, some of this progress could be short-lived. The health care reform bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee includes an amendment, introduced by the Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, that would revive a separate $50 million grant-making program for abstinence-only programs run by states. Democratic leaders must see that this is stricken, and warring language that would provide $75 million for state comprehensive sex education programs should remain.

In another positive step, the spending bill increases financing for family-planning services for low-income women. It also lifts a long-standing, and utterly unjustified, ban on the District of Columbia’s use of its own tax dollars to pay for abortion services for poor women except in cases when a woman’s life is at risk, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Ideology, censorship and bad science have no place in public health policy. It is a relief to see some sense returning to Capitol Hill.

Festive fun

With Christmas and New Year approaching it is a time for parties and celebrating, and a time when many of us will be drinking more than usual.

Many adults and young people will be celebrating and as professionals we have a job to make sure that young people are prepared and safe. Each year in December and January there is a peak in the teenage conception rates and research has shown that young people are more likely to regret having sex and less likely to use contraception if they have been drinking.

People drink for many different reasons but alcohol reduces our ability to think clearly so when people drink too much, they are more likely to take risks. We can do well to learn from Australian colleagues who really emphasise safety and the important role of helping to keep friends safe by thinking ahead about contraception, knowing limits when it comes to alcohol, not leaving drinks unattended, looking after friends, making decisions and talking to partners about boundaries before drinking, knowing how you will get home and who to call for help if things go wrong.

Brook's Have fun. Be careful campaign reminds young people that if they are going to have sex to always make sure they use a condom to protect against boths STIs and unplanned pregnancy.

As well as a mistletoe and 2010 version of the Have fun. Be careful poster, Brook has also produced and alcohol themed poster, alcohol themed fortune teller and 'Christmas cracker' postcard. We have also just launched a new booklet as part of our 'Ask Brook' range, Ask Brook about sex and alcohol. All of these are available to order by contacting 0870 750 3082 or by emailing

It is also imporatant to remember over the festive season that sexual health centres and clinics may not be open at their usual times yet many young people phone us surpirsed that the service is closed - do what you can to alert young people to any changes in service provision over Christmas and New Year.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Pink Pink Pink Pink Pink

Earlier this year Brook set out our belief that we will not reach our targets to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or improve the quality of young people’s relationships unless we address gender in policy and practice. Through the contact we have with approximately 1600 young people every day at Brook, we recognise that how boys learn to boys, and girls learn to be girls has a huge and often negative impact on their relationships and sexual choices.

And an ex colleague of mine, Emma Moore clearly thinks the same. She and her sister, Abi have developed a campaign

There is an article about the campaign in today’s Guardian called The Power of Pink. The campaign set out to offer girls positive alternative role models and ‘trying to stop the seemingly unstoppable tide of pink was simply another way they felt, of challenging what was rampaging and unacceptable stereotyping, from earliest childhood.’

The article describes some of the challenges the sisters have received which demonstrate how deeply gender is embedded in our society – from claims the sisters are lesbians (how original – nobody who has dared to challenged stereotypes has had that allegation thrown before!) to questions of their sanity.

But much more moving and important are the emails from little girls along the lines of ‘carry on and make it easier for girls like me to try different things without feeling like an outsider’ and ‘girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?

So does pink matter – yes, not because it isn’t a nice colour, not because nobody should like it, but because when there is only one game in town it narrows perspectives, slims down the possibilities and restricts people’s ability to be themselves. So I go back to my original assertion that it is time to turn the gender air conditioning off, and notice how tightly we define the possibilities for boys and girls. It starts early, it’s pernicious and its important that we challenge it.

I don’t want to return to the past where girls were made of all things nice and boys were made of slug tails. We cannot allow the power of marketing to turn the tide on social change and progress it isnt fair on boys or girls.

To find out more about Brook’s conference on March 4th 2010 visit

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

HIV and stigma

Last week was World AIDS Day, and you could be forgiven for missing it if you blinked. Discussing this with colleagues and friends, there were a range of views on this from ‘well it is not such a threat anymore and so of course it will be lower profile’ to ‘this is seriously worrying – the press don’t report it as they did, people don’t wear red ribbons and it is an opportunity missed’.

For many of course, the day will not have gone by unnoticed, as they remember the long list of friends, lovers and family members who have died from AIDS related illnesses over the last twenty years. And for some, diagnosed with HIV in a different era when diagnosis equalled imminent death the day is a reminder of how advances in treatment have changed their future and life expectancy radically.

So whatever our views on the importance of a high profile World AIDS Day, the stark and unpleasant fact remains, stigma towards people living with and affected by HIV is a significant reality. According to new research funded by the Department for International Development and the Internal Planned Parenthood Federation stigma in Britain is worse now than it was a decade ago. Shocking findings if you expect more from the people of this country.

So as official figures showed the number of people living with HIV in the UK has reached 83,000, an 8% increase on the previous year, with approximately a quarter of those people unaware they have HIV, this is not the time for complacency.

I support calls for a cross government action plan to tackle discrimination, and I completely agree with David Borrow MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on AIDS, that the ‘public sector has a special responsibility to treat everyone it serves with respect’. We must continue to raise awareness of HIV in schools and communities and whilst we wait for government’s action plan, and even when we get it, we must all take personal responsibility for educating against ignorance and challenging robustly the unacceptable stigma towards people living with HIV.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Bitter blow for women in Northern Ireland

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Services in Northern Ireland published guidance on abortion. SPUC launched a judicial review to get the guidance withdrawn. We have today learned they were successful which is a bitter blow for women in Northern Ireland.

Responding to the news, FPA said

Reacting to today's ruling by Lord Justice Girvan in the High Court in Belfast, granting the withdrawal of the Guidance document on abortion from the DHSSPS following a Judicial Review instigated by SPUC, Dr Audrey Simpson, OBE said 'this is bitterly disappointing and a huge step backwards. Women with a crisis pregnancy and health professionals trying to carry out their duty of care have been badly let down by today's ruling which, again, leaves the entire situation in a state of limbo. We would urge the Department to re-write the Guidance as soon as possible'

New campaign to promote open conversation about sex

Today the Department of Health and Department for Children, Schools and Families has launched the first phase of their Sex: worth talking about campaign in England.

The first phase focuses on contraception and is called contraception: worth talking about.

I am pleased that this campaign has been launched. We know that many many young people still do not know everything they need to about contraception, and time and again they tell us that adults do not talk openly and confidently about sex.

High profile campaigns can help change the way we understand things. The fact this campaign has been launched marks a shift in our attitudes towards young people, sex and contraception. The fact that it starts from a positive position of encouraging open communication marks it out from sexual health campaigns that have gone before it which have generally focused on some of the negative consequences of having sex such as sexually transmitted infections.

Lets hope its positive and slightly different approach will resonate with young people and get them talking.

To find out more about the campaign visit

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A new headline and my tube friend

Thankfully I rarely use the tube to get around London, preferring instead to hotfoot it on my fold away bike, but yesterday I didn't have the physical energy to cycle so I ended up on the tube.

As I sat down, the man next to me was reading his Metro paper. As he turned the page I saw the headline 'transexual lessons for five year olds'. Now I have seen plenty of 'sex lessons for five year olds' and 'gay lessons for four year olds' headlines and expect to see many more, but this was a first.

So i (annoyingly) tried to read the article over his shoulder. He (annoyingly) decided he didn't want me to read over his shoulder and repositioned his paper. Normally the tube is littered with people's read free papers by 7.30, but not yesterday. So unable to wait I had to ask if I could please read the article about transexual lessons for five years.

He gave me the paper, i scanned the article as quickly as possible to learn that this is a non story. And that it was reporting on the fact that as part of PSHE Education children will learn about equality and domestic violence. There was nothing new in it, so why the new headline? As i read the article I sighed and shook my head and muttered this is ridiculous. I thought I was quiet, but my fast becoming friend - lets call him Sam - agreed, although misunderstood what i thought was ridiculous, so actually we disagreed because he thought transexual lessons for five year olds was ridiculous and a signal this government had lost the plot.

Now what annoys me to hell about this is that in the space of three tube stops he learnt quite a lot about PSHE Education and cheerily claimed to be an advocate as I hopped off at Euston. And I learnt first hand from your average (sorry Sam you were by no means average) about the insidious role of those tedious headlines on rational people's understanding of what children will be taught in school, and it breeds fear and suspicion and contempt about an area of education that is absolutely right and moral that it is taught in schools working in partnership with parents.

So the curriculum isn't changing, but the headlines are - what will the headline be next? Ideas on this blog!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Brook has a new website

The Brook team has worked fantastically hard to update, extend and develop our website (

Young people have helped with both the design and content of the site and we are confident that it will really meet the needs of both young people and professionals - feedback from young people and professionals so far tells us we have got it right.

Take a look - there is a section on the website for feedback - please let us know what you think.

FPA win award for work on sexual health for people with a learning disability

FPA has won an award for their excellent DVD for people with learning disabilities. Great they have got recognition for this ground breaking work. Find out more on their facebook page

To find out more about the work of FPA visit

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

National Chlamydia Screening Programme must continue

Today the National Audit Office has published its report on the National Chlamydia Screening Programme in England. In making its assessment of the value of the programme it charts some of the challenges of implementing a national programme when local Health Bodies have responsibility for delivery. It does say that the programme has not demonstrated value for money to date. And of course the danger is we look backwards not forward, and we lose the good news in with that headline. The report goes on to say that the programme and other sites, including GUM services are now reaching a level of testing which will begin to make a difference to the amount of chlamydia within the population. All national strategies take a while to bed down and we are now getting there - continued investment is vital if we are to build on the successes to date, and ensure that all, not just some, areas are doing excellently - every area will be doing something well and we need to escalate efforts to share best practice.

The report sets out some important areas for change to ensure that moving forward the programme makes a difference. For my money, there are some important wins some of which the NCSP are already moving forward on including providing guidance on how much a test should cost so there are not such big discrepancies between areas.

From a young people's perspective 45 brands does not make sense - we need to have one national brand, locally developed and tailored so young people really know what chlamydia is, how to prevent it and where to get tested if they need to even if they move between PCT boundaries and regions. We also need one national high quality website so young people can access tests on line. At Brook young people contact us asking how to get a kit online and I worry about the variation in quality of service young people get with our current arrangements of local websites (or indeed no websites). Given where the programme is and the way health policy has developed, I don't underestimate the challenge in national branding or a national website, but for the sake of young people and getting the best bang for our buck we must grasp the nettle.

So, when I am asked by journalists whether the NCSP should continue, yes absolutely it must. There is no doubt in my mind.

And last week Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children announced that PSHE Education will become a statutory part of the curriculum in England. For many of us, including myself this announcement is long overdue and very very welcome. I keep on pinching myself - having personally worked and campaigned for this at least a decade, along with colleagues who have been pushing even longer, this is a triumph that is a defining moment in our history. For far too long children and young people have been telling us their PSHE including learning about sex and relationships is not good enough - that it needs more time, that it needs enough interest and skill from people teaching the subject and that it needs to help them address real life dilemmas more effectively. Of course this is not the end of the journey - statutory provision is not a magic bullet or a panacea, but it is a huge step forward. I urge everyone who supports PSHE Education to contact their local MP and make sure they support the move as it makes its way through the parliamentary process. We have government commitment to the destination, now we just have to make sure we get there. There will be others who don't agree making their voices heard very loudly - we cannot afford to be complacent.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Battle of Ideas - we do need sex education

Today I took part in a debate at the Institute of Ideas, Battle of Ideas Festival at the Royal College of Arts in Kensington. I have to admit to being dubious beforehand about how many people would be there - first thing on a Sunday morning, the night after halloween. I have done Sunday morning debating slots before with the panel and their supporters. I am glad to say I was proven absolutely wrong. It was a good debate, with a decent amount of people, and very well chaired. I recommend next years festival, and the activities of the Institute of Ideas to you.

The title of my debate was we don't need no sex education and the other panellists were Dr Hera Cook a historian from the University of Birmingham; Dr Jan Macvarish from University of Canterbury and Professor David Paton from University of Nottingham.

I really enjoyed the contribution of Dr Hera Cook from a historical perspective. It is always useful to remember how history shapes our understanding of what is happening now and what will happen in the future. I was struck yet again by how powerfully sexuality is controlled in this country.

It was clear today yet again that we should never underestimate the power of myth and misunderstanding in relation to sex and relationships education and young people's sexual health. Some of the stories I heard today about sex and relationships education seem far fetched at worst, and at best mis guided. But isn't that true of attempts to engage young people in english, maths and geography too - just we fail to question these subjects as much as we question SRE.

Anyways, the rumour, the myth, and the misunderstanding about SRE promise to be continual challenges to the type of education and support children and young people tell us they want. As professionals, parents and young people who want to improve young people's sexual health we must continue to challenge the hysteria, politicisation and misinformation that is so common place.

And on a different but equally important note, when it comes to intimate relationships, people with learning disabilities often have less opportunities to make friendships and establish relationships than their non disabled peers - in the Sunday Times there was a brilliant article called pleasure principle - its introductory paragraph, ' time was when a learning disability meant automatic exclusion from cool music, clubs and clothes, kate spencer meets the people who are blazing a trail to change all that'. And thank goodness there are people trailblazing these overdue and important changes.

And in case you have not heard of Heart N Soul before, go on their website and see the fantastic work they do, led by people with disabilities to promote social opportunities, high aspirations and relationships. They are an organisation that really walks the talk.

Monday, 26 October 2009

sex, alcohol and racism

I have just come back from a joint meeting between the APPG on sexual health and the APPG on alcohol misuse. A specialist liver doctor explained how 20% of people have dangerous or hazardous drinking habits drink 80% of all alcohol. He also talked about research in their local area done in partnership with the sexual health service which showed that about 35% of people attending a GUM clinic to be tested for a sexually transmitted infection thought that alcohol was either definitely or possibly a cause for them taking risks with their sexual health.

Two people from Brook in Birmingham presented on their work with young people and professionals on the links between sex and alcohol. They reminded us that young people are learning about alcohol use and misuse from the adults around them; that we must be mindful that most young people do not have a serious problem with alcohol; that clinical consultations must focus on building a relationship of trust, and that this relationship of trust can only be built if we spend enough time with each individual - we cannot rush people through on a conveyer belt approach. And of course finding enough time is often one of the biggest challenges we can face as professionals.

In an engaging presentation they created a series of spoof newspaper headlines challenging some of the myths about the sexual behaviours and attitudes of both younger and older people. These combined with information about the training course for professionals, 'sex, alcohol and rubber ducks', the offer of a demonstration of beer goggles, picking up pennies, and the display of condoms and condom demonstrators gave the meeting attendees a practical experience of the creative approach Brook takes to educating young people about the links between alcohol and sexual health.

I am just watching last weeks Panorama programme on racism in a housing estate near Bristol. It is really disturbing watching and is making me feel desperately sad. This programme is an urgent reminder to anyone who believes that racism is a thing of the past, and a reminder that we must not stop for one minute in challenging racism in all its forms and promoting positive relations and community cohesion from the earliest opportunity in our schools and communities.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Some things from my head on a saturday

This week has been as varied, interesting and challenging as most weeks are. As I sit with a cup of coffee on Saturday morning reflecting on the week there are a few things that are floating in my head that might be of interest.

Funded by V we have 20 young people working 4 days a week over the next two years. The first five have just started working with us part of the Vtalent year programme. Their brief is broad - they are here to work on sexual health campaigning and it is their role with the project manager to scope, define and fund, execute and evaluate their work. I was invited to come and listen to their work.

They have done some really brilliant thinking about the reality of growing up as a young person in todays world and what helps and prevents young people developing sexual and relationship confidence and competence. The quality and quantity of work done by five people in such a short amount of time is remarkable and I am excited about the potential power and impact of their work in the future.

I am proud of the way the team within the office has really quickly adapted the way they work to offer help and support, as well as learn from the young people we have the privilege of working with us on a day to day basis.

We also kick started the process of involving young people in preparing for our annual conference in March 2010. The theme next year is gender. My assertion and belief is that unless we bring gender centre stage and use our understanding of gender stereotypes and expectations to inform all of our policy and practice development we will fail on our policy objectives of reducing teenage pregnancy and improving sexual health and the quality of relationships. A group of young people are setting off on a project to provide conference delegates with a first hand view 0f growing up as a boy or growing up as a girl in the 21st century. Asked what i was expecting them to tell us, I truly do not know what they will say - having been involved in many projects about gender about 15 years ago, I am waiting with anticipation to see what is the same and what is different.

Following the gender theme, in 2004 Amnesty International launched a global campaign to Stop Violence Against Women and campaigned with others to get rape recognised as a war crime. In June last year the UN passed resolution 1820 that recognises rape as a war crime that undermines peace and security. This resolution is a major achievement and the resolution needs sustained support and commitment from governments to ensure that rape is stopped. This eyewitness account from Nepal emphasises the importance of all us doing what we can to support the campaign -

'An officer ordered five of his men to take her to a nearby cowshed. At 5 am Reena was taken out and three shots were heard. Villagers found her naked body after the security forces left the village. Bloodstains on her discarded clothes and underwear indicated that she had been raped before she was killed.'

Finally Lionel Shrivers, the author of 'You need to talk to Kevin' was interviewed in last Saturdays Guardian. She really made me think about relationships with parents, how they change over time, and how important it is to stop reverting to a teenage/parent relationship when one is with them - which I find it remarkably easy to do sometimes. Talking about how a a novel she wrote hurt her family and their relationship, she says 'accustomed to trying to win the approval of my parents, I under appreciated how much parents yearn for the approval of their children, too.' The next day I was listening to a radio programme about children who were the first to go to University in their family and some of the challenges the families faced in understanding each other.

It was a sobering listen as people allowed deep misunderstanding and assumptions to hurt relationships within the family. This came on the back of my brothers wedding which was brilliant day, and where I saw the overwhelming pride and love of my parents, and lots of family who I hadn't seen for far long. As I listened to the programme I felt bad about the times I got a bit above myself when I first went to college and learnt so many new things, grateful my family put up with it, were proud of it and put me back in my box from time to time, and resolved to make sure that this Christmas there would be no retreating to 1988 and my folks know how much I approve of and value them deeply.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Astounding judgement on abortion data

On Thursday the Information Tribunal ruled that Department of Health must release statistical data on abortions that take place after 24 weeks owing to foetal abnormality. This comes at the end of a six year effort from Department of Health to ensure that the confidentiality of the small number of women who have to make an incredibly difficult decision to terminate their pregnancy at a late stage of gestation is protected.

The Department of Health stopping publishing the data in 2003 after the Reverend Joanna Jepson asked the Metropolitan Police to investigate a case which led to a doctor being identified and targeted by an anti choice organisation .

I had been expecting the judgement imminently, however you know when you are shocked and have to reread an email a few times to be sure you have read it right - this was one of those emails. I was particularly surprised that the judgement went against the DH because when the case was being heard in the Courts, a high profile doctor who carried out abortions in the USA was shot dead by an individual who opposed his work - and whilst there is a different culture here there is no doubt that individuals can and do get targeted in the UK as well.

That is why both Brook and fpa have urged the DH to take this case to the high court. If a small number of women and their doctors are going to be failed by a system which potentially allows anti abortion groups to identify and put pressure on individuals then I for one want to be sure that everything that could possibly be done to stop this incredibly damaging move has been done.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Young people's perceptions of alcohol

Last week I made reference to the Labour Party Conference being proof that young people learn about alcohol from the way adults around them drink - because they are sad, happy, upset, furious, or of course, for no other reason than they want a drink. My experience and behaviour at the Conservative Party Conference was similar - very late nights and too much to drink at least once, possibly twice.

Last week the British Youth Council launched a report about young people's experiences of alcohol, Sex and drinking - young people's experiences. As part of the report a survey of 1,000 young people found that there were strong links between drinking alcohol and having unsafe sex, almost one in three young people said the first time they had sex they had been drinking, and of these one in five would not have had sex if they were sober.

This supports what we already know that if young people have been drinking they are more likely to regret having sex and less likely to use contraception.

Most of the young people surveyed agreed that advice and information about avoiding drinking which might lead to having unsafe or regretted sex should be available in sexual health clinics. And of course, that is already happening in some places in both education and clinical services.

Brook has produced a new 'alcohol version' of our Have fun, be careful poster to remind young people if they are going to have sex to always use a condom to protect against unplanned pregnancy and STIs (see for further information).

Posters, leaflets and discussions in education about the links between sexual risk taking and other drugs is crucial, but it is not the task. The task is to shift our culture around alcohol so young people are learning about safe and responsible drinking from the adults around them.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sexual health at the party conferences

If you ever need proof that young people take their lessons about alcohol from the adults around them you might just want to visit a political party conference next autumn. There is absolutely no doubt that alcohol is a social lubricant at these affairs.

Tonight I am packing my bag to head off to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on the early train tomorrow, reflecting on the questions I want to ask, the people I want to speak to and the answers I want to get. This time last week I was doing the same in preparation for the Labour Party Conference in Brighton.

In Brighton I was pleased at the commitment from Ministers to securing PSHE as a statutory subject. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a desire to get this through the legislative process. I just hope this becomes a reality and will be looking for reassurance from the Conservative Party that they want to see PSHE being statutory and will support it in parliament. Children's personal development and their health and well being is not party political, and particularly in the run up to the general election we have to ensure that it does not become so. The absolute majority of people, parents, professionals and children want schools to deliver high quality Personal, Social and Health Education. Brook among others has been campaigning for a long time to make that happen.

I was particularly pleased to attend a few fringe meetings where young people were involved in a meaningful way, creating and offering solutions to move away from the demonising approach to young people. A young women speaking at The Children's Society fringe meeting about inter generational relations told sad tales of a society that has lost sight of the power and creativity of young people. I was particularly horrified that she had been told by a shop keeper she could not come in because she looked like a thief, and had to endure the sound of a mosquito alarm going off whilst eating Mcdonalds with friends. She was followed by Professor Tanya Byron who gave a compelling presentation and ended by saying she was ashamed of our fearful punitive approach to young people.

We still have a long way to go in ensuring that children and young people are effectively integrated into our policy thinking and discussions. I worry still that either we do not think hard enough in the planning of meetings and the support young people are offered so they cannot be fully involved, or we try so hard to include them that all conversations defer back to young people and they never ever get challenged. Neither approach is good enough and we all still have a long way to go to get youth involvement right.

The National Autistic Society held an excellent fringe on the education of children with autism, and I look forward to following up an early conversation with their CEO about how we can make sure that high quality education for children with autism extends to education about their bodies, relationships and sexual health as well.

I will be leaving Manchester to head back to London on Wednesday where in the evening I am speaking at a meeting about sex and relationships education set up by Dialogue with Islam in the East London Mosque at 6.45. You can find out more from their website

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

New appointments at Brook

I'm delighted to announce three new appointments at Brook and welcome Eve Martin as Chair, Kathy French as Clinical Director and Lady (Winifred) Tumin CBE who has recently become an ambassador for Brook.

Their knowledge and experience will be a great assest for Brook and I look forward to working with them to take our work forwards and reach many more young people.

Please click here to see the full news release on our website.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Positive voices of young disabled people and sexuality

A brilliant celebration of young disabled people as sexual beings giving a positive voice to a group of young people whose sexual feelings, desires and experiences still remain too often unspoken about or the target of prejudice and misunderstanding.

As well as being able to download for free, it can be purchased on DVD for training purposes

The age of consent

Tomorrow Radio 4 will host a debate about the age of sexual consent, which is currently 16. Law professsor John Spencer is reported in the Daily Mail as being set to argue that the current age of consent criminalises 'half the population'.

The guidance to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is very clear. The Act is not there to criminalise consensual sexual activity amongst young people, although I accept from many people who know far more about legislation than I do, that this Act is not the best conceptualised and leaves too much room for inequitable legislation. This is borne out in some of the calls and letters that I receive from anxious parents whose child has been the subject of unhelpful criminal investigation into consensual sexual activity.

I look forward to the debate tomorrow, but meanwhile I am with young people and Nick, my trainer at the gym who has in recent months become an active debater on teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, sex and the media, who when I asked him this morning what he thought about lowering the age of consent, thought it was probably best 'left as it is'. Even though he can see there is the potential pressure that people feel when they get to 16 to have sex if they have not done so already.

And herein lies at least some of the problem for me, the feeling amongst the young that everyone else is doing it more often, younger and in more daring ways. But to be honest this is not simply the domain of young people. As adults we too, are often consumed with the view that others are 'having it more and better'. And this is about our culture, not the law (although I know of course the law and culture are closely interlinked).

Research shows the practical reality of the age of consent for young people. In all you need is love? sexual morality through the eyes of young people published by National Children's Bureau, Sharpe and Thomson show that whilst the age of consent is not central in young people's decision making about whether and when to have sex - trust and love playing a much greater role - the age of consent does send a message to young people about when as a society we think is a reasonable age to have sex. I have also talked with many many young women and the professionals that work with them about the age of consent over the last decade. The resounding consensus from them is leave it as it is - it is a good negotiating tool that we can use to refuse to have sex should we want to use it.

So on that basis for now, as long as we have adequate safeguards which prevent young people under 16 who are engaged in consensual sexual activity from being criminalised, and those young people who have sex under 16 have access to contraceptive and sexual health services and feel confident using them, my view is lets keep it at 16. I look forward to the Radio 4 programme Iconoclasts tomorrow and listening to see whether there is anything that may make me consider changing my view.

In the meantime foot on the accelerator to create that positive open culture about sex and sexuality.

Friday, 18 September 2009

New website to help influence local sexual health services

More and more decisions about health services are being made at local level. In response to this Brook has worked with a number of national sexual health organisations to create a new website which will help people lobby, influence and ask questions about local sexual health and contraceptive services. Find out more at

So I urge you to start influencing and sign up to the website now - get your voice heard!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Punk rock

I saw this play last night - remarkably talented young actors in a play which brings into sharp focus the complexities of growing up - anxiety, distress, sex and sexual tension, identity, self harm and bullying as well as resilience and maturity.

In one scene a character tries to console another who is despairing of his peers within the school. She says something along the lines of '99% of young people in this school are nice, and what nobody ever says is 99% of young people are good, don't forget that'.

And as to prove it, today I fell off my bike and needed some help. It was a bit embarrassing sprawled on the road with a Brompton fold up bike wrapped around me. At least twenty people were nearby, mostly adults and it was the two young lads who came to check I was alright and help me up whilst the adults scuttled on by. How I wish some of those adults who damn young people could have seen. More proof that ephibiphobia - the fear of young people - is ill founded.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Building confidence in sexual health services - excellent work in Jersey

This weekend myself and a trustee Nicky Trimboy visited Brook in Jersey to meet the director, Chair and another trustee from Jersey to review their successes and current challenges and how well we are all working together in the Brook Network.

We were incredibly impressed with lots of things including the way Brook using PQASSO our quality assurance system to really improve the way they work on an ongoing basis. We were also excited that all year 10 pupils (age 14/15) on Jersey get a school trip to Brook to find out what we do at Brook and what happens if they visit.

The impact of this was evident at Jersey Live Music Festival which we spent some time at afterwards. Two of the Ask Brook team were doing a brilliant job at the stand giving out information about sexual health and safer sex, providing condoms and teaching people how to use them, and telling people about the Brook service in Jersey. They also asked visitors to the stand who came in their hundreds whether they knew about Brook. Lots of them did and a common reply was ‘I went there on the school trip’. Lots of the young people talked about how great the staff were, and one young woman said she hoped she was rich enough to be able to give Brook lots of money because they had been such a help to her so many times.

Imagine how amazing it would be and how much we could improve the confidence of young people in accessing services if all year 10 pupils in every school got a trip to their nearest contraceptive and sexual health service, and when they got there everyone was respectful to them.

Friday, 4 September 2009

It's like a rubber cock.....

said Jon talking about a packer which emulates male genitalia in 'the boy who was born a girl' on Channel 4 tonight. Jon is 16 and was born Natasha. He has gender dysphoria and is undergoing testosterone therapy to trigger male puberty.

Three things are really striking in the programme;

the maturity of Jon, how resilient he is and how much he deserves to experience happiness and to be comfortable in his body

how supportive his mother is and how she takes responsibility for her own emotions which are sometimes diametrically opposed to Jons' and remains completely supportive and proud of Jon

the outstanding ability of people to be cruel and hurt others who are different and the urgent need to create a culture in the UK where bullying and discrimination in schools and communities is unacceptable.

If you didn't see it, get onto the internet and watch it, it is an honest and important documentary that tells the story so far of Jon - one transgender young person - and there are many more without the confidence or support to get help, support and treatment. Only if we break the taboo and stop the silence will we ensure young people born with gender dysphoria get the help and treatment to be happy in their own skin.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Taking sexual health to the festivals

Festivals are an important part of the summer circuit. And alcohol and sex are part of the mix for many festival goers.

On March 6th I wrote about the excellent performance of PJ, one of Brook's young ambassador with Remiidy and Kris at the Brook awards with their song 'Use a Condom'.

This weekend they took it to a wider audience performing live on stage at the Reading Festival. When I saw PJ today he said the performance went very well and that people were coming to the front and taking the free condoms.

At the same time a team from Brook alongside Leeds and Bradford Primary Care Trusts' were working at Leeds Festival providing condoms, emergency contraception, chlamydia screening and information to young people. And the week before a team were at the V festival taking sexual health out to where young people are. This weekend Brook will be at Jersey Live Festival.

We are pleased with the feedback, pleased with the take up of sexual health information, condoms, chlamydia screening and emergency contraception and believe we provided a useful resource for young people and will be looking at how we can have a presence at some of the festivals again next year.

NSPCC report on sexual violence

Sexual bullying and sexual violence has become an increasing policy and practice concern. And the NSPCC today launched an interesting report about the experience of teenage girls in relationships that adds to the evidence as to why this must be a concern. The research, a study of almost 1400 13 - 17 year olds shows that a third of teenage girls suffer unwanted sexual acts in a relationship and a quarter physical violence.

The survey of 13 to 17-year-olds found that nearly nine out of ten girls had been in an intimate relationship. Of these, one in six said they had been pressured into sexual intercourse and 1 in 16 said they had been raped. Others had been pressured or forced to kiss or sexually touch. In addition quarter of girls had suffered physical violence such as being slapped, punched, or beaten by their boyfriends.

Nearly nine out of ten boys also said they had been in a relationship. A smaller number reported pressure or violence from girls. (Only one in seventeen boys in a relationship reported being pressured or forced into sexual activity and almost one in five suffered physical violence in a relationship).

Girls were much more likely to find this behaviour harmful - more than three in every four compared to one in ten boys. Girls also reported that they suffered more repeatedly in relationships and at a younger age.

Sian, one of the girls interviewed for the research, said: "I only went out with him for a week. And then because I didn't want to have sex he just started picking on me and hitting me."

Having an older boyfriend was found to put girls at a higher risk, with three-quarters of them saying they had been victims. Girls from a family where an adult had been violent towards them, one of their parents, or siblings, were also at greater risk.

For boys, having a violent group of friends made it more likely that they would be a victim, or be violent themselves, in a relationship.

Bobby, one of the boys interviewed for the report, said: "I think there's probably more pressure on boys, but if a girl goes out with a lot of people she's called a 'slut' or a 'slag' or something, but if it's a boy he's just one of the lads if he

I have yet to read the full report, but it is clear from what i have read so far that sexual violence is a really important issue and that gender plays a really significant part in the way young people understand and navigate their sexual relationships.

That is why Brook's annual conference on March 4th 2010 is focusing on gender. To find out more about the conference BoyGirlManWoman - putting gender at the heart of sexual health and teenage pregnancy work email

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Stroke my face (and X factor)

I had a surprising moment in Marks and Spencers last week. It surprised me anyway. I was getting some food for my train journey. My next train wasn't due to leave for 30 minutes as I had just missed one, the sun was shining and I was feeling happy. It was obvious the woman behind me in the queue was in a rush and so I ushered her to go in front of me. As she went past, she stroked my face and said something along the lines of 'aren't you gorgeous and lovely too, thank you sweetheart'.

I felt myself recoil at the touch and blush badly at the compliment. I also regressed in feelings to that age where people feel it necessary to say 'how much he has grown; what gorgeous eyes he has etc' as though you are not stood there. At the same time it generated that nice warm feeling that being appreciated creates.

It is not very often in my experience that strangers touch someone, or get touched in that way. I am not sure that I want it to happen again too soon, but I admire the woman for taking 'the risk' and showing her appreciation.

And I am just watching the first episode of X factor which i recorded on Saturday night. Some courses in self awareness could be beneficial for some of the contestants.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

That holiday feeling

I have just been on two weeks leave - visiting Brighton, Edinburgh and Cornwall. I have taken great pleasure over the last few weeks spending time reading trashy magazines and lots of newspapers. Very interesting, and often nauseating reading all the magazines with strong views about celebrity relationships. I have gone cold turkey on those magazines now!

I was delighted when I met someone who when I told them I worked at Brook said they had used Brook's services in Belfast and had a fantastic experience. Always a pleasure to get feedback in unexpected places. Coincidentally this is the second time i have been on my holidays and meeting someone who has used Brook in Northern Ireland and had a great experience - last time I was on an aeroplane back from Australia and the young woman sat next to me saw me doing some work, asked me what I did and when I told her she was so full of praise for the staff.

Sticking with Northern Ireland, at the Edinburgh festival my favourite show was the Chronicles of Long Kesh, a play about the HM Maze Prison used to house paramilitary prisoners during the Northern Irish Troubles. The 6 actors played the whole range of characters with incredible skill. I have talked about the play a lot since seeing it - and people have very different reactions to it depending on their view. I was incredibly taken by the small windows into the often chilling impact of the 'Troubles' on interpersonal and intimate relationships between men, their wives and their children. The film 'hunger' about the same prison is very good too.

The sun didn't shine too much in Cornwall but I did stand up on a surf board (whilst in the sea) for at least 8 seconds.

Holiday reads;

Small Island by Andrea Levy
Starting Over by Tony Parsons
Incendiary by Chris Cleve

All of them fantastic in different ways.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Remembering the feelings

I went to to the beach closest to my childhood home in Cornwall last weekend.  I spent a fair amount of time wondering whether to say hello to people in my class, my year and my school, and having no choice but to say hello and enjoy conversation with others.

What really struck me was the level and intensity of feelings associated with my youth that seeing one person, talking about another, or being reminded of a situation with friends in that area.  For me being young was a good time - a time of freedom and choice, rights and responsibilities, romantic (or not) adventures, lots and lots of laughing and comedy, cool at the time, clothing in an effort to express myself.  I often talk of remembering what it feels like to be young and last week I had no choice, the feelings all came gushing back.  For me it was a good time.  As the recession hits us, all of us, parents, uncles, friends and workers have to do everything we can to ensure that being 15, 16 and 17 is a good time for as many young people as possible.  One young person wisely told me a few years ago - I don't want to be treated like a kid, but don't expect me to behave like an adult either.

Being young and all that can come with it - adventures, mistakes, first love, first relationships, education, new experiences - should be a privilege and a pleasure, and adults play an important part in making it so.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Angus, thongs and perfect snogging - good SRE material

I have just watched this film.  Perfect fodder for stimulating great discussion with young people about growing up, sexual feelings, fancying people, love, rejection, divorce, integrity and trust.  

It was a great antidote to cleaning my flat after the team bbq yesterday, followed by a rather tumultuous 5 hour experience at a car boot sale helping one of my best friends fend off people behaving badly in search of a bargain.  

Monday, 13 July 2009

Getting the balance right - the good bits and the bad

Over the last few days I have had some remarkably interesting conversations with journalists about sexual pleasure in response to a booklet for professionals called 'pleasure' published by NHS Sheffield.    All of the journalists have had different perceptions about the booklet, often depending on whether they had read it, or on their view about young people and sex.  

Whatever their view what has interested me is that people are able to take this out of context and be surprised that we should talk about pleasure as part of the mix with young people.   Yes of course we should be talking to them about the risks of having unprotected sex, yes we must talk to them about pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, yes we must talk to them about exploitation and about coercion.  

But as one young person said, 'if sex is only about getting an infection or about getting pregnant when you don't want to, why do people do it.  It must be fun as well'.  And when I was in Holland two years ago when I spoke to young people, young men and young women, it was clear that they did expect sex to be fun, to be a positive experience.  They did expect, and were expected to have sex with people they trust.  

And as Kristen Luker, a eminent researcher in the USA says, you get what you expect from young people - if we expect them to enjoy and take responsibility for the sex they have, they will.  If we expect them to make bad decisions they will.

So, for me the remarkable bit about the conversations I have had, is the accusation that this is liberal lefty nonsense and the sense that we can promote sexual responsibility by frightening young people about pregnancy and STI's.   As young adults if someone had told me and many of my peers that sex should be emotionally satisfying it would have been incredibly helpful!  

As parents, family members and professionals we must ensure young people know sex should be rewarding and satisfying, emotionally and physically, and if it isn't they should be asking do they want to do it at all.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

It's Not Fair

Lily Allen's "it's not fair" is a great song to stimulate discussion about relationships, gender and sexual pleasure. It is important to recognise the importance of this type of honesty and confidence about her sexual and emotional life. You can watch the video for this song at

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Interesting articles in the Observer today

There are some interesting articles in the Observer Woman Magazine today.  

An interview with Tori Amos deals with power - 'What I know about men' talks about power 'real power is about exchange, not subordination.  For some people a powerful man is a bully.  He's powerful because he scares people.  And I would say that is not a powerful man - that's an intimidating man, a man who uses intimidation tactics.  A powerful man is a man that knows e is and doesn't want to intimidate people to get what he wants.   

There is also an interesting interview with Monica Seles, the tennis player, who was violently attacked on a tennis court in the early nineties.  The article talks about her eating disorder, the process of taking back control and coming to terms with the death of her father.   Her new book Getting to Grips, sounds like a potentially interesting read.

Beth Ditto, the lead singer of Gossip is interviewed.  She is a lesbian from Arkansas, described by many as weird.  Her grounded sense of self really shines through.  On being described as normal she says 'when I go home I am normal.  This is what all my friends are doing.   There are tons of fat people who are gay and make music and love clothes.....everything that you think is weird is normal to me.'

Finally there is an article about the potential of male circumcision to impact positively on rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections.  It is an important article that highlights the challenge of getting public health messages right - making sure they are understood by the public.  It also poses the challenge of trusting people to use information well and take responsibility for their sexual health - something we can find incredibly difficult and leads to a paternalistic approach to health promotion.  

Saturday, 4 July 2009

The event

I have just been training ahead of the British 10k next week (you can sponsor me and support Brook at

It was hot and I was pleased to finish running for the day. Around the edge of the park there is one of those now common place signs that tell you about traffic problems, or events in the West End. Normally it is quite specific. For example, sticking to the theme of running, not long ago it told you to avoid central London because of the marathon. Today it just said avoid the West End as there is an 'event'. I may be being cynical or suspicious, maybe the letters P-R-I-D-E really were not working today. Except of course there are two e's in event which blow that theory. So is it because PRIDE is a gay event that the detail was not provided? Who knows.

I mentioned it to a friend, who was obviously in a more generous mood, who said maybe it is in case the sign would encourage protesters. I leave you to decide.

On a different note, I have just finished reading 'the other hand' by Chris Cleave. A really remarkable book which I recommend completely. I would tell you a bit about it, but on the back of the book it says ' we don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it.'

Friday, 3 July 2009

New TPIAG briefing on young people's contraceptive and sexul health services

The Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group (TPIAG) has published a useful briefing for strategic leaders of local children and young people's partnerships on young people's contraceptive and sexual health services. The link to the document is

Young people’s sexual health is a key policy concern and the briefing includes information on why local areas should invest in contraception and sexual health services for young people to reduce teenage conception rates, as well as information on the funds from central government. It also includes the key factors, levers and frameworks which will help in commissioning effective services for young people.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Conservative policy review on sexual health

David Bull has been appointed to lead a policy review on sexual health for the Conservative Party - it is important that it is being given a focus. Having had some mixed signals over the past year from different shadow Ministers and Conservative MPs, I am looking forward to the report to get a clear idea of what Conservative policy on sexual health and teenage pregnancy really is.  

Monday, 15 June 2009

Chlamydia Screening - national online testing is a clear gap

On Friday the Health Protection Agency published statistics on chlamydia screening figures across England. The latest figures show significant progress and an increase in the numbers of young people being tested, and we still have a long way to go.

National programmes inevitably take time to get going as the systems and structures are put in place on the ground. I am sure we will continue to see an increase in the numbers of young people being tested this year. There is however a gap and a challenge for us in the year ahead if government and partner agencies such as Brook and Terence Higgins Trust are to detect and treat the infection within the population to get chlamydia under control, particularly encouraging those who will not access mainstream services to get tested.

Across the country there are many different brands for local and regional chlamydia screening programmes. Young people frequently phone Ask Brook, our information service for young people. They tell us that they don't want to go to a clinic and would prefer to request a test on line which they then receive in the post. They often phone us when they have had difficulty finding out whether they can access a free test on line and how to get it.

A national online service, backed up with a national campaign could fill the gap and are calling on government to consider this as a serious option that will both increase value for money and effectiveness. Without this we risk many young people, perhaps particularly young men, not getting screened and when necessary treated.

Risk, perceptions and parents views on young people using contraception

I have spent many evenings in the garden, restaurants and pubs over the years talking to parents and parents to be about how they hope they will stay calm, not be too strict like their parents, respect their child's wants/desires even if they don't want to go to college or get the job they would love them to get. And given my job we have talked a lot about talking to their children about relationships and sex. All hope they will do it well and not be put off by inner talk that says 'what if other people think I am a bad parent for talking to my child about these things too early.'

I spent this weekend with friends and their two children and I got the taste of 'what will other people think and not feeling good enough'. Twice.

Once when the three year old started talking about 'weeing from his willy' and asking whether his mummy had a willy (he clearly knew she didn't but Daddy did). The people sitting on the table next to us were clearly disconcerted. I was torn between wanting to ask him to be quiet (for the adults sake) and letting the conversation roll (what he wanted).

My second experience was when the seven year old fell into a small river trying to get his football. I was ten seconds away. But another adult not part of our group was even closer. She helped him out of the river. When I got there (and I did run pretty damn fast) it was clear he was fine, the big grin on his face and the 'phew that was close' told me I didn't need to worry too much. Yet the tut of the adult who was closer told me different. The implication (drawn by myself) was that I should have been closer and that I was not being responsible. And so it was that I felt inadequate as a carer for a while. The logical part of me knows that wrapping children in cotton wool is not good for them, their personal development or their ability to understand, assess and manage risk. But logic had gone. It was the feeling that was so strong.

The parents in my group confirmed this was a pretty normal experience - the fear of what others may perceive of their parenting skills stopping them from responding intuitively at times.

So most would concur that parents do, at times, still worry about what other parents think when it comes to talking about contraception with their children. Yet the majority are really supportive of young people's rights to access services and contraception. So it is the perception not the reality that worries us.

A survey from the Department of Children, Schools and Families 'shows that only 4% of parents would feel anxious if they were to discover their 16-19 year old was carrying contraception, meanwhile 90% went on to say that they would actually want to talk openly to their teen as a result. Yet despite this overwhelming consensus, two in five teens still feel they need to be clandestine when it comes to carrying contraception.'

Leading teen agony aunt Anita Naik commented 'Parents are more savvy than ever before and teenagers should be really encouraged by this. Even just ten years ago I would have expected to a much higher percentage of parents to say they would be alarmed if they were to discover their teen carrying contraception and reluctant to talk about it. Far from being embarrassed, however, and as the statistics now show, the overwhelming majority of parents I encounter would be proud to find their teen taking responsibility for their sexual health and feel happy to talk to them further about the subject'.

And I agree with Naik that this progress is brilliant. We must however recognise that it is the gap between the perception, the rhetoric and the reality that will prevent conversations happening. If young people do not feel their parents will respond well, and parents do not feel they have support the conversations will not happen as much as they should. So we must all do everything we can to bridge that gap so parents and young people feel able to have the type of conversations they need to enable them to enjoy and take responsibility for their relationships and sexual choices.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

10 feet running for Brook

A group of us are running for Brook in the British 10k on 12th July.  5 of my friends have set up a sponsorship page at 

If you can sponsor us please do - you can give a minimum of £2 and there is no maximum

Brook does brilliant work - please support us so we can continue to reach more young people and improve their sexual health and relationships.

Thanks Simon

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Condom distribution schemes and boys

Today the Sunday Times reported on new guidance being prepared by Brook that boys as young as 12 will have access to condoms via condom distribution schemes as part of a new strategy across the country.   These condom card schemes have been in operation for over a decade, and as part of a well coordinated package of education, support and services make a vital contribution to helping make sure young people only have sex when they are ready and contributes to a culture which is clear - if you have sex you need to be able to both enjoy and take responsibility for it. 

The Guidance to be published imminently by Brook brings together the learning from existing schemes across the country so others that are thinking about or in the process of setting a scheme up can benefit from the experience of thousands of other people across the country.

As often happens when Brook's work makes the news I get calls from family and friends asking for the real story, sometimes I get taken to task if they believe what they read before clarifying. And often as a result of these conversations I am challenged to think differently or understand an issue from other points of view.  

It was clear today that it is really easy to forget or ignore the significant gender stereotypes and expectations that both boys and girls grow up with in 21st century Britain.  Still, despite some changes, boys  are 'roughed up' from an early age - boys don't cry, be a man, don't be a girl and don't be gay -  and girls taught to play nicely (not like tomboys), to have 'girly ambitions' and not to be angry or outspoken.   

And with these expectations and stereotypes boys learn that they should know everything about sex, want sex all of the time and not need to ask for help.   And so it is a lack of understanding of these unwritten rules that can make sex and relationships education sterile and meaningless for boys (and girls) because it does not pay attention to the strong, pervasive messages about gender in our society.

So when boys of 12, 13 and 14 come to Brook, the absolute majority are not having sex.  Yet often they do want condoms and we want to welcome them.  The world is full of sex and sexual imagery and it is confusing, worrying and frightening if there are not adults able and willing to talk sensibly and help them make sense of these messages.  Boys get less information at home than girls.  The onset of menarche creates a moment for talking about personal issues (although sex and relationships education is not sorted for girls either).  Boys on the other hand have less obvious markers of transition and fathers less confident talking about emotional and sexual issues.

And so it is that boys are hungry for information, hungry to know what sex is, how it happens, why people do it, and a way for them to feel confident to seek that advice is to ask for condoms, to pretend they are having sex.   And giving condoms to younger boys is not, as some argue, a green light for 'any old sex will do'.  At Brook it is a signal that we trust them.  That we value and support them.  That we will help them to understand they must only have sex when they are sure they are ready for it.  That we expect young people to be responsible about sex and that it is sensible for them to know and understand about contraception including what a condom packet is, where the expiry date is, what a condom looks like, feels like etc so when they do choose to have sex they are able to talk about, negotiate and protect themselves.  

Indeed this is what countries with much lower rates of teenage pregnancy do as a matter of course with their young.   Having high expectations for young people's relationships and early sexual experience so they have high expectations of themselves is what marks a responsible society that trusts young people.  Having condom distribution schemes is part of an important package to help develop a positive culture towards young people and sexuality.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Sad murder of an abortion provider in the USA

Here is the link to an article about the work of George Tiller who was sadly murdered in the USA. George Tiller was shot yesterday in Kansas.

The article reflects on the issues that such extreme behaviours raise.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Monday, 18 May 2009

National Condom Week (again)

I don't want to start measuring my years in national condom weeks, but it seems that some things you have no control of and the stark realisation of the fact NCW is here again has set me off on a where did the last year go path - all i can conclude is that the last year has gone ridiculously quickly, and as this is my third national condom week since being at Brook, maybe it is whilst being at Brook that time goes so quickly....

For the last two years I have suggested that every question should have a condom related answer during NCW - a couple of people who read this blog commented (privately) that it was a stupid idea and you tried it anyway and it was good fun. On that basis maybe some more of you should try it this year and share your experiences on this blog.....

and if that doesn't take your fancy here is the link to Durex's Great British Sex Survey

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

The links between sex, alcohol and other drugs

Last week I went to a policy focused meeting on the links between sexual risk taking and alcohol. At Brook we know that alcohol affects young people's sexual behaviour in a range of ways. It can give young people confidence to talk to someone they otherwise wouldn't, make the first move or to have sex they have decided they want.

They can also use it to explain away their behaviour, such as not using a condom or planning another form of contraception, and it can of course lead them to make choices about sex that they may later regret, or indeed to put themselves in unsafe situations where they can be hurt or abused, or indeed where they are violent themselves.

The evidence backs up our experience of working on the front line working with young people day in day out. I am really pleased government is going to look at joining up these issues - we know after all that young people's lives are joined up.

In trying to find a policy solution we must not lose sight of the massive cultural change that needs to take place - as one youth worker said to me 'what does it say about our culture that ADULTS (my emphasis) and young people need to go out and get absolutely pissed out of their heads so they can have the sex they want?'

Young people learn about alcohol from the adults around us - they learn from us that you drink if you are sad, drink if you are happy, to commisserate and celebrate. So all of us parents, carers, teachers, health professionals, youth, community and social workers must hold the mirror at ourselves if we want young people to develop positive attitudes to sex, drinking and keeping safe.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

PSHE review

Following the publication on Monday of Sir Alasdair Macdonald's review on Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education the headlines in the media yet again bear no resemblance to the actual story and are simply sensationalising a very important and real issue for young people. Some of the headlines pick out age old debates that most of us have moved on from – most people now are talking about how to deliver PSHE and SRE, not whether we deliver it.

I am generally pleased with the report, there is a lot of information in it that is sensible and reflects the consensus that exists. However, as Brook is a young people’s organisation I am concerned that allowing parents to withdraw children from lessons could undermine the right of every child to receive education about sex and relationships.

I look forward to the outcome of the public consultation and would encourage the government to implement these changes as soon as possible to ensure that all young people receive the information and learning that they tell us that they need and are entitled to.

I urge people to respond to the consultation so that the majority support for young people is heard.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

when people bully others...

it hurts.  Yesterday I was at the bus stop and there was a group of about 10 young women and around them 6 or so adults.  I immediately got the sense that something wasn't right.  All the young women were looking at one person and she didn't look happy.    She was being bullied about her appearance - body image again.   

After waiting to get a sense of the situation I interjected with something along the lines of 'come on guys give her a break'.  One of them turned and said 'she said she doesn't like us' as she looked me up and down to see what she could say about me and decided against it - I replied 'neither would I if there were 10 of you all teasing me'.  They disbanded slightly and threw odd spiteful remarks but with less intensity.  

By now, there was another adult at the bus stop who was inviting the young woman being bullied to go to a different part of the bus stop with her.  The young woman started to cry, and went with her. 

Having run the Anti Bullying Alliance and spoken to a lot of young people who are bullied I know that it is never easy having adults intervene and I do wish there was a right answer - but I could not stand there and watch this happen.  Too many adults do that.  And too many children get hurt without being helped.  

Everyone at the bus stop apart from me was Black African, and suddenly the woman who had helped the young woman turned to the rest of the young women and said 'this is bullying, you are bullying, this is as bad as racism, it makes me very sad that this is still happening to girls'. And I could see the pain on her face and I imagine that what was happening had clicked into something that had happened to her or someone she knew. 

I was telling my partner about it over supper and I hoped the young woman had a safe home to go to with an adult she could trust to talk to about it.  This morning I hope even more that even if those girls do not stop their bullying behaviour now, they will have had a very strong signal that lots of us don't like bullying of any sort and that we think it is wrong.

Gender and sexual bullying goes on every day in the playground, in the streets and in schools and youth clubs across the country.  There are many testimonies of it from young people.  As adults we must ensure that this doesn't go by unnoticed and that we safely challenge bullying behaviours wherever they are.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Body image

I was travelling home late on the tube last night and was stood next to a group of young women.  I was really disturbed by the (loud) conversations about their body shapes and sizes - they were prodding, poking and pinching each other and themselves and shrieking at how fat they were, how disgusting they looked, how their clothes were too tight, how they were unattractive and deserved to be spotty.  In my view they were neither fat or spotty.  

Tonight I was heartened to observe an alternative sense of body confidence as I crossed Clapham Common - there was another group of young women who were posing to and for each other - they were a similar size, a similar shape and a similar age - yet they were flicking their hair, smiling and glowing with confidence.

At Brook we get phone calls every day from young people who are worried about their bodies - are they normal, do they look like everyone else and they need a lot of reassurance.  The only thing that is normal about our bodies is that they are always different.  We have to make sure that young people get the chance to feel confident in their bodies.  

Friday, 10 April 2009

Work it Out

Work it Out is a gay youth group that is run by Brook in Wirral.  A couple of weeks ago they held a conference organised by the young people to address homophobia.  I was unable to go but lucky enough to be sent copies of the young people's presentations.  

Some of the young people's stories were frighteningly unacceptable - tales of bullying, hurt and being 'disowned', but that was the side that they did not have control over - they were also tales of resilience, of self belief and of confident optimism for the future.

The role that individual staff and the support of peers had played through the Work it Out group was evident and when i finished reading the stories i felt immensely proud of the work that has taken place and determined to find ways to share the learning so other young people in other places that Brook Centres are also get the chance to 'Work it Out'.

Their website

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Amazing people and those who oppose talk of the clitoris

Over the last two months I have been visiting Brook Centres across the country talking about our new strategic framework (, our licence agreement that governs the relationship between Brook Centres and the review of our organisational design and governance structure (  

Today I spent the day in Manchester at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation with people who work at Brook in Oldham, Blackburn, Salford, Wirral and Manchester and tonight over a delicious curry at Cafe Zia (on the Wandsworth Road) I have been telling my partner how inspiring it is spending time with people who work at Brook - today I was told the most exciting thing about working at Brook is 'making a massive difference to young people's lives' and the concern that staff have is 'pressure to see all young people and the fear that if you don't see everyone something will happen to them'.

We talked about opposition to Brook's work and a real minority of people's negative perceptions about what we do.   There was a general agreement that opposition to our clinical work has reduced over the last decade.  One worker talked about how as we push the boundaries more, there will be more complaints.  She described some concerns about education sessions from a couple of parents where there was discussion of the clitoris.  She then said as she talked to the parents they generally came 'on side' after discussion about her work.  I am so so pleased that people at Brook talk about the clitoris in their education work.  

A few years ago a very dear friend and colleague was described in the Guardian as an evangelist for the clitoris. We need some more of those - when I talk to young women they still tell me they are having sex they don't want, they are still subject to gender stereotypes and limitations and that pleasure is a distant hope. 

So as high profile people in public office continue to vilify young people, vilify sex and relationships education in school and youth clubs and sexual health services, and vilify condom and pregnancy service advertising, lets become evangelists for the clitoris, evangelists for women, evangelists for good relationships and evangelists for equality.


Friday, 3 April 2009


Making a difference

I have been in Jersey and Bristol this week meeting staff, trustees and partners to discuss Brook’s strategic framework ( and our organisational design and governance structure review (

Three things have stuck in my mind;

First the creativity, commitment and boldness of staff in meeting the needs of young people – recognising the resilience and the vulnerability of young people and demonstrating their commitment to helping young people understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to sex and sexuality.

Second, Brook in Jersey was set up over 15 years ago in response to their high teenage pregnancy rates amongst young people under 16. The Chief Medical Officer report the year before Brook was set up reported over 300 pregnancies amongst young people under 16. This year the CMO reported less than 5 teenage pregnancies in the same age group. The trustees and staff confidently know that in many of the schools in Jersey the absolute majority of young people know what Brook does, what we offer in terms of education, counselling and support, and clinical services, and most importantly they trust Brook to provide a confidential service.

Finally at Brook in Bristol, where the teenage pregnancy rate remains stubbornly high there is a really keen awareness of the importance of working effectively and creatively with both young men and young women. Yes access to and confidence in using contraception is an important part of the solution and central to success is a strong focus on gender, really focusing on improving respect and understanding between young men and young women so relationships are positive and equitable. Promoting gender equity is vital and remains one of the biggest challenges in ensuring positive sexual cultures amongst (young) people.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Cervical cancer awareness

In the last few weeks, following the high profile illness and death of Jade Goody, Ask Brook, our specialist sexual health helpline for young people has seen an increase in the number of calls about cervical cancer.  

If they are phoning us at Brook you can be assured young people are having conversations at school, in the backyard, on the bus etc.  It is so important that young women understand the importance of being screened once they are sexually active.  The untimely and sad death of Jade can only serve to remind us how important it is that all of us parents, peers, educators and health professionals talk to young women about the importance of having a cervical smear on a regular basis.  

The national HPV vaccination programme is vital in ensuring we save young lives.

Sunday, 29 March 2009


Written by Ian Mcewan, Amsterdam is a fantastic book and I recommend it.  There is a sentence that has really made me think about how i sometimes forget to discern between people and their behaviour. The sentence goes 'if it is ok to be a transvestite , then it's ok for a racist to be one.  What is not ok is to be racist.'

I have learnt a lot recently from a colleague who makes a real effort to be distinct and clear about the reason, rationale and purpose behind what they are saying.  This brilliant sentence in Mcewan's book underscores the importance of separating different elements of behaviour and of good communication - to have successful relationships we must be sure of the root of our issues, concerns and excitement so people we work and live with understand us, and can choose to agree or disagree based on a correct understanding of what we mean. 

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Mug Shots

Yesterday the Daily Mail published pictures and profiles of myself along with 6 other colleagues underneath the headline Hijacking of the abortion debate. This followed in the wake of the previous days reporting about the public consultation on advertising condoms before the 9p.m. watershed, and freedom to advertise pregnancy advisory services on TV.

Yet again, the vociferous minority have whipped up a storm and making false claims - 'advertising will cause sexual promiscuity' more sex education than ever before, more contraceptive services than ever before etc etc. Well why if that is the case do young people still tell us that their sex and relationships education isn't good enough - it doesn't address real life dilemmas, and why do we still have services that are not open at the right time in the right place.

Critics of me and my colleagues point to the increased abortion rate as evidence that we have got it wrong and that all our efforts point to increased sexual activity amongst the young. In fact it tells us the opposite. There are young women who are getting pregnant who don't want to be. And therefore we must help young people feel empowered and confident to only have sex they choose, when they are mature enough to enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual choices. We must also ensure there are contraceptive services available and they are skilled to access them. Then we will see a decrease in conception rates.

We have to have high expectations for young people so they have high expectations about relationships and sex for themselves; we have to challenge the critics persistent mantra that there is more sex education and easier access to contraception than ever before; we have to help parents talk to their children about sex and relationships; and we have to ensure we invest in contraception services that are young people friendly.

The media is full of sex. There is no shying away from that. Advertising clear factual information can provide fact and truth in the face of fiction and confusion.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

'Gotta get real' - young people on TV advertising

I am really pleased that the Advertising Watchdogs have suggested in their public consultation that condom advertising guidelines are to be brought into the 21st century.

In 2007 young people involved in a peer research project at Brook decided to survey their peers about condom advertising on TV. They got interested in the issue when they learnt there were guidelines which prevented condoms being advertised before the watershed. Of the young people surveyed, 8 in 10 thought that showing condoms on TV would encourage young people to use them when they have sex (click here to see the research).

'Gotta get real' was the message of one young woman about showing condoms out of their wrapper on TV. She went on to say how sex is all around young people and it is stupid not to show condoms in that context.

Advertising will always have limitations and we must focus on what it can do, not on what it cannot. And advertising does provide a positive backdrop demonstrating that as a society we are grown up about sex and sexuality. In this context we can be assured of real, honest and meaningful discussions about sex and relationships at home, at school, in youth and community groups. The sorts of discussions that young people tell us they want and have been for decades.

Another reminder that it is time to just get on with it.

Brook Awards Dinner Photos

Brook's Annual Sexual Health awards dinner was held in the 1st week of March. The skills, commitment and energy of all those shortlisted including the winners was remarkable.

It was a great evening and here are the photos to prove it! click here to see them.

Visit for more details of the winners.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A ridiculous storm in a teacup

Today's Metro has the front page story 'girls, 11, to send text for sex pill'. Another storm in a teacup where the mistruths and lies are hidden behind hysterical headlines.

As far as I can tell the service provides young people with the opportunity to text their school nurse in the holidays so s/he can tell them where the nearest sexual health service is if they need sexual health advice and information. Sounds very sensible to me and will to most sensible adults once they can see beneath the surface.

So why create 'sex pills' and produce inflammatory headlines that make people object. Yes, theoretically an eleven year old could text their school nurse. Most won't because very small numbers of 11 years are having sex (most under 16 years old aren't). And if they are having sex and they do they ask for help the school nurse will have an identified process to follow and there is a real chance to identify any harm and abuse.

There are all sorts of things that theoretically I can do and I won't which suggests they don't deserve the front page -that doesn't make space for a headline that can only create mistrust between parents and professionals. And just for the record, children's professionals across health, education and social care are not in the business of undermining parents. We know partnerships between parents and professionals work. And health professionals work to Fraser Guidelines when working with under 16s that explicitly require them to encourage communication with parents.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


I learnt a new word today - ephibiphobia  - it means a fear of young people.  I really enjoyed Tanya Byron's article in today's Guardian Education supplement tracking the concern of immoral and feckless youth back as far as 6000 year old Egyptian tombs.  She describes ephibiphobia as a historically nurtured and culturally damaging phenomenon.

I have written before about risk taking. Byron refers to our increasingly risk-averse culture, raising and educating kids in captivity.   Today i was speaking at a conference and attention turned to helping young people learn about sexual risk taking.  One worker talked about her recent residential where they undertook outward bound activities - walking a tight rope across a river.  They used the experience of doing this, and the safety gear they had used to protect them as a stimulus for discussion about condom use and safer sex. The discussion, I am sure was fantastic. And at least as important was providing opportunities for young people to experience the feelings associated with taking risks and the experience of achieving tasks.   Too many young people, as we grow up in a risk averse society are denied these types of experiences.

I think I was lucky, I grew up in the country, and spent endless hours making our own tight ropes and tyre swings across rivers, building camps and making bonfires.  Sometimes we got hurt.  Always we looked out for each other and I learnt many valuable lessons that have helped me in my adult life.  

My parents still live in the area.  When I visit I go to the same places and remember the fun I had.  Whilst I smile at my memories, it also makes me sad that children are no longer playing there in the same way.  It cannot be any more dangerous now, 25 years later than it was then, but our perception of danger has changed our willingness to let children and young people play, take risks and learn from them.

Today has been many things, but most of it has been the day I learned a new word, a word that so brilliantly describes a phenomena we must do our best to be rid of - ephebiphobia.  If it starts creeping up, remember how you felt when you were young.  And if that doesn't do it for you, think of some different times when you had your most fun and ask yourself, would the adults in your life have approved?

The rest of Byron's article is well worth reading