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 http://www.brook.org.uk/ 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


Saturday, 14 March 2009

When sex isn't thrilling

I wrote earlier this week about Faye Weldon's interview where she described her early sexual experiences as thrilling.   Our early relationships and sexual experiences shape our thinking and expectations for the future. So whatever, or whenever we think or hope young people will start having sex we must hope that their early sexual experiences will be good.  

I was thinking about how this contrasts with the early experiences of so many young people that I have worked with over the years, and in particular remember working with a group of young mum's.   We were discussing their right to take control of their bodies following the birth of their babies, and how some of them were finding it difficult to say yes, say no or yes to that but not this with their partners, and that this was particularly true if they were with a new partner, who they felt believed their bodies were fair game because they had had children.

We went on to discuss negotiating sex and using condoms.  'Condoms may make sex last longer' 'yuk make it last longer who wants to do that' was pretty much the consensus.   I remember leaving the group feeling quite sad.  And as I have said before, every day at Brook we see so many young people who are negotiating sex well and making decisions that are right for them - and we also see young people who don't feel in control of their bodies, their relationships or their lives. 

We must create expectations for young people that sex should be positive and rewarding - something they choose, want, enjoy and take responsibility for - even thrilling - if we are going to change the way young people choose and experience sex.  If we don't we will be failing the thousands of young people who would rather not have sex, don't know if they have had sex, and certainly don't experience the thrill that it can bring if the circumstances are right.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Brave people

I have just been to see Milk, the story of Harvey Milk, the American Gay Activist assassinated about 30 years ago.  Thank goodness for the brave and determined people who have done so much for human rights over the last century.

What I know about men and women

In the Observer Women's magazine today, there is an interview with Fay Weldon, writer, - What I know about Men, and with Mathew Horne, actor - What I know about women.

Both interviews are really interesting - Fay Weldon describes a completely men free upbringing and the thrill of sex at University - 'there was no contraception, so sex with thrilling and dangerous'.

After reading Mathew Horne's interview I am a fan with his positive attitude to sexuality and desire for a more sensible society that frees men and women from restrictive gendered expectations - 'i think we should be in a society where everybody is free and not suppressed by restrictive ideas of sexuality. I am a gay straight man or a straight gay....I don't want to have sex with men, that's all. It doesn't upset me. It doesn't disgust me. I just don't want to do it. Women he goes on to say respond in different ways - they either find it intriguing or threatening.
Here are the links to the interviews;
Whilst on the subject of Mathew Horne, his current play in the West End, Entertaining Mr Sloane is excellent - Imelda Staunton, who played Vera Drake, the brilliant film about abortion, is also in the play.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Brook Awards

Last night we held out second annual awards dinner celebrating excellence in young people's sexual health work.  In the face of often challenging work - sometimes described as a thankless task - we took the opportunity to celebrate all that is amazing about the courage, determination and innovation across the UK.

In my introductory speech I set out my ongoing commitment to the teenage pregnancy strategy, the chlamydia target and the GUM targets.   And I also identified the need to view targets with sensible and strategic 'contempt' because without that they have the ability to distort our perspective and driving our efforts away from people to tick boxes.  

All the shortlisted nominees deserve the recognition, congratulation, applause and cheers they received last night, and special congratulations to the winners.  Details of the winners is on our website www.brook.org.uk, along with the link to the our annual conference (which took place on the same day) podcast.

And to my team and the conference organisers, NSA, who made the event run with smoothly thank you - you were brilliant.  Super stars of the evening were three young people -  PJ, Remiiidy and Kris with what is set to be a best selling single - use a condom - truly truly brilliant.

And thank you to Matt Rawle (hope you win the Olivier award this weekend) for hosting the evening, Tracey Cox, Jasmine Lowson and Zoe Margolis, our Brook ambassadors, and Karen Turner from Department of Health for presenting the awards and contributing so brilliantly to the evening.

Final thank you to our sponsors and supporters.  Another night that I got into bed very very tired and went to sleep with a smile on my face, feeling lucky and proud to work for Brook.