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.