Thursday, 23 June 2011

22nd June - my big day

For two reasons;

Firstly I was appointed as Chief Executive of Brook which is an absolute privilege and an honour. I am really looking forward to working with colleagues, partners and stakeholders.

And Brook held our first ever joint parliamentary reception at the House of Lords with the FPA ( Brook and FPA recently announced a formal collaboration to ensure we make the greatest difference for those we serve. I am really grateful to Brook's President Baroness Massey of Darwen and FPA's President Baroness Gould of Potternewton for hosting the reception which was a wonderful opportunity to see friends, colleagues and partners who make such a difference to sexual health.

Public Health Minister, Anne Milton spoke and confirmed that sexual health is an important issue for the Government. She also reminded us that it is always the squeaky wheels that get oiled, and that constituency MPs need to be influenced - get writing and contacting them about the importance of sexual and reproductive health.

So I urge you, the majority who support people's sexual rights to get your voice heard, in a non squeaky way to make sure the views of the majority are the wheels that are oiled. We as the majority who support sex and relationships education, who trust young people, who are pro-choice and want people to be able to enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual health need to take heed of Anne's message. It is important not to be complacent or take those rights for granted because the small, but vocal, minority are ensuring that MPs, Ministers and other decision makers are hearing their views. Just look at Hansard and the increasing number of questions for evidence.

We have to ensure our support for contraceptive and reproductive choice, sex and relationships education and positive sexual rights is heard loud and clear - from Brook's perspective that means making sure young people get evidence based, accurate and factual information, skills development in education, as well as clinical services and support.

Also speaking at our reception was Gabriel Scally, regional director of public health for the SW who urged all of us to make Director's of Public Health our allies as responsibilities for sexual health move to Local Authorities; Ian and Carol, parents involved in FPA's Speakeasy Programme told how the programme had helped make a real difference to the way they communicate with their children about relationships and sex; and Brook's Sex: Positive campaign volunteers Lucy, Chris and Gloria told the negative attitudes about young people and sex have to change (see and why we must support the sex: positive campaign. All the speeches inspired and inspiring.

The reception was a wonderful celebration of all that is good in sexual health work and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Speaking truth to power

Last week we saw the news that STI rates amongst young people had reduced. Over a decade ago when developing the sexual health and HIV strategy many of us predicted this would happen as we tested more young people and diagnosed previously undiagnosed infection. We also predicted it would initially look like rates were increasing. Great news that we are now seeing a reduction in STI rates amongst young people.

Similarly when the last TP rates were released we again saw a reduction in the number of teenage pregnancies. Both of these stats, coupled with evidence of a growing majority consensus about the importance of good quality sex and relationships education and improving access to services for young people indicate that at the end of the original TP strategy and the strategy for sexual health and HIV we are making headway in improving young people's sexual health - it is clear that we are on the right track and we must continue being driven by the evidence of what works.

But it is increasingly obvious that this progress hangs in the balance. I am having an increasing number of discussions with colleagues in the public and voluntary sector across the country who are facing cuts which they are really concerned put improvements in young people's sexual health at risk.

The math behind this one is simple - if we don't invest in education and prevention including contraceptive and sexual health services, then significantly more investment will be required to test and treat for sexually transmitted infections and for maternity and abortion services. And of course these costs will not be incurred 5 years down the line - they will often be in the same financial year.

At the same time, for whatever reason it seems the message that progress has been made, is not being heard by some. Some journalists and others are clearly reluctant to agree or report on progress, opting instead for tales of 'soaring rates'. Locally the champions for young people's sexual health are reducing in number - many are being made redundant, redeployed or with a generic/wide brief.

Like hundreds and thousands of others, I have worked too hard over the last 15 years, I don't want to see the progress in provision of support to young people decline. We know so much more about what young people want and need to be confident in their sexuality and sexual choices. We also know so much about what works. So its important that we replace some myths with facts and speak truth to power truth clearly and consistently. Here are some of the things I keep saying, and encourage you to do the same.

young people have a right to high quality sex and relationships education at home and school, and they must be able to access services

neither teenage pregnancy rates, or sexually transmitted infections are soaring: data demonstrates that we are on the right track and we need to do more, not less, learning the lessons of the past decade about what works

good quality SRE and services does work in improving young people's sexual health - our evidence is there

investing in sexual health makes good economic sense - if we don't invest early then we will pay later

teenage pregnancy and sexual health continue to be important issues for this Coalition Government and this priority must be translated into local delivery.

Desiderata states we should speak 'our truth quietly and clearly'. In the context of structural change and cuts to services I shall continue to do so at every opportunity, and I know I will not be alone. If you haven't already visit and support our young people's campaign to create a sex: positive future. Its quick, free, easy and important as it will help create a positive open culture where young people can both enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual and relationship choices and sexual health.

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Friday, 10 June 2011

Slutwalk: rape and sexual assault

Tomorrow's SlutWalk in London, and the slut walk movement across the world has sparked a lot of debate in our office and having talked to our colleagues in FPA we know there are differences of opinion at FPA too. Not the stand it is making - everyone agrees that sexual assault and rape is always unacceptable and that it is always always always wrong to blame victims of sexual assault for the crime. But mirroring discussions on the street, in schools, women's groups and households across the world we are divided about the use of the term 'slut' and about the ambition of the campaign to 'reappropriate' the word.

These questions are really useful and interesting questions and ones that I hope will continue to be debated and discussed - there is no doubt the debate about language can be useful - but like so many things sometimes the process of debate and discussion can become polarised and the debate and discussion becomes the task rather than actually getting on and changing attitudes and behaviours about the core issues. So to be absolutely clear on this one, whatever you or I think about the term slut and the validity of reappropriation lets us all be very clear that that rape is always unacceptable. Attackers are responsible for rape and sexual assault, never, ever the person who is raped or assaulted.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Brook and FPA respond to the Bailey Review

Below is a joint statement from Brook and the sexual health charity FPA responding to the Bailey Review and its recommendations:

We welcome the publication of this report, ‘Letting children be children’, and its recommendations on addressing the commercialisation and sexualisation of children and young people.

Schools have an important part to play in helping children and young people build confidence and self esteem, so they can understand and critically analyse sexualised images and messages enabling them to be resilient to their impact. Therefore we believe this is a missed opportunity not to recognize the role of good quality relationship and sex education in schools, as one of the report’s key recommendations.

We welcome measures that help parents voice their concerns, but we also think more can be done to support parents to have a dialogue about these issues in the home. In our opinion it's far more beneficial for parents to have a discussion with their children about why, for example, pornography presents an unrealistic picture of sex, than to just report the fact that their child accessed it.

FPA and Brook work with thousands of young people and parents every year. Young people tell us they are often ill-equipped to deal with a highly sexualised society. Parents want to work with schools to address this hugely important issue. We urge the Government to consider the role of statutory sex and relationships education along with the other recommendations proposed in ‘Letting Children be children.'

Friday, 3 June 2011

Clueless to some: reasonable to others

I grew up in Cornwall by the sea. I am there now, overlooking the beach and talking to a few old friends who know what I do. As you would expect given the last few weeks comments ranging from 'saw you in the paper; heard you on the radio; what's that MP woman on about?/she's got a point you know; why should/n't Life be on the group?

And as I listened and talked to liberal people, it becomes more and more clear that even though the majority of people in the UK are pro-choice, want to make sure children are not 'sexualised' early and want good sex and relationships education at home and school, Nadine Dorries call for 'abstinence education for young women' has come across as reasonable to some, even though it is clear to some experts in sex and relationships education that she is clueless.

And the difficulty we have is that whilst there is no evidence that abstinence education (for girls and or boys) works, all of us would agree that we want young people - women and men - to be able to say no to sex unless they are ready to enjoy and take responsibility for it. So Dorries is linking an outcome we would all agree with (being able to say no to sex), with an input that the evidence doesn't support (abstinence education). And so for the average joe on the street, her argument can sound reasonable. And that is especially true when it is combined with fear generated from confident stories of seven year olds being taught to put condoms on a banana (who would want that IF it happened) and that sex and relationships education doesn't include saying no (where it doesn't include saying no it isn't good SRE).

So whether we like or not the majority in support of SRE need to have soundbites - a simple narrative that reassures parents, carers and others worried about sexualisation, who reads the papers and believes that people are having sex earlier and earlier and teenage pregnancy rates are rocketing (neither is true). As I understand it from the parents I have spoken to today they need to be reassured that SRE is a good thing, that it helps prepare children to move from puberty through to adolescence confidently, that the evidence shows that good quality SRE actually delays sex and equips young people to negotiate and use contraception when they choose to have sex. And that it reassures them that sex and relationships education is a sensible part of the solution to TP, STIs and sexualisation, not part of the problem.

So the task we have on our hands is a major task of education about what sex and relationships education is, and a real imperative not to be clumsy with language about these issues.

A decade ago, I visited the USA to learn more about their work to teach young people about sex (or not) and it was clear that it wasn't working then - luckily Obama finally listened to the evidence and withdrew funding. To summarise some of the things I learnt;

don't mix up abstinence with abstinence education - abstinence - not having sex is fine, good, proper and healthy. Abstinence education is not fine, good, proper or healthy because its value base is wrong and there is no evidence to support it.

recognise there is no such thing as an 'abstinence based approach to sex and relationships education' - abstinence education is different in values and approach than sex and relationships education.

good quality sex and relationships education should be called sex and relationships education, full stop. Comprehensive sex and relationships education makes it sound like there is a different sort - non comprehensive. There isn't, sex and relationships education is either good quality or it isn't. If it isn't comprehensive then it isn't good quality. When it is good quality it includes relationships, real life dilemmas, saying yes, saying no, saying maybe.

we must not allow the public to misunderstand what sex and relationships is about, what it includes, how it is delivered and to believe that it only focuses on sex.

we must ensure everyone knows that parents are/should be the first sex educator, that children want them to be; and that schools and youth services work in partnership with parents to ensure children and young people get a rounded education, as you would expect in all other walks of life - maths, food, diet, safety etc. The myth that some perpetuate that parents are undermined by education about sex and relationships is pernicious

The full report is available from from National Children's Bureau - Just Say No! to sex and relationships education; Blake and Frances (2001)

Finally, it is probably time we stopped talking about changing the order of the words from sex and relationships education, to relationships and sex education, and just do it. If we do that it seems there will be more time to actually do the work - after all, we must not mistake the process (talking about SRE/RSE) for the task (delivering SRE/RSE).

The Bailey Review on sexualisation is published on Monday - let's hope that recognises that RSE is part of the solution to help children grow up confident about relationships and sex, and that it recognises the excellent work that programmes like the FPA's Speakeasy programme helping parents get confident talking about sex and relationships do.

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15th birthday celebrations for Brook Manchester

It’s Brook Manchester’s 15th birthday this year for which we are celebrating by holding a fundraiser. It’s taking place at the MacDonald Hotel, Piccadilly, Manchester on Saturday 11 June at 7:30pm.

If you would like to come along to help celebrate the tickets are £15 (one pound for every year) and this includes entry, food, comedy, music and some excellent prizes on offer. These include football memorabilia from Everton FC, Bolton FC and Manchester City FC, original art work and tickets for a variety of events.

You can contact for tickets or ring 0161 233 2192.