Sunday, 29 April 2012

For so many questions, relationships and sex education is the answer

Over the last few months sexuality has been in the news for a wide range of reasons.  Everything from gay rights, homophobic bullying and equal marriage, access to contraception & abortion, sex & relationships education in the primary school to young people watching porn on the internet in secret.  Lots of the 'news' is driven by genuine worries and the changing ways that young people can access information about sex, as well as some irrational concern about the (im)morality of young people and their sexual behaviour combined with a lack of trust in young people and the professionals who work with them.

Each time I talk to a journalist, policy maker or parent about any of the issues - homophobic bullying, early sex, access to internet based porn there is one simple, straightforward and easy answer about what must be done - talk to children and young people about sex, relationships and sexuality in an open and positive way from a very early age.  Alongside other things we need to support parents to talk to their children confidently about sex, relationships and sexuality, and get relationships and sex education properly established in schools in this country once and for all.

Good RSE starts at home, and is then built on and complemented at school and in the community at youth clubs, churches and other settings that children and young people go to. It is a fundamental entitlement for all children and young people if we want to both protect and empower them.

Of course RSE is not a universal panacea.  However all the evidence tells us that good quality RSE that meets certain criteria (including discerning messages in the news and linking to confidential services) helps children and young people confidently navigate their way through puberty, into adolescence and adulthood, developing vital life skills along the way.  These life skills including discernment, negotiation and communication, self awareness, setting boundaries, understanding consent - saying yes, maybe or no, seeking help and respecting others rights.

The evidence is clear: RSE contributes to reducing teenage pregnancy and improving sexual health by delaying early sex and improving contraceptive use. Evidence also shows that where gay relationships and homophobia are integrated into RSE and there is a positive ethos/pastoral care system that tackles bullying well homophobic bullying is reduced.  And if anyone believes gay equality has been achieved, or is unsure of the need to tackle homophobia urgently read this brilliant article about its impact by Patrick Strudwick in todays Sunday Mail

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove talked about sex education last week.  He may well be right that young people who do well academically are less likely to take risks with their behaviour (probably because risk taking behaviour and academic success is explicitly linked to vulnerability, rather than an indicator that we must focus all our attention on reading, writing and arithmetic).  ALL children and young people whatever their gender or sexuality and wherever they are from need and have a right to learn about emotions, relationships, sex and sexuality. This right is enshrined in the UN Convention on the rights of the child.

A small and vocal minority in the UK claim that relationships and sex education as a secular activity that is part of the problem, contributing to 'sexualisation' of the young, promiscuity and poor sexual health.  The truth of course is somewhat difference and RSE can, does and must address the range of faiths, cultures and values in the UK.  RSE at home and school is more important now than ever as a way of providing accurate, unbiased and evidence based information to counter all the misinformation, myths and prejudice available elsewhere.

So that is why RSE is the answer to so many questions.  It is 100% part of the solution (if I was a talent show judge I would probably say it is 1 million % part of the solution).  And that is why RSE is supported by the majority of children and young people, parents and professionals, and why Brook is campaigning for 21st Century sex and relationships education.  Add your name to the campaign at

You can also write to your MP to tell them you support relationships and sex education.  Through their mail bag they hear the voice of those who oppose it, and they need to hear the majority voice in support of RSE too.

Some examples of articles, positive or otherwise are included below

Finally, young people's sexual behaviour is not generally cause for concern any more than adults.  Despite the headlines most under 16s do not have sex and our teenage pregnancy rates are the lowest they have been for 40 years. 

  1. Sex Education Forum ( publish a series of factsheets on best practice in sex and relationships education including publications on Faith, Values and SRE
  2. FPA ( publish a book - Speakeasy - to help parents talk to their children about sex and relationships
  3. Stonewall ( and Diversity Role Models ( support schools in tackling homophobia and learning about gay relationships 

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Friday, 27 April 2012

Another day, another headline, some more myth busting

Yesterday the news was littered with stories about 'girls as young as 13 getting contraceptives without prescriptions in pharmacists'.  I quickly want to put the record straight;

  • most young people under the age of 16 don't have sex so the headline about girls as young as 13 is an overly sensationalist headline which perpetuates myths about the average age of sexual activity  
  • those young people who are having sex at a very early age can be amongst the most vulnerable who they need and deserve excellent help and advice from a well trained professional whether that be a school nurse, a pharmacist, a community nurse or a doctor
  • the pilot scheme run in South East London was as we understand it for people over the age of 16.  It was delivered by pharmacists who were trained and working within Patient Group Directions e.g. strict conditions approved for providing the contraception
  • where pharmacists do provide the contraceptive pill, like any professional working with young people under 16 would need the appropriate skills and knowledge, including being able to use the Fraser Guidelines established over 25 years ago to ensure young people are consenting, safe from harm, mature enough to understand contraceptive treatment and to encourage them to talk to their parent, or another adult they trust.  They will not be handing pills out over the counter 'when they ask to get the pill with their Lucozade' as claimed 
  • this is not going to be rolled out to every pharmacy in England - only pharmacies that have the right environment and staff with the right skills to provide appropriate support to protect young people and promote positive sexual health should even consider providing this service
And on a second lot of myths that underpinned the story;

  • our teenage pregnancy rates are the lowest they have been for 40 years - they are not, at this stage, rising year on year
  • there is no evidence that providing contraception, in whatever setting, encourages an increase in sexual activity at an earlier age.  None whatsoever.  All the evidence shows that good quality sex and relationships education at home and school, connected to visible and trusted sexual healths services delays the age of first sex and encourages contraception use when a young person chooses to have sex
  • sex and relationships education is still not well established in schools, and much more needs to be done to provide young people with the facts and information, skills and confidence they need to be safe, enjoy and take active responsibility for their sexual and relationship choices, and seek help, advice and treatment from a range of sources when they need it. 
Won't it be fantastic when the headline reflects the reality that we see everyday at Brook that young people want to be, can be and are responsible about sex and sexual health, and that the most vulnerable young people need our care, support and attention, not our condemnation and finger wagging.  I await that day. One day soon.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

It’s time we learned to trust

Last month I was at the lively, energetic Bloomsbury Pro-Choice Alliance counter protest to the 40 Days of Life vigil that was held outside the BPAS service in Bedford Square. It was fantastic to see hundreds of men and women out to defend and protect women’s reproductive rights. The pro-choice movement should be proud of the numbers and the positivity of those came out to show their support.

But the Bloomsbury event and the ongoing noise about sexual rights including gay equality makes me angry: Angry that women’s right to choose is under such attack yet again and angry at the lack of trust in young people, women and health and education professionals.

I shouldn’t really be surprised. This lack of trust in young people and their developing sexuality is perennial. The persistent attacks on abortion provision have always demonstrated a lack of faith in women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices. And public trust in professionals is constantly undermined by insidious reporting on the sexual health and education of children and young people.

This lack of trust results in a vocal, spiteful and noisy minority in despair about the immorality of youth. They lay the blame squarely at the feet of organisations like Brook, on sex and relationships education, the availability of contraception, the internet and what is now increasingly referred to as the “sexualisation” of young people. Their moral outrage drives their desire for a return to the illusionary halcyon days when young people waited until marriage for sex; when women didn’t have abortions because they weren’t legal; when a child of 7 didn’t need to know what a penis or vagina was because the wicked internet didn’t exist and neither of course did sexual abuse. They long for the days when pregnant women went into hiding and had their children taken away, whilst gay men and women had the decorum not to flaunt their love in public.

Whilst this small, ill-informed and vocal minority increasingly find their voice, it is critical we remember there is a broad consensus in support of fair and equal rights, good quality sex and relationships education and access to services, including abortion services. And despite this consensus there is still a risk that the trust in young people and the professionals who work with them will continue to be undermined. At Brook week in, week out we see thousands of young people who are making moral and responsible decisions about sex and relationships. Yes, they need a guiding hand, an empathic and well trained professional who can ensure they understand their rights, have the information they need, and the confidence, skills and abilities to make choices that are right for them.

Of course there are also some who are frightened or confused, who don’t know how their bodies work, or feel uncomfortable in their skins. We also see those who are exploited, hurt, those settling for sex or relationships that aren’t good enough. These young people need more from us and need help and support at home, at school and from other services.

Young people know they are not trusted by many and their trust in us can also be frail. We know that for young people to continue accessing services, they must trust they will not be judged, that they will be cared for, supported and respected and they will be treated in confidence. They also expect us to protect them from harm and take all necessary steps to do so - a responsibility I know professionals take very seriously

The trust young people have in Brook, and other agencies including the NHS must be protected and maintained at all costs, and that is why I am so angry at people who undermine it whether by myth making about sex and relationships education or by harassing people entering sexual health services – something we know young people can find intimidating or frightening.

It is not acceptable under any circumstances to stand outside an abortion clinic or a young people’s sexual health service, and harass people as they enter. I was recently told of a confident and assured young woman who had to cover her face with a coat, and have support from by a member of staff to get through the door because she was being prayed for loudly and –worse still – photographed. That is simply wrong.

My concern that we are seeing a subtle change with the vocal minority becoming more vociferous was reiterated at a parliamentary briefing yesterday morning. If, at the same time as we are seeing an increase in anti-abortion protests, sex and relationships education in schools becomes politicised and undermined; if GPs are not supported to provide what young people want in sexual healthcare, and specialist services for young people reduce because of funding cuts we will have some serious work to do to protect young people’s sexual health.

All of us want to stop that happening because we want young people and women to be safe. Our critical starting point then is one of trust – we must trust women to make their choices, trust parents, teachers and health professionals to do their jobs, and trust young people to be responsible about sex, sexuality and relationships.