Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A Boat, a Riot and Some Very High Heels

Two weeks ago I was privileged to attend an award event to celebrate the work of young Brook volunteers based in London which was also attended by two of our trustees.  This guest blog is by Pete Lawson, Brook Board member and I absolutely agree with everything Pete says. 

A year ago, the media was full of stories of young people rioting and looting. If only we gave so much coverage to the tens of thousands of young people across the UK who give their time making their communities better. Changing the country they live in – not by ripping it up, but by transforming it around them.

So it was a real pleasure on July 17th to be invited to an event to celebrate the achievements and contributions of young Brook volunteers across London and those working on the V24/24 sex positive campaign (www.sexpositive.org.uk). The venue was plush – a boat on the Thames – the heels were out in force. These young volunteers were celebrating in style!

I went with Dorren Majeed, one of our young trustees. It was a brilliant chance for the two of us to talk to many Brook young people and staff, and hear so much about the incredible breadth of work taking place across London. I can’t imagine how many hours commitment was represented in that room.

What’s crystal clear is that volunteering is fantastic for Brook. It brings young people right in to the heart of what we do, and a chance to learn from and harness their passion, expertise, energy and creativity – whether that’s mystery shopping on condom schemes, delivering peer education projects, creating dynamic campaigns, or advising clinics on how to better meet the needs of young transsexuals. The greatest experts in young people’s behaviour are young people themselves. The evening was full of examples of how young volunteers help Brook get better at what we do well, and move confidently and effectively into new areas.

Just as importantly, volunteering is great for young people themselves. Young volunteers gain a fantastic opportunity to make a real difference to the world around them, to gain valuable new skills which help them progress through education or employment, and to let their voices be heard. It was really inspiring to talk to so many of our young volunteers – and to see how for so many, this has been a real turning point in their lives. Whether it’s an accredited apprenticeship or a chance to be part of a peer education project, so many young people on the night told me that they were now wanting to pursue a career in youth work, in education, in sexual health. Volunteering can give young people a chance to try things that otherwise they have no opportunity to, to develop a passion or uncover a talent, and to discover a new pathway through life. One of our young volunteers has even set up a young people’s sexual health project in Uganda. What an inspiration!

So to all the young volunteers across Brook – not just in London, but far beyond – we celebrate your incredible contributions. And promise to carry on providing a riot of opportunities, not just to harness your energy to create change – but to shout to the world about it. Let’s change the story we tell about young people.

*you can follow Pete on twitter @petelawson68 and you can follow me and the team on @simonablake and @brookcharity and @besexpositive

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Guest blog post from Julie Bentley (Chief Executive, FPA)

The Guardian reported yesterday that some schools in England have opted out of the human papilloma virus (HPV) cervical cancer vaccination programme for girls on religious grounds. To add insult to injury, most of them are not informing their local GP of this decision, putting another barrier between their female pupils and this potentially life saving vaccination.

Since the introduction of the vaccination programme in late 2008, critics have been wrongly convinced that because HPV is linked to sexual activity, providing a vaccine will promote promiscuity. Rubbish! That's like suggesting cookery classes promote obesity. The vaccine can certainly play an important role in aiding discussion about being sexually responsible, but it can also be given without discussion of HPV transmission at all. When we had our Bacillus Calmette-Guérin BCG vaccinations as teenagers, how many of us were told just how TB is spread?

Some of the schools gave more detail to the media about their reasons behind their decision. One said, “It is not in keeping with the school ethos" though it is apparently in keeping with the ethos to expose girls to pointless and unnecessary health risks. Another school said, “Pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and so do not practice sex outside of marriage."

While it may be that the schools hope their pupils won’t have sex outside of marriage, evidence would suggest it is often not the case in real life. As children grow up they develop their own set of beliefs and establish their own moral compasses. That may be to follow the religious path laid down for them, but it may not. To refuse to offer a vaccine that would protect girls from a life threatening illness is at best spectacularly thoughtless, at worst wilfully dangerous. It does not recognise that HPV can be passed on through non penetrative sexual acts such as intimate touching and petting. Neither does this position allow for a young person's independent growth or development. Very importantly it fails to recognise the more sinister circumstances of HPV transmission such as rape or sexual assault. And let’s not forget that it is possible to have sex with just one person, but to still be infected if that one person has the HPV virus – their husband for example.

It cannot be that the deeply held and adhered to religious principles of these schools are so fragile that a simple vaccine could jeopardise them. My experience is that most people of faith are not so blinkered. They want to protect their children physically, through vaccination, and emotionally by bringing them up within their own faith or moral framework. The two are not incompatible.

There is a high likelihood that as girls becomes women some of them will, at some point in their future, be exposed to the HPV virus that puts them at risk of cervical cancer. Is it morally right that they are denied an evidenced based vaccination against a life threatening disease simply because when they were girls, the adults with authority over them didn't feel comfortable with it?

Maybe the expressed conviction that the vaccine is not needed by these young people is actually a fear that offering them it may suggest an alternative perspective on their sexual identity and the relationships they may have in the future. Suddenly it is less about religion or ethos and more about a desire to control women's sexual behaviour.

Whatever the reason, denying girls this vaccination is wrong. Intellectually wrong. Emotionally wrong. Morally wrong.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Consent, boundaries, love and social media

Over the last couple of days there has been a lot in the press about internet porn and its impact on young people's behaviours - the behaviours of some individuals have always been and continue to be abhorrent. Now we have pornography and social media to blame and it can be easy to think there is a magic bullet solution. There isn't, but a big contributor is good quality relationships and sex education at home and school. Whatever your view on opt in controls for pornography the heart of the public debate must centre around the issue of consent and how we teach young people about sexual consent.

Consent has always been, and will continue to be, the difference between sex that can be positive, pleasurable and healthy and sex that is harmful or exploitative.  That is why we must from an early age support children and young people's to understand, respect, give and get consent in all aspects of their lives.  At a very early age it starts with sharing toys and good and bad touch. As young people get older this early learning will be built on and include sexual consent.  As with all relationships and sex education it is important that we find ways to do this that are meaningful and engaging and can be applied to real live situations.  Real life stories, case studies and scenarios are a perfect way of doing this.  

I must have been away or had my head under the pillow when this story broke about Tulisa Constostavlos' ex-partner releasing a 'sex tape' on the internet.  Not the first and unfortunately certainly won't be the last.

Her response - a You Tube video - however in which she is clear her trust was betrayed offers a refreshing response to those shame filled apologies that often follow. Below is Eva Wiseman's article in the Guardian which gives more information, and Tulisa's You Tube video.

If I was still working with young people on a daily basis this would be my latest 'real life scenario and case study for exploring consent, boundaries, love, relationships and social media.

Lewis and Macaulay take over my blog: Stephen Twigg's visit to Brook in Liverpool

On the 8th June 2012 we went to Brook Liverpool to meet one of the out gay MP’s – Stephen Twigg. We were keen to meet him because of how influential and supportive he is towards LGBT issues. The room we were allocated was quite big so we arranged different stations around the room in a way that we could showcase all of the work that Brook does. When Mr Twigg arrived at Brook, we were all a bit nervous to start, but as he moved around the room to speak at all of our stations, things got easier.

We talked to Mr Twigg about the impact that the internet and media has on the sexualisation of young people and Macaulay talked specifically about how pornography affects how people view sex, Macaulay also talked about how he learnt about sex from 3 different sources (‘Porn, me Nan and Brook’).

When Mr Twigg got to the ‘Work It Out’ station which looks at LGBT issues, Lewis talked about how common homophobia is in schools, and how some schools don’t tackle it, he also discussed with Mr Twigg about how Sex and Relationships Education is not taught in all PSHE Education Lessons as a core topic, and how some schools do not teach it at all due to religious beliefs.

Overall, we found Mr Twigg to be an open, honest and respectful person who is willing to listen to whatever views we share, we would like to thank him for coming to visit us and we hope to see him again in the future.

Lewis and Macaulay

Work it Out is Brook’s LGBT service for young people who either identify as gay/trans or those who are questioning/exploring their sexuality. Young people aged 14-18 years old meet weekly as a group as well as having the opportunity to participate in regular events and activities. The main aim of Work it Out is to support young people to build a sense of positive identify, increase confidence and self esteem and to provide an opportunity to talk to other young people who are going through similar experiences in a confidential and supportive environment.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Parents and health professionals

Recently in my role as CEO of Brook I have been asked three times whether I have my own children. I assume from the way the question has been asked that this is a shorthand and somewhat peculiar way of checking whether I could have the best interests of young people at heart. In fact I have been told explicitly that I cannot really understand the issues unless I am a parent. In the same period I have been told that health professionals are undermining the authority of parents.

No I am not a parent, and no I do not believe that health professionals undermine parents.

Parents have a unique relationship with their children. Ideally the relationship will be nurturing, loving and caring: helping the child learn and grow, develop their sense of self and their identity with confidence.

And in the best of worlds every single child would experience that care from parents who were confident and able to talk to their children about growing up, relationships, sex and sexuality. Whilst this is true for some young people, sadly it is not the case for many whose parents may have difficulty talking about sex, sexuality and sexual health. In the very worst cases children are hurt and abused by their parents.

But even in a perfect world full of perfect parenting, health professionals would still be needed in abundance because they offer professional expertise that is different to the personal relationship of care that parents have with their children. These health professionals provide clinical advice about contraceptive choices and the different issues that need to be considered when choosing a method of contraception. Clinicians may also need to provide emergency contraception, advice about pregnancy choices, referral for, or provision of, abortion, as well as testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

Within and outside Brook health professionals do their work with young people in the context of care and respect for young people's rights. They also encourage and support young people to talk to a parent or another adult they trust. And of course they only provide contraception to young people if they believe they have the capacity to consent as defined against the Fraser guidelines which were established in case law.

The evidence tells us what we need to do if we want young people to be confident in their sexuality, only have sex they actively choose and can enjoy and take responsibility for. It includes

• good parenting where parents talk to their children about bodies, relationships, growing up and sex
• good quality relationships and sex education in schools
• access to confidential sexual health services

In the absolute majority of cases parents know this to be true. That is why there is such a strong consensus in support of school based sex and relationships education and the provision of confidential sexual health services for young people.

That consensus exists despite the fact that many parents don’t find issues of sex, sexuality and relationships easy to address with their children. When I talk to parents they tell me ‘I hope my child does not have sex too early; I hope they are able to talk to me and if they can't I hope they find a professional they trust who will help make sure they are safe.’

Health professionals provide important clinical advice and rights based support to young people who need it day in day out. Some of those who need that support are the most vulnerable young people, some are having sex, some are being hurt and exploited.

I and every health professional or sex educator I know values enormously the unique role that parents must, can and do play in young people’s lives. I have never met a health professional who sets out to undermine parents. I also value the important and different role health professionals play for all young people including the most vulnerable.

I want parents to be children’s first sex educator (see the brilliant Speakeasy book published by www.fpa.org.uk which helps parents talk to their children), and most sensible people want to ensure children and young people have good quality relationships and sex education in school, and access to confidential services as well.

Whether I am a parent is irrelevant, and the view that health professionals undermine parent’s role is not true. It cannot be a coincidence that those same people who ask whether I am a parent often want to promote abstinence-only, abolish relationships and sex education and limit young people’s rights to confidential sexual health services.

By working together we can change our culture so we have high expectations of young people, in order that they have high expectations for the relationships and sex they choose to have, when they are ready to have it.