Sunday, 24 November 2013

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against women

Monday 25th November is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Ingala Smith at the #socialceos Top 30 CEOs on social media*.  Karen has set up a campaign Counting Dead Women which I first came across on twitter via @ladylaxton formerly at Brook and FPA and now at Women's Aid - you can follow the campaign @countdeadwomen.

I remember again being horrified at the level of violence against women and surprised the UK government does not analyse the data and report in the following ways 1. Women killed by men. 2. Women killed by women. 3. Men killed by men. 4. Men killed by women.  

I am no expert but without this analysis i am not sure how possible it is ensure policy and resources are evidence based and adequate. Given the funding challenges the women's sector is experiencing data and evidence driven policy is critical.

Over the weekend I received this email from Karen as I have signed up to her petition to get Government to take action.

On Monday 25th November it is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I’ll be highlighting the UK’s shocking record of women killed through men’s violence in 2013.

Starting at 6.00am, on the twitter account @countdeadwomen, I’ll be going through the UK’s diary of women killed by men. I’ll be starting with the 2nd January when Janelle Duncan Bailey, was strangled by ex-boyfriend Jerome McDonald, moving on to 3rd January at 6.10, when Akua Agyuman died, two months after being stabbed in the chest and abdomen by her husband Minta Adiddo. Every 10 minutes, I’ll move through the year to commemorate all the women who I have found who were killed though men’s violence. So far I know of 112 women killed this year, so I’ll still be tweeting at midnight.

I’d massively appreciate if you could circulate this information through your networks and if you’re on twitter, please tweet support or re-tweet.

Thank you all for your support. We’ve reached 2,500 signatures now but I'm still the one doing the counting. As I've said all along, I'll keep doing it, until I'm convinced the government is doing enough!

I suspect (and hope) there are more than 2,500 of us that believe that everything that can be done, must be done to stop this shocking and appalling number of women being killed by men. The link to the petition is here - please do lend your support to the campaign. To adapt a line from NSPCC - Violence against women can stop. It must stop. Full stop.

You can read more of the shocking facts and join the campaign here:

We are still a long way from eliminating violence against women globally and it seems it is all too easy to underestimate the problem in the UK. More, much more must be done in the UK to create safe school communities for girls, improve sex and relationships education (SRE) ensuring it addresses structural inequalities, violence and consent, as well as teaching about feminism in schools are all vital steps to ensure the change we want to see.

Platform 51 relaunches as The Young Women's Trust (@YWTrust) this week. I look forward to working with them to do our bit to campaign for and address young women's needs.

*Karen is on the list of top 30 social CEOs follow her @K_IngalaSmith @countdeadwomen
Also follow @pollyn1 CEO of Women's Aid and @womensaid

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Saturday, 23 November 2013

A sex positive approach to SRE

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at Sexpression's annual conference.  I was briefed to speak about adopting a sex positive approach to SRE.  The week before I had presented to the National Union of Students.  On both occasions it was a privilege to be in a room with such passionate young adults, who are doing excellent work now, and are doubtlessly the leaders of the future. Both were examples of social action in action - embodying the ethos of @stepuptoserve launched this week.

More on NUS in a future blog; back to Sexpression.  Sexpression is a network of University students who run Sexpression groups across the country to deliver SRE in schools.

The particular pleasure of talking to Sexpression was their determination to change our culture so it is more open about sex, sexuality and relationships, who want to challenge prejudice and inequalities and at the same time they know, remember and are generally feeling young, and are the first generation living the increasingly integrated on and offline lives which can baffle and worry so many adults.

Inspired by their commitment I promised to write up my talk.  It took more time than I expected translating bullet points to proper text and whilst I know publishing talks is a no no, I thought this is worth publishing on my blog.

Young people as talented and resourceful, with skills and assets that SRE can further develop. Despite how they are often portrayed young people are active moral agents who, with the right education, support and services manage their choices and relationships exceptionally  well.

So our starting point in SRE must be a positive one, based on trust; underpinned by a belief that if you provide good education and support grounded in human rights, young people will have a better chance of developing confidence, self belief and a deeper understanding of and respect for their own rights and the rights of others.

This sounds straightforward but can be challenged by a number of factors;

1. Often as adults we find it difficult to remember what it feels like to be a young person - I am 40 in a couple of months and increasingly I hear my parents words coming out of my mouth.

2. Public policy is driven to solve problems - whether it be HIV, teenage pregnancy, chlamydia, or Child Sexual Exploitation or violence against women.

Current concerns about sexualisation and commercialisation are big issues which have to be addressed positively.  Too often SRE is viewed as part of the perceived problem of sexualisation, rather than part of the solution.

Fundamentally SRE is an entitlement for all children and young people - to be effective in contributing to the reduction of public policy problems SRE should be focus on positive concepts like consent, choice and freedoms. The overall value of  SRE can be undermined if it becomes narrowly focused on solving a problem because attention, funding and resources follow problems.

3. We still have a peculiar attitude to young people, sex and sexuality in the UK.  A consensus exists in support of SRE and access to confidential health services.  Yet we have not yet translated that consensus into a shared vision for young people where as a country we have high expectations for their relationships and sex, and create a culture, education and services so they in turn have high expectations and the skills and confidence to demand and achieve these for themselves.

4. Our perceptions of reality can be warped - generally people over estimate things the wrong way (more crime than there actually is) - for example in sex terms - everyone is having sex earlier than they are, teenage pregnancy rates higher than they everyone is 'sexting' and 'twerking' and watching 'extreme pornography'. The reality of course is that some young people are and some are either not, or if they are they may not perceive it to be causing them or others harm.

5. We are often poor at dealing sensibly with that which we don't understand. That is why young people's use of social media is worrying some people. It is right to have genuine concerns but that has to be in the context of social media being an overwhelmingly power for good.  But when something is new and worrying it can feel better for adults to try to control 'it' rather than empower young people to navigate their way through responsibly - especially when young people are not trusted as moral agents who can manage their decisions and so we go full circle.

So how do we turn the rhetoric of being sex positive into good SRE practice?

1. Focus on the real realities - be clear with young people that you trust them as moral agents and that most young people intend to, and do manage their sexual health and relationship choices well , even if they make mistakes and have challenges along the way.

Be clear about the fact that not 'everybody is doing it all the time'; don't gloss over violence and exploitation in relationships - talk about issues in context and in proportion to facts; ensure young people know prejudice, violence and exploitation is always wrong and focus on actively teaching about consent and pleasure. What does it mean, how do you make sure decisions are active choices for everybody?

2. Think about how to teach the positive - SRE it seems we can spend lots of time marching on well trodden territory that can often be tedious and pr unhelpful  for young people.

For example;

Myths - we can inadvertently breathe life into myths that should really be allowed to RIP if we repeat them in SRE. It can be difficult to remember what is myth and what is fact so young people (like adults) are at risk of being left muddled.

Creating positive norms - we create norms by what we focus our teaching. Take condom use. Young people are often given a task of negotiating condom use. It might be  more helpful to say 'if you have sex you have to use a condom' and then spend time building confidence learning about condoms and how to use them. By doing an exercise on negotiation we miss both the opportunity to make condom use the expected norm and spend valuable time learning negotiation skills rather than building confidence in using condoms.

Videos and education in theatre can sometimes show people 'getting it wrong' - eg demonstrating violence - without showing how to get it right - eg negotiating and compromising.  Given many young people will have limited experience of their own intimate relationships this misses a trick.

3. Focus on consent - what it is, what it means and how you know whether you want to consent or not. The skills to say Yes, No, May be and the skills to hear and act responsibly on Yes, No, Maybe.

In this context we also have to talk much and often about structural inequalities, about all forms of abuse, about violence against girls and women, homophobia and transphobia, the impact of inequalities on violence and abuse, and the personal responsibility all of us have to stand up against and tackle all forms of abuse, prejudice and violence, and helping young people really understand consent and what it means in practice.

4. Discussion on pleasure must be integrated into all our work - its not a single separate session as it can be made to be.  We can helpfully talk about 'mental and physical orgasms' - as one young woman put it 'talk about the shivers and what it feels like when you are so excited you can hardly breathe'. Brook and the University of Sussex have published the first in a series of films on sex - visit the good sex knowledge exchange project pages on

5. Be actively inclusive - in our desire to be inclusive we can - young people sometimes  say - end up sounding sterile and irrelevant.  This provdes a challenge for us as educators to find a relevant inclusive language.

For example some young people have told me the term 'partner' seems very adult. So instead of saying partner find phrases that suit - so for example it may sound more relevant to say 'in every school some people will like men and some will like women and some both'.

It is important to considering the language that makes sense to you to use so you can be actively inclusive and make sure it feels relevant for all young people is important.

6. New technologies can be liberating in that where SRE has traditionally imparted lots of information it can now focus on helping young people learn about and develop skills to find out information.

The internet has a significant amount of sex positive information for people with all gender and sexual identities, abilities and desires. That creates new issues for young people about learning to stay safe online and be discerning about the quality of information, to understand how to identify and deconstruct myths, stereotypes and misinformation.

So, as @brookcharity's @besexpositive volunteers remind me often we need to plan, deliver and evaluate SRE so it is consistently rigorous, relevant and enjoyable. SRE must be sensitive to the diversity of children and young people's experience and prepare them to move through puberty, adolescence and into adulthood with pride, confidence and high expectations for their healthy relationships.

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Monday, 18 November 2013

The Age of Consent - I welcome cross party support to keep it at 16

Professor John Ashton, President of the Faculty of Public Health called for a national debate about the age of consent.  His argument, as reported in the Sunday Times, is society is sending confused signal about when sex is permitted. He said that if the legal age for sex was lowered to 15 it would draw a line in the sand against sex at 14 or even younger, and it would make it easier for 15 year olds in a sexual relationship to seek contraception and sexual health advice from the NHS.  Our confusion he adds means the 15 year olds are not getting clear routes to getting support.

Brook is the leading young people's sexual health charity in the UK.  We provide clinical and support services to  over a 1000 young people everyday. A sizeable proportion of those will be under 16 and in need of contraceptive and sexual health care.

Professor Ashton is absolutely right,  as a country we are confused about sex and sexuality and you just need to look at the range of messages young people get to see they do get mixed messages about sex and sexuality.  We see the result of that societal confusion everyday at Brook in the lack of information, embarrassment and pressure many young people have about their bodies and sex.  

The UK approach is still a little bit 'Carry On'.  I am therefore pleased Prof Ashton has raised the debate. I was very interested at the range of responses and I was particularly pleased that a cross party consensus emerged from the debate to keep the age of consent at 16.  That reflects the broad consensus that exists in the country: the age of consent is a good indicator of the age at which we think people will be mature enough to enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual decisions.  I was also pleased to see clear recognition, from Mr Clegg in particular, that good quality sex and relationships education is an important part of the answer to reducing confusion, improving sexual health outcomes and providing appropriate support and help for young people.

So what do young people tell us? 
They tell us they want it to remain at 16. They say it makes it clear when we think it is about the right time to have sex if they are ready.  Research tells us that between a 1/3 and a 1/4 of young people have sex before they are 16.  Many of these, of course, will be 15 3/4 year olds which means that between 2/3 and 3/4 don't have sex before the age of 16.

Young people also tell us that the Age of Consent a) sometimes feels a bit irrelevant if they have made a decision to have sex - then it is love and trust that counts b) some young people - particularly young women - tell us the age of consent can be a good negotiating tool if they don't want to have sex, and are being encouraged or feel pressured to by a partner c) they need to know they are highly unlikely they will be criminalised if they have consenting sex with somebody who is about the same age and d) every young person must know they have a legal right to access contraceptive advice and treatment even if they are under 16.

The law is currently designed to protect children and young people from exploitation and abuse. It is not designed to criminalise consenting sex between two young people of a similar age. There is plenty of evidence to suggest it is generally working as it should be.  If we reduced the age of consent to 15,  drew a line in the sand and actively discouraged 14 years from having sex as Professor Ashton suggests, we could feasibly be in the position where the law requires prosecution of two 14 year old which would be a much worse position than we currently have.

As it stands there is no legal reason that 15 years old should not be able to get the support they need if we educate well. Young people can access free, confidential advice and treatment even if they are under 16.  This is well established in case law when Lord Fraser made a ruling in the Gillick v Wisbech Health Authority case in 1986. The Fraser Guidelines set out the criteria that health professionals must follow to make a judgement about whether an under 16 year old can be provided contraceptive and sexual health treatment.  These Guidelines provide a very straightforward framework for health professionals to exercise judgement.

Yes, of course some young people may be put off accessing services if they are under 16 and having sex, but we know from determined efforts that through education and reassurance, through emphasising confidentiality and building trust we can ensure all young people feel confident accessing services.  A change in the law is not required to address that.

I was also interested that Professor Ashton is advocating a chain of health centres specialising in adolescent health.  As teenagers would attend the Centres for all health problems, the clinics would not be stigmatised as dealing primarily with contraception and sexual health he argues. Brook has almost 50 years of providing services that deal with sexual health primarily within the context of holistic health and well being.

Young people have told us they want us to deal with more issues, particularly emotional health and mental well being at Brook.  In response we have completed our first phase research - which tells us that yes they want a wider bundle of services but that must not detract from the contraception and sexual health service - are building strategic partnerships and will be launching and evaluating a pilot service in the North West to establish what that would offer, and importantly what impact it would have.  Watch this space.

It is argued that countries with a lower age of consent have lower rates of teenage pregnancy.  I don't make that causal link.  When i have visited and worked with colleagues from countries that have got this stuff right, they tend to have an open and positive view about sex and sexuality, parents and children are open in discussing sexual matters, good sex and relationships education is just a fact of life and young people are confident accessing sexual health services.

The national debate in the UK it seems to me should be how do we create a revolution that builds a positive and open culture about young people, sex and sexuality in the UK - we must strive for openness about sex and sexuality, high expectations within relationships, easy access to services, better communication about relationships and sex at home and at school with a real focus on consent and what it means to actively give and seek consent.  We must see sex and relationships education as part of the solution to the challenges of our time - sexualisation, easy access to online pornography, sexual exploitation and violence against girls.

There are changes we can all start making today, right now to drag ourselves into the 21st Century and ditch those lingering Victorian attitudes to sex.

My concern is that the debate about the Age of Consent filters onto young people's airways and what young people hear is 'you cannot access services if you are under 16 and so we need a change in the law'.  That must not be allowed to happen, so lets shout from the rooftops 'you can access services even if you are under 16s, tell your friends'.

Follow us @brookcharity @simonablake @besexpositive