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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