Saturday, 30 August 2014

Milton Keynes goes Back in Time and I prove I really can't dance

Last night Brook Milton Keynes went 'back in time' to celebrate 50 years of brilliant Brook work with young people. The fancy dress costumes were absolutely phenomenal (except I let the side down because I couldn't find enough paisley in time). Equally phenomenal was the energy and effort that had gone into organising the party. It was undoubtedly a team effort led with enormous energy by Antonietta Moch (Toni) with boundless support from Hayden Tennant. 

To kick off the evening professional dancers tried to help us master a few steps. Learning some new dance moves was a (bit of a) struggle for me, and certainly gave everyone including myself lots to laugh at.  When did left become right, and when did 'pull towards' mean 'push your partner away and stand on their feet'? The tutor saw me struggling and came to help. She had a proper twirly dress and deftly took the lead - from then on I felt fantastic and we looked a bit more expert.

The team had pulled together a fantastic rolling projection with pictures and images showing Brook's 50 years. It showed just how critical the role Brook has played in transforming attitudes and developing knowledge and best practice for young people both nationally and in Milton Keynes specifically. We will get it on our website soon. It shows just how much has been achieved in 50 short years and just how much more there is still to be done. 

Until we confidently talk about sex, orgasms, masturbation, sexual abuse and exploitation, until we talk about pleasure and all young people know violence is never acceptable in relationships, until everyone knows that gender and sexual bullying is wrong, and until we have a culture that ensures that horrific sexual abuse like that exposed in Rotherham this week cannot happen again we are still swimming upstream and have a huge amount of work.

Against the backdrop of how much there is still to do, it was an honour to see some of the teams, volunteers and community partners working in Milton Keynes. I was so impressed by Jaydun one of the young volunteers who is doing great work to provide young people with no nonsense information as part of his O2 Think Big Social Action project, and the Boots The Chemists team who were absolutely delighted about how the partnership with Brook has helped them to improve their sexual health support in the community. 

It was of course wonderful to be in a room full of people who care about and trust young people and value their developing sexuality enormously. All of them do so much day in day out to ensure all children and young people grow up confident about their gender and sexual identity, about who they are and able to navigate their way through puberty, adolescence and into adulthood. 

In 50 years much has changed. We will need so much more change over the next 50 years if Brook's mission to enable young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm is to be realised.

In 25 years Brook in Milton Keynes has gone from a part time service providing a limited range of services for young people to a big service that sees many thousands of young people each year and works in partnership with schools, colleges and other organisations in the community. All of Brook's work in Milton Keynes operates from a fantastic building that sends a clear message to young people and our partners that we take young people's sexual health and well being really really seriously. 

I raise a glass to Brook being 50, to the team in Milton Keynes doing extraordinary work day in day out with young people, and to Toni and the organising team for a fantastic party.

P.s If you want evidence of dancing, there are some photos on my twitter @simonablake which will probably find their way to the Brook charity website over the next few days. 

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Harder, no: different, yes (version two - updated 20th August)

I often get asked whether it is more difficult for young people growing up now to navigate their way through what with sexting, revenge porn, easy access to internet porn etc etc. Each time I am asked I think of this Ted Talk from Ash Beckham who says 'hard is not relative, hard is hard...there is no harder, there is just hard'. (You can view the talk here

Yesterday I was asked again whether it is more difficult for young people now on the same day as IPPR release a poll about the impact of pornography.  The poll showed that young people believe that pornography impacts on the way young people understand sex, their values and attitudes and in particular for young women, resulting in pressure to look and behave in particular ways. If you read the top line it is pretty grim reading, but thankfully young people have always navigated their way through complex situations and with the right policy solutions and public responses - i.e. a resolve to improve education and support, they will, I am confident, continue to do so now.

There is no doubt the internet has opened up all sorts of possibilities - some good, some bad and some downright ugly including the potential for bullying, harrassment and abuse. We know that young people use pornography for all sorts of reasons including to learn about sex in the absence of good sex and relationships education.  Whatever your interpretation of the evidence and your view about the impact of pornography, and whatever young people's reasons for watching it, there is absolutely no doubt there are much much better places to learn about sex and relationships. Full stop. We know from our work at Brook that it influences the way people learn about and understand about sex and sexuality, and can create all sorts of anxieties. 

And we are right to be worried, but we must not panic. Before we throw our hands up in despair it is important to think about what young people have successfully navigated in recent history: think about the 1960s when access to contraception was really difficult  for many, before the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 and if you were gay your love was illegal. More recently in the early 80s when the rights of under 16s to contraceptive treatment were untested and then the late 80s/early 90s at the start of the HIV epidemic, Section 28 was instilling fear about promoting homosexuality and young people often found emergency hormonal contraception was very difficult to get hold of without fear of reproach. Still now a short distance across the water in Northern Ireland it remains exceptionally difficult to get an abortion and only in recent years have young people been able to use Brook services without passing through protesters.

So as a general rule is growing up and starting your relationship and sexual career harder for young people now than ever before? Probably not. Is it different now? Yes, yes, yes.

Young people tell me time and again the most important thing us older people can do is trust young people and remember what it felt like to be young. Reflect and remember for example those feelings of falling in love for the first time, being anxious about who you fancied or about your body, simultaneously excited and confused by your sexual desires or concerned about your sexual performance. Remember what it felt like to worry you were pregnant or had a sexually transmitted infection, or to be pregnant, have a STI or want to tell your parent you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  Remember mustering up the courage to end a relationship or 'to be dumped' for the first, second or third time, to be unsure whether you wanted or had had sex, or whether a person you fancied had noticed you and whether a friend would break friends with you if they found out your true identity. All of those things and more happened in the 60s, 70s, 90s and continue to happen now. The context and circumstances will change - who knows what is coming next - but the human feelings associated with these experiences remain largely the same. 

If we can remember that and start from a position of trusting young people we will less likely be overwhelmed by new technologies and by internet porn and we will stop looking for solutions which simply will not work. The best solution we will ever have is three fold - 1. like and trust young people and make sure they know we have high expectations for them so they have high expectations for themselves 2. commit to promoting equality, including gender and sexual equality, and ensure good education at home, at school and the wider community to equip young people with excellent knowledge, skills (including discernment) and develop their self belief so they can navigate their way through the opportunities and challenges of their time with confidence and verve. 

@simonablake @brookcharity @besexpositive