Thursday, 30 October 2014

Child sexual exploitation, social norms and social change (Updated 14th December)

I was both surprised and delighted to learn Guerrilla Policy had named this blog as one of their top 10 social care blogs of 2014. I believe passionately that we must realign thinking, feelings, policy and practice: we need to all understand our aims, values and expectations if we are going to reduced and eliminate child sexual exploitation.  As a starter we must have unequivocally high expectations for young people's relationships so they can have high expectations for themselves. 

I cannot imagine there are sensible adults who want to live in a culture in which child sexual exploitation is a new social norm in some or any communities. Yet there are sensible adults who are not doing all they can to make sure we develop a healthy and positive culture about young people, sex and sexuality. Today's important report from Ann Coffey MP Real Voices, into child sexual exploitation (CSE) across Greater Manchester is another reminder of why this has to change.

The report echoes all of the previous evidence including the Office of the Children's Commissioner's inquiry into peer on peer exploitation. It is right for us to be really worried. And if we didn't know already what we have to do, then we do now. It is important to remember that publishing the report is not the task itself - it tells us our task.

The Real Voices report on CSE is very welcome (here's Brook's statement on its publication). It is refreshing to read a report that takes children and young people's views so seriously - unsurprising given the young volunteers from Brook who met Ann to inform the report said that they felt really listened to. Real Voices is pretty grim reading. It reflects our failures to take children and young people seriously and meet our obligations to protect against abuse and exploitation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The report includes a wide range of sensible recommendations that national, regional and local policy makers must take heed of, and quickly.

Ann states child sexual exploitation is becoming the new social norm in some communities. This sums up the important task we have yet to grasp effectively. We must never allow CSE to become the new social norm in any community. CSE is deeply rooted in inequalities, misogyny and sexism as well as a cultural lack of trust of young people which manifests itself in systematic abuse and violence.

So we can easily agree we don't want CSE as a new social norm. As a country we are less clear, it seems, about what we do want for young people and setting about working in partnership with young people to establish a culture that realises this ambition.

We are at best ambivalent and more likely downright confused about the social norms we do want for young people's health and social behaviours. Just a month or so ago I read an article reflecting on the positive downward trends in teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol use amongst young people. Instead of welcoming and rewarding their responsible behaviours it asked whether this generation of young people are boring. How galling that would be if you are 15, 16 or 17?

So then, imagine what it feels like to be a young person growing up in 2014: we condemn them for 'sexting' and chastise them for learning about sex from porn. We wave our hands in despair because young people are supposedly having sex earlier and earlier and teenage pregnancy rates are going through the roof - despite the evidence that neither is true - and when data is published showing HIV infection rates have almost doubled amongst gay men 15-24 years old in the last decade, the news is met with almost universal silence.

Young people tell us what they want from their sex and relationships education decade after decade, and instead of providing it we are still arguing about whether schools must provide good sex and relationships education instead of how. We know young women often feel unsafe and experience disproportionate violence and exploitation and we don't do nearly enough to address the systemic inequalities that enable that to happen.

Ann Coffey's report emphasises the importance of listening to the real and lived experiences of children and young people. That requires us to trust them and value them. That requires significant culture change. We must stop messing about, name and call out the behaviours, the incoherent policy, failures to invest early enough and the lack of action that let all young people down. It is our collective responsibility to do all we can to tackle the inequalities that breed all types of violence, as well as provide extra protection to those who experience particular vulnerability to abuse and exploitation such as children in care.

If we are to make the rhetoric of Ann Coffey's report a reality, we will have to accept CSE is not isolated to one or two cities, and we have to recognise that just talking about it isn't enough. We will need to ensure that there is proper investment in early intervention and prevention, good quality education, targeted support and sexual health services, despite the financial landscape. The economic and social costs of not tackling the root causes of child sexual exploitation are too high for the young people involved and for society as a whole.

If we are to make the change we all want we must trust young people, value their sexuality, understand healthy sexual development, and address the root causes of violence. This report is yet another reminder that it is time for us to grow up and adopt a no nonsense approach to supporting young people and their developing sexuality, and a no excuses approach to violence and exploitation that at Brook we know will deliver results.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Member @leonjward: on why inclusive SRE is vital

Brook member, Leon Ward, has written this article. Timely given last weeks statistics on young gay men and HIV.

Good quality and compulsory sex education is the first step we need to take to ensure young people in the United Kingdom can make informed choices when they are getting jiggy between the sheets. But, once that's done, what is the next step?

For me, as a young gay man it is to then ensure different forms of sexual relationships are covered. In a time where we celebrate the fantastic achievement of equal marriage, there are still hundreds of thousands of LGBT+ children and young people who remain clueless about sex. Now, it may seem obvious which piece of Lego goes where, but let me tell you, I, like many before me, predominantly learnt about sex from porn - I developed an understanding that every gay man had to ‘participate in full anal sex, like, all of the time.’ Now, obviously, that is not true. But, how, at 14/15/16 was I supposed to know that?

At school, I learnt how to put a condom on which was useful and hilarious as the lovely school nurse in her petite frame and meek voice tried to tell us the instructions over tidal waves of giggling. But, I was never told of the various ways in which gay people explore their bodies and sexual limits. I had no idea all forms of ‘straight foreplay’ apply between two gay men or, indeed, the risks of not using a condom.

Now, part of me thinks that is exactly the point - you're supposed to 'explore' and discover what feels good, safe and comfortable; which is something we all continue to do as we progress through our sexual rollercoasters both as individuals and as part of a relationship, your ‘friends with benefits’ or with the occasional one nighter. But, I, like many of my gay peers would have appreciated a bit of guidance/sensible information.

Fundamentally, and irrespective of sexuality, the issue here is about children and young people being empowered to make choices they are happy with. That is impossible to do when you feel your choices are restricted to going all the way or not. Rather, sometimes we feel 70% 'yes' and we'll go so far, but we won't go all the way, at other times, we want to just the run the entire field track and skip all the getting-to-know-you warm ups, and sometimes, we want to roll over and sausage roll ourselves in our duvets whilst being spooned.

All of those are choices, but for some people they discover that those choices are available to us all when it’s too late. Leaving it to pure discovery has its risks. Young people grow up feeling insecure, nervous and frightened and this is particularly intensified when you feel even more marginalised because everyone is talking about 'normal' sex; and you feel that doesn’t apply to you. It isn't about segregating young sexual minorities and teaching them separately but it's about approaching sex ed in a wholesome manner and covering it all, for everyone.

Sex shouldn't make you feel frightened (although I think there is almost unanimous agreement that the first time is terrifying because of all the 'what if they don't like my....' questions.) it should make you feel comfortable, satisfied and relieved. Relieved both physically and emotionally, relieved that you made a choice about what you wanted to do, which resulted in having a good and safe time.

We will continue to betray young people if we do not make it compulsory for schools to teach a full and explosive curriculum on sex - let's not leave it to shoddy porn actors, but let's embrace sex as part of our every day (if you're lucky) lives and desensitise ourselves to it so that the classroom and subsequently the bedroom and the home become a safe places to explore, discover and go wild.

Until then, spread this article and support Brooks sex positive campaign on Twitter: @BeSexPositive

Become a member:

And help us lobby:

I'm on @Leonjward - let me know your thoughts.

Friday, 10 October 2014

HIV and young gay men

Last week was National HIV Prevention Week and it was thrilling to see so many posters about HIV testing on the tubes and across London. Tomorrow it is World AIDS Day - and this is one of those days, amongst the many days, weeks and months that I am so glad exists. The energy behind it continues, and each year people use the day to raise awareness of HIV that is too often falling out of view and off the agenda. Great that we now expect to see red ribbons being worn routinely on X Factor.  It wasn't that long ago that we rejoiced that ITV had ensured that judges and performers alike showed their solidarity. There is some progress. Shame it was only Chuka Umunna on Question Time last week.  Maybe next year the Chair and other guests will too given I think we established last year it doesn't contravene some peculiar BBC rule. 

But behind the red ribbon, and the excellent work that will go on over the weekend and tomorrow in schools, youth clubs and communities across the UK, there are some startling and frightening facts.  Sex Education Forum research done last year told us that young people do not have the factual information they need about HIV.  Combine that with prejudice and stigma young gay men face and no wonder then that the number of new HIV Infections have doubled amongst young gay men 15 - 24 over the last decade AND almost tripled amongst young people aged 15 - 24 over a 14 year period. 

We will all wear the ribbon for our own personal reasons. Just having it on my jacket this week has made me think about some special people, happy times and some horribly sad times.  I am wearing the red ribbon this week in memory of my friends and colleagues who died too young and in gratitude for all the agencies, activists and scientists who have made change that we couldn't have imagined happen.   

I will be wearing my red ribbon as an urgent reminder that; 

1. for every day decision makers and politicians procrastinate about making PSHE with all of the SRE bits included a statutory part of the curriculum we fail children and young people
2. for every financially driven cut to specialist prevention and services for young people and communities at higher risk of infection it is a false economy and we must challenge that wherever and however we can.  

I also wear the red ribbon as an urgent call for moral and determined leadership and action from all within the health system to ensure HIV alongside contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted infections gets the resources and priority it needs and deserves. The fragmentation of commissioning, the failure to make PSHE statutory and the lack of media and public outcry when the infection data was published gives 'serious cause for concern'. That is why World AIDS Day is important.  A day to reflect, to celebrate and to galvanise our determination to ensure action over the next 364 days before WAD 2015.   

The blog below was published in October 2014

I will say it again new HIV Infections have almost doubled amongst 15 - 24 year olds. I read my briefing over breakfast this morning and I cannot quite describe the feeling in my stomach.  How can we, how can I, allow this to happen and how did this data - - slip out and go largely unreported this week.

Almost 20 years ago I was in the early stages of coming out. It was exciting, exhilarating and scary.  HIV featured heavily in my consciousness.  Shortly after graduating I started working at Cardiff AIDS Helpline, FPA Cymru and was part of the All Wales AIDS Network. We were resolute and determined to do all we could to prevent another generation experiencing the impact of HIV in their communities.  Against a backdrop of sustained investment in education and campaigning from successive governments (some campaigns better than others, but awareness campaigns nonetheless) we developed innovative and exciting outreach and education programmes, we helped open up conversations about sex and condoms in clubs, in parks, in schools and in youth clubs to educate young people about healthy sexuality, choices and protection.

At that time we could not have imagined the advances in drug treatment that have changed the lives and life expectancy of people living with HIV beyond recognition. I am so grateful to all the scientists and activists who have made that a reality.  And we also never imagined it would be possible - morally or ethically - for another generation of young people to grow up not learning about sex, health and protection in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them.  Ways that help them develop the confidence, inner skills and self belief to manage their relationships and choices well, and to help protect themselves against HIV.

Ofsted in 2002 reported that schools were not teaching about HIV, and the DfE commissioned Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau to produce a toolkit for Key Stage 1 - 4 - Teaching and Learning about HIV which you can find here - its 10 years old but the ideas remain good ones - health warning on some of the information though - it may be out of date so do check it.

So in the prevailing decade since Ofsted found young people did not have good knowledge about HIV and the skills to protect themselves new infections have doubled. PSHE is still not statutory and Ofsted reports that in 40% of schools PSHE is not good enough. That is not a tenable position and we need step change so there is PSHE fit for the 21st Century. We know that homophobia is still rife within many schools, and that funding for targeted LGBT youth work is seen as a luxury and funding is being reduced in parts of the country- what a false economy.

We cannot allow another decade where the number of new infections amongst 15 - 24 year old gay men double so it was pleasing to hear Secretary of State for Education commit to tackling homophobic bullying in schools in her Conference Speech. I look forward to seeing action.

We also need all schools to be required to provide relevant Personal, Social and Health Education for all young people which will provide a solid base for all children and young people. Work like that of which take LGBT role models into school is an important contribution to promoting visibility of gay people. We also need targeted youth work such as Brook's LGBT youth group Work it Out which provides a safe space for young people as they explore and understand their developing sexuality.

And most of all we need visibility - last night i was at an event to celebrate the publication of Executive Diversity in the Financial Times - a list of the top 100 Executives and straight allies.  The founder Suki Sandhu reminded guests of the importance of visibility. If we are to prevent HIV amongst gay men we need to ensure visibility of gay men in schools, and we need to talk talk talk about HIV, about stigma, about infection rates and about homophobia and its impact.  In the public imagination it sometimes feels that HIV has all but become a thing of the past. This data is a big wake up call for all of us.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Quantick Quiz - the hardest quiz in the world!

What better way to spend a wet Wednesday evening than at a quiz hosted by David Quantick, with fiendish questions and great company? The Quantick Quiz in Shoreditch last night was brilliant fun, and helped raise a fabulous amount for Brook. It wasn't for the faint of heart, however, hence the title of this blog - the top score in the first round was 2½ out of 10...!

Our quizmaster for the evening, David Quantick
My deepest thanks go to David, to Sophie, to the Brook Events team who helped everything run like clockwork, to the venue staff whose service was impeccable, to the sponsors who kindly donated a range of brilliant prizes (Orlebar Brown who generously offered a £250 voucher as the grand prize, Sh! for the lovely hamper, signed merchandise from Al Murray thanks to Avalon, magnums of lovely fizz courtesy of Les Caves, beautiful handmade jewellery by Sophie, a meal for two at Pizza East, and copies of Antonia Hodgson’s book The Devil in the Marshalsea, as well as a variety of books and CDs donated by David), and of course to all who attended, bought raffle tickets, and competed for the coveted first place. Some of the tweets from the evening can be viewed here.

I started off the quiz with a short speech, below. It was great to see lots of new faces at the quiz, and to get the word out about the vital work that Brook does to new audiences.

If you're inspired to run a quiz of your own for Brook – and I hope you are! – it's a great, fun way to raise money that doesn't involve walking for 24 hours. Our Get Involved site has information to get you started, and you can email Brook on for more. We'd love to hear from you!

Welcome, and thank you for coming to this Quantick quiz for Brook. It’s a milestone year for Brook – our 50th birthday. That’s 50 years of being there for millions of young people in crisis and we are proud of all we’ve achieved.

When Brook started in 1964 a woman had to prove she was married in order to buy contraception (none of it was free) and if she needed an abortion she would have to risk the deadly, illegal backstreets. Homosexuality was also illegal. When it came to sexuality and sexual health, life for young people was tough.

Our founder, Helen Brook, and all those who worked with her, set out to change society against a backdrop of deep hostility, but they battled it out and now contraception is free, the age of consent is equal whether you are gay or straight, and abortion - with the exception of Northern Ireland – is, at least in theory, easily accessible for women. And one of Brook's most notable successes is ensuring that young people have the same right to confidential advice and treatment as adults.

You’d think we could just rest on our laurels, but not so. The pressures that young people have to deal with are just a bit different these days. Internet porn – whatever you think of it – isn't the best place to learn about sex, but it’s where many young people turn when they can’t find information anywhere else. Many schools fail to deliver good quality sex and relationships education which we know helps protect against abuse and help young people enjoy and take responsibility for their sexual choices. Sexual and homophobic bullying continues in our schools, HIV infection rates amongst young gay men are unacceptably high, and we continue to uncover more and more about the extent of child abuse and sexual exploitation. When it comes to helping young people with relationships and sexual health, there is still much to do.

Too many people throw their hands up in the air, despair of, and demonise young people, their behaviour and their choices.

People who have forgotten what it was to be young try and stop us from continuing to fight for better, safer, happier, healthier choices for young people. It’s too easy to cut services for young people, silence their voices, assume someone else will pick up the pieces.

The winning team, Industrial Mutton
At Brook we believe in, trust, and value young people. Our work helps them develop the inner confidence, skills, knowledge, self-belief and resilience to build good relationships, and keep themselves safe and happy. Even when the worst happens – when they are hurt, frightened, confused and in crisis, young people trust us and know that we’ll help them work things out.

You can help us do that – you’ve already started by buying a ticket tonight, thank you. You can help us more by adding a raffle ticket – there are some great prizes – or by becoming a member – there are papers for that on your table as well as more information about Brook. And you can help by talking about Brook – follow and retweet us on Twitter (@BrookCharity) to help spread the word about our campaigns and our work with young people.

Thank you very much for supporting young people by being here tonight. Thank you again to you David for preparing and hosting one of your infamous quizzes for Brook. I really appreciate it. Enjoy your evening.