Friday, 7 August 2015

Sex In Class - the Brook view!

Simon Blake, former Chief Executive of Brook,
talks to Goedele Liekens
Last night’s Channel 4 programme, Sex In Class, was a fascinating hour-long look at the effects of a truly Sex:Positive approach to sex and relationships education (SRE). Presented by Goedele Liekens, a Belgian sexologist and UN Goodwill Ambassador for sexual health, Sex In Class demonstrated the power of giving young people the opportunity to talk about sex and relationships, and the importance of building up their confidence (especially the girls’), to help them draw their own boundaries.

Brook was approached by the production company who made the programme in the autumn of last year, and when we heard what they were planning, we were keen to get involved. The TV crew filmed interviews between our former Chief Executive Simon Blake and Goedele on two separate occasions, and to say they got on like a house on fire would be an understatement!

Of course, as often happens with TV, two hour-plus-long conversations full of excitement, agreement, and bouncing ideas were edited down into a two minute long segment for the small screen – but I think that the gist of what was discussed got across, which is the main thing. Filming went by (almost) without a hitch, despite cancelled trains, busy diaries and a near dust-up in the London office between the C4 crew and a Belgian crew who were following Goedele around to film her for a reality show – don’t ask!

The programme itself could not have shown more clearly the crying need for better SRE that talks about much more than basic biology, bugs and babies. The fact that many of the girls in the group had no idea what their own bodies looked like “down there” was saddening, but not surprising – Brook’s Education and Training teams tell many similar stories. It also showed that missing out conversations about consent, pleasure, peer pressure and porn leaves young people confused and lacking the confidence they desperately need.

The difference in behaviour between the young people at the start of the programme and the end was striking. The boys seemed more thoughtful and certainly more aware of consent (it was a peek-through-the-fingers moment earlier on when one of them said that coming on a partner’s face was just a normal part of sex and he didn’t see why he needed to ask permission – this notion was thoroughly dispelled by Goedele and the lesson seemed to sink in). The girls seemed more confident and more empowered (I loved the quote from the girl who said, “I’m not going to take crap off people any more”), and certainly more aware of their right to respect, pleasure, and equality.

Goedele asks the question on all our lips! 
The conversation on Twitter – as shown in this Storify – was overwhelmingly positive. There was a huge amount of disbelief that SRE is not statutory, from many people who had been unaware of that little fact. There was anger that a failure to ensure good, sex positive, comprehensive SRE for every young person leaves them at risk of exploitation, coercion, and abuse. The influence of porn on the class’s views was undeniable – and as Simon often said when CEO of Brook, whatever you think of porn, it’s not the best place for young people to learn about relationships and sex!

Sex In Class was a great reminder (as if we needed one!) of exactly how important the amazing work done by Brook’s Education and Training teams is. While the Government drags its feet over making SRE statutory (seriously, how many reports do we need?!), Brook and similar organisations are out there making a difference to young people’s lives, talking to them in down to earth language about the issues that young people tell us they are desperate to discuss in a safe space, with input from an expert.

The only complaint I have about Sex In Class is that it was a one-off, rather than a series. Every one of the issues Goedele and the class discussed was worthy of its own episode, and it would have been brilliant to see what else was taught – I know that Goedele is also, for example, very keen to make sure that SRE is inclusive of all sexualities and genders, which was a topic that the hour long format didn’t have time to cover. In the meantime, whilst I’m going to keep on campaigning for statutory SRE, I think we have to find other ways to make sure that young people have much better sex and relationships education, to help them make positive choices, and to help them be safe, healthy, happy and unafraid of the future.

— Jules Hillier, Interim Chief Executive, Brook