Person centred but not personal.

When we teach Relationships and Sex Education, we’re often in a classroom. We’re in a school, in a large group, amongst people who might not have any strong support networks with any of their peers in the group.

Or maybe we’re working with a small group who do know each other, or with an individual young person; the point is we’re still trying to teach about the most personal experience someone can have: that of sexuality.

As educators, we strive to make sure that there are professional boundaries in place when we work, and talking about sex offers a chance for those to be completely shattered. When the personal becomes the professional, how do we maintain a distance? And how do we balance a participant’s needs with imparting information?

This #teachingtuesday looks at a strategy for making your teaching person centred, but not personal. If we teach about contraception, for example, it’s probably glaringly inappropriate to ask someone to say what they think would be the most important quality a method of contraception should have for them in front of the group.

One way to encourage participants to reflect is to hand out a small piece of paper with ‘what about me?’ on it at the beginning of the session. Ask them to write down or draw something that resonates with them during the session. At the end, they can discuss that with a partner (or not), or with the facilitator (or not).

This means that they can begin to reflect on their own development but not feel that they have to cross any boundaries they’re uncomfortable with.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck between this and, if you’re in a traditional classroom, outcomes evidence. But maybe that’s another conversation…

We all have biases, and they matter.

Welcome to another #talkingpointtuesday. I’ve been thinking lately about how much our viewpoint matters when we’re talking about relationships and sex. As professionals – or as parents – we can’t hide completely from our own beliefs and values. Some of our practice, therefore, has to look at examining our own systems of belief and how they could prevent us from delivering key messages around topics in as clear a way as possible. Note I didn’t say objective. I’ve long since stopped believing that anything we do as humans can ever be truly objective.

But what about the beliefs and biases of others? There are two main things we need to take into account when considering how others’ beliefs might shape our teaching of RSE. The first is to help the people we work with to consider where their beliefs might be impairing their development. For example, for a LGBT+ teenager worried about the consequences of an unalterable identity (hello, teenage trauma!), a nudge to the fact that the Catholic church is not where the world starts and ends could offer tools for self-acceptance. Equally, young people who have been shaped by their culture to hold particular beliefs around pleasure could benefit greatly from being supported to explore those beliefs. Our beliefs can change, but as facilitators we should approach this from a place of openness and compassion – and recognise that shedding the skin of a childhood belief can be painful.

The other facet of beliefs and biases that we need to take into account is those upheld by the education system. In recent weeks I’ve been struck by an approaching ‘resources war’ in the UK, as organisations who feel that the LGBT+ inclusive curriculum offers harmful messages to children and young people and seeks to counteract it with their own. Many teachers will be in a position of having to create new resources when the curriculum launches fully in their schools, and there is a danger that, with all these competing resources, young people could be exposed to both conflicting messages and resources that have at their heart a motive other than the development of skills, knowledge and understanding.

This is an invitation to evaluate any messages which you think you might still hold biases over and to think about how you can deliver those topics in an open, non-judgemental way, and a reminder to quality assure any resources you plan on using in the classroom. RSE should help clear up confusion, not create it.

Protests, Pride and Anger in teaching about sex.

If you’re not angry, you’re not paying enough attention.

It’s a saying I love and use often, but it’s not often a saying that crosses over into teaching, especially not when we’re talking about Relationships and Sex Education. But maybe it should be.

The first Pride was a protest. Recent years have seen it become more about glitter and dancing and corporate rainbows. I’m happy to see its gnarly side re-emerge.

This summer it seems like across the world, communities have united to fight against injustices. We’ve seen many people across the UK start to examine the history of racism that this country often brushes aside. We’ve seen social media posts were BIPOC share their experiences of not just systemic racism but those microaggressions that add up to take their toll over a lifetime.

I’ve spoken before about the fact that we often see Disabled people as desexualised, as people who ‘probably won’t go on to have sex’ so need limited knowledge about it. And I think I’ve covered how dangerous that can be. But what also tends to get lost is that no Disabled person is just a Disabled person.

This 1989 essay by Kimberle Crenshaw was amongst the first to dive into the differences in experience of white and black feminists, and to explore how the convergence of multiple oppressed identities affects the human experience. Whilst this theory is best suited to feminism, it offers food for thought about how all of us as humans sit on intersecting fault lines of identity.

So the young black disabled boy in your class? We have to work on the assumption that, even if we wish it weren’t the case, his experiences will be different to his white peer. More likely to be viewed with suspicion by police, we have to ensure that we recognise this when we teach. We know that trans young people are more likely to experience mental health difficulties, and we need to teach strategies on self care and advise on when to reach out for help.

How does this come into RSE? Well, surely, the first – and longest – relationship any of us have is with ourselves. By teaching young people to recognise the interconnecting identities they experience, they can become more attuned to these in others. It also helps keep education founded in social justice, and in not just accepting the injustices we see.

What I’ve loved most about this summer is the crowds of angry young people hungry for change. I want to see more of that, and I want to see them proud about their anger, about their drive. It’s how we’ll see change.

It’s the first #talkingpointtuesday I’ve done since relaunching this blog. So let’s look at how we begin to talk about intersectionality. It’s something – especially white teachers – we shy away from, but the best way to talk about it is to talk about it. Here are some practical teaching tips you can use both in class or in small group/ 1-1 teaching.

  1. Images – show images of people protesting. Ask the participants what the image is showing, and explain protests. How do they feel about the image? Does it look scary to be in the crowd? Are there other things people can do to help change?
  2. Social stories – create two social stories about an interaction with a police officer with two people of different races. One should be a positive experience for a white person and one a negative for a black person. Whilst this is a stereotype and we should be careful not to reinforce it, it is also the case that many members of the BAME community feel less comfortable around police than their white peers. Ask participants to think about how each encounter would make them feel. Who else could they ask for help besides the police?
  3. All of me – hand each participant a cut out of a figure and ask them to write or draw (with support) everything that they feel makes them who they are inside that image. Discuss the things they have chosen and have them share them as a group if appropriate. Discuss how each of those things is with them all the time, even in their relationships. Ask if any of those things are things that need to be discussed when they are in a relationship or if they are things that might change their views on certain situations.

Without discussing uncomfortable issues, it’s difficult to move forwards for change. It’s a challenge, but, as educators, it’s one we can take on.

RSE day 2020 – what needs to change

So much has changed since last RSE day. 2020 has been a year that – in years to come – could be seen as seminal in the history of the world. As I write this, there are conversations about racism that have taken centuries to come to the fore playing out in the mainstream media. There are strict guidelines placed on human interaction that change the ways in which we conduct our relationships. There are couples who have been separated for months finally able to see each other in the flesh again.

Change is happening – but there is so much still to do.

This blog and my work is changing too. Hopefully not in too big a way, but in a focussed, concentrated way that makes sure I can put out work that I’m proud of and that I think makes a difference. I started my Instagram account @justtwosex last July, keen to get involved in the sex education scene through my experience as a SEN teacher. I started this blog soon after, and I’ve had so much great feedback for which I am super grateful.

But I want to do more, and do it better. I’ve neglected both the blog and the Instagram for a while now – at first due to COVID and the surrounding mental pressures, and then because I wanted to make sure I was saying what I wanted to say.

I started my work to focus on disabled young people, and that will always be my biggest and strongest focus. But disabled young people are never just disabled young people. They are BIPOC, LGBT+ and contain a whole host of multitudes. I want some of my work to reflect that.

From now on, I’ll be looking each Tuesday at either a teaching strategy or a talking point around relationships and sex that can be used in education (#teachtalktuesday). Slowly, I’ll branch out to other posts but I want most of all to be consistent, so I’m starting small. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way.

If you’ve stuck with this post, and with me, thank you. I hope we’ll have some fun between now and RSE Day 2021.

Disability, sex education and language part 2.

Last week, I spoke about how to reference disability during sex education and to include the invisible disabilities in the room. Today I want to talk about sex education with students who we know are disabled – who may, in fact, be in the group because they are disabled.

Targeted sessions for sex education can be really valid and important. There is, as always, the argument to be made that exclusion is never really inclusion. However offering a space that includes only those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities – young people who fit in to this category know who they are.

The difficulty can be that young people with SEND are often slotted in to that category for a number of reasons – some may have physical disabilities, some may have learning disabilities and there is a high proportion of young people who will straddle both camps.

This means that the language that we use may be different for these groups than “mainstream” groups. There is a danger that some students with physical disabilities who are otherwise developmentally typical may find language designed to be clear and simplistic patronising. This can be avoided by making sure that you explain that you don’t want to assume what anyone in the group knows, and that you want everyone to understand.

That being said, for young people who are at a level of learning (or perhaps language understanding) significantly below their peers – for example working at pre-entry or entry level – it may be considered more appropriate to run a session for this group separately to allow content to be more visual than verbal.

It’s important when introducing topics around sexual health and sexual relationships that we offer all young people the same chance at an extensive vocabulary. For some learners, a visual or adapted definition may also be needed, but penis, testicles, vulva, vagina, breasts and anus are all medical terms and all young people deserve the power of being able to use them.

Concepts such as consent, porn, rape and sexual assault are also important for all young people. As educators we sometimes worry about how to check understanding but there are visuals that can help. Makaton and widgit both often symbol packs that can help, and Easy on the I via NHS Leeds offers symbols that could be helpful in breaking down some more challenging concepts.

Even if it is a challenge, all young people deserve access to sex education, and the time taken to explain and cement these concepts shouldn’t be a reason to avoid doing this. The benefit these young people will get is always worth the time taken.

Disability, sex education and language.

I post a lot on my instagram about language and how it matters when we’re talking about sex with young people with disabilities. I have more to say on it than I think one post can cover, so today I’m going to look at including reference to disability in your language.

For many young people with disabilities, especially those in mainstream schools, they don’t often see themselves represented in discussions about sex. I’m thinking particularly of high frequency disabilities such as asthma, diabetes or allergies that can have small but impactful effects on their sex lives.

Addressing this doesn’t have to be as awkward as people think it will be when I first mention it. “Do I have to run through all the disabilities in every session I teach?”, “won’t they just ask if that effects them?”, are common questions I get when I bring this up, and the answer to both of them is usually ‘no’. Most students won’t have ever thought about chronic illness or disability unless it directly affects them, so having a reminder when discussing communication or consent that they should check in on whether their partner has any health issues they should be aware of might genuinely be the first time they’ve considered it. It also speaks to the disabled young people in the room who would never know how to bring it up to someone without health issues. Which brings me on to the second question.

Young people who have a disability have often had it for the majority of their lives. Chances are, even with the best care or support, they’ve felt like an outsider because of it more than once. It’s unlikely that they would put themselves in that position again.

Inclusivity of language when it comes to talking about disabilities in general isn’t difficult – it’s quite simply a case of acknowledging that disabilities exist. Of asking young people to take account of the things they need to know about their partner in order to engage in good communication, of reminding young people with disabilities that their disability should never be a burden.

Practical examples that could be impactful to young people could include:

  • Reminding a group that latex allergies exist and that this is something to be aware of when using condoms;
  • Talking about the fact that there are several health conditions that can make hormonal contraception an unviable option, and that no one should be made to feel bad for this;
  • Talking about the fact that sex can be many different things and that some people may change the position or way they have sex due to their health needs;
  • Reminding them that sex is a physical activity and that some people may find this harder than others, and that checking in is always a good thing.

None of this needs to be awkward or difficult, and it is never unnecessary. For those that don’t have a disability, it reminds them that they might have to learn to accommodate different needs in the future, and for those that do, it shows that this accommodation isn’t a burden or a privilege, but a right.

“What about sex?” Is a valid question when dealing with disability.

When I got diagnosed with diabetes, I didn’t even think to ask how it would affect my sex life. I was 22, in my final year of my undergraduate degree and in love with my first serious girlfriend. Sex was a big part of my – and our – lives, and yet I never thought to ask about how this new diagnosis would affect things.

It wasn’t just sex. It was how as a couple we navigated this new world of monitoring and checking and counting. Plot twist: we didn’t. The diabetic burnout caught me quickly and only left enough room for me to crawl to the end of my degree. But had I asked the doctors and specialists at my first appointment about how this might affect things, would I have been any more prepared?

Any disability brings with it elements of sexual and social adaptation. But we rarely talk about those. We don’t talk about the mid-sex moments where you suddenly know your blood sugar is dangerously low and you have to stop while your partner grabs you lucozade and wipes the hypo sweat from your body. We don’t talk about how deeply unsexy a chronic illness can make you feel – in my case how my stomach being covered in injection bruises makes me hideously self-conscious. And if we don’t talk about them for adults who are newly diagnosed – people in relationships who, realistically, medical professionals should expect to be having sex – we’re definitely not talking to young people about it.

We’re not warning young people with autism about the sensory overload of sex and how to process it; we’re not telling the chronic asthmatic that the breathlessness of sex might be scary; we’re not equipping the young person with anxiety how intimacy might increase or decrease their symptoms. And we should be. If young people are under specialist care, this is something that should be addressed at an age appropriate point in treatment. It should be something young people are able to consider – because without having access to these considerations, they can’t really consent fully.

Intimacy and sex are risky activities – emotionally and physically. But that risk is one that most of us take, and experience the reward for. In terms of some disabilities, the risk is higher than the reward. Chronic pain conditions that are exacerbated by sex can lead to the choice between a few hours of pleasure or days of pain. That’s a choice that no one can make unless they know it’s a choice in the first place.

Disability shows up in every experience a disabled person has, and it isn’t fair to dismiss sex from the equation.

I thought of my sex life as an after thought when I was diagnosed. Really, it should have been a talking point from the beginning.

Sex is about pleasure, right?

Sex is about pleasure, right? Well, it’s about many things – love; lust; making up; breaking up; baby-making. But in the standard sex ed narrative we hear mainly about love and baby-making.

If we count sex that’s about love, I wouldn’t have had a great deal, if we count sex about baby-making, none at all. Pleasure – because something makes us feel good and we like it – is probably the main reason most of us have sex. But it isn’t the reason we’re talking to kids about.

Young people might have sex because they love each other, or because they’re bored, or because they feel pressured in to it. But I hope that they have sex because it feels good. If we’re not presenting that as a valid reason, we’re starting a narrative of shame.

That narrative is the whole reason I got in to sex ed in the first place – to change the way young people see and talk about sex.

So we need to talk about pleasure more. It doesn’t have to be sexual pleasure. “The cat’s fur feels nice against your fingers”; “I like the way it feels when I get in to a hot bath”, “the sun feels nice and warm on my skin” are all ways we can introduce pleasurable feelings when we talk to children. If we don’t talk about pleasure in any context, we’ll never talk about it in the context of sex either.

Think about the ways you can talk about pleasure in everyday contexts – are there more chances than you think?

Social stories and consent.

I’ve spoken recently about how we conceptualise consent, most recently in a presentation at the World Congress on Education in Dublin. One of the best ways we can talk about consent is through social stories, particular for young adults with learning difficulties for whom the concept might need a little more going over.

I want to talk a little more about this, because sometimes I feel that the way we use social stories isn’t as impactful as it could be. If it’s going to be an effective way of explaining something, it needs to be a multifaceted approach.

What I mean by this is that one social story cannot describe a multitude of situations. For consent, for example, I find it best to start with a social story about holding hands. When might that be appropriate? How would you ask someone if it’s okay to hold their hand? Then a different social story to model kissing, other forms of touching, and other sexual situations.

It can’t be a one size fits all approach. If sex education is going to be comprehensive, the resources we use need to be comprehensive too. Young people deserve the chance to process each situation separately, and to ask any questions they want to. What we refer to commonly as “sex” encompasses a wealth of situations and acts, and it’s only fair to explore that adequately for young people who take longer to process complex issues.

How we talk about consent.

Talking about sex needs to include talking about consent. Whilst young people need to know that sex can mean many different things and that the traditional heterosexual, reproductive definition doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all, they also need to know that, whatever they call sex, it should be consensual.

Consent isn’t often shown in our wider media representation of sex. You often see one person making a move and another pulling away, only to eventually acquiesce. This isn’t automatically non-consensual, but teaching that “is this okay?”, “can I touch you here?”, “do you want to do this?” are probably better ways of starting a sexual encounter is advisable.

Conversations about consent sometimes refer to “ruining the moment”. Again, especially if you’re a young person, not doing anything that might be awkward can be a big concern. So talking about taking the opportunity to get consent is a good opportunity to phrase it in a positive light. Here are some tips for how:

  • Assure young people that breaking that “moment” can, and does happen. Often. Sex shouldn’t have to be one continuous flow.
  • Taking that time makes both of you feel more secure, and can make the following encounter better.
  • Getting consent can be sexy in itself. “What do you want me to do?” “Where do you want me to touch you?” are confident ways to ask for consent, and to ensure that your partner is getting what they want.
  • Remind young people that, if they don’t feel comfortable stopping to ask the person they’re with for consent, then they probably aren’t the right person to have sex with.
  • Remind them that consent is consensual. Both parties should be checking in that things are okay, not just one person (specifically the male person) has the responsibility for that.