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.

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.