When I meet a group for the first time – regardless of whether they are adults or young people – I often start with a very simple question:
What is sex?
(Why do we do it, how do we do it and what does it mean….?)
I will ask everyone to contribute, moving round the room and collecting answers.
It is a really useful way to start – as it can help open up many discussions and highlights very quickly that sex can mean different things to different people – it is a great way to start unpicking people’s attitudes…
Sex – We are obsessed by it. We think about it all the time, yet sex is one of the few things we never talk about – not properly anyway. We certainly don’t talk openly and honestly to young people about sex. We often warn them about the risks and tell them not to do it – or at least wait until you are married or in love…
Indeed, there is this absurd notion that by talking to young people about sex we will encourage them to rush out and do it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact all the evidence points the other way. Young people that engage in open honest discussion about sex and relationships, tend to have sex later, are more likely to use protection and are less likely to regret their first experience. Conversely young people, that have been subjected to abstinence only programmes, have sex earlier and are more likely to fail to use protection and regret the experience.
Traditionally, sex ed has been focused on risk. STIs, contraception and teenage pregnancy.
However, by changing our mindset, as professionals, coming from a sex positive approach and including pleasure in your conversations with young people – you can open up a whole host of positive interaction and unpick damaging attitudes. In short it give you far more scope to making positive intervention with the young people you work with.
However, if you are going to deliver sex positive RSE you need to be able to unpick your own attitudes, beliefs and values and put them to the side.
When it comes to abortion, sexuality, sexual acts or pornography – you have the same rights to your own opinion as anyone else – however, we are in the business of helping young people to explore and develop their own values, not carbon copies of those we have processed for them, and ensure that you are not the one enforcing judgement upon them.
Sex is still surrounded by judgement – moral judgement which comes from very outdated notions of sex. Unfortunately sex is still seen as something that Boys do to Girls…. rather than a shared experience… not to mention the concept of alternative sexualities it ignores.
Unfortunately there is still a huge double standard when it comes to sex – girls are labelled sluts and slappers if they show any interest in sex – in fact it is not even about their behaviour it is the way you insult a woman – call her a slut. Simple. It is still not something ‘nice girls’ do or should be interested in.
Where as on the other hand – for lads there is an expectation… an expectation that they should only want sex – that numbers of conquests count towards your manhood – insults are aimed at how small your penis might be and poor performance…
We need to step away from the gender stereotypes and the moral high ground…
For some people sex is wrapped up with their ideas of love and marriage. Sex means: I love you, I want to marry you and get a dog a mortgage and a goldfish and live happily ever after… For other people it is what you do for fun on a Friday night with someone you just met. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these attitudes as long as you are both honest about your intentions and are having sex for the right reasons (for you).
In fact, the attitudes of many schools is that we should only talk to young people about sex in terms of love and a committed relationship – like this will magically make sex safe – this is nonsense and simply not true. Just because you love someone, doesn’t make sex safe – it won’t stop things going wrong. Indeed, often we will forgive and put up with a lot of bad behaviour from our partners in the name of love.
Just because someone tells you that they love you, does not mean that they will treat you well or not take advantage of you – I merely have to think about my work around grooming or relationships abuse for two concrete examples…
In relationships people often have sex because there is an expectation that they should, rather than because they necessarily want to. Indeed, sex is often used as a bit of a bargaining tool in a relationship to get your own way or to keep our partners happy. Sometimes we have sex, because it is easier than saying no… and that is never a good thing.
Yes, sex can be a loving and intimate thing. Sex can be very special and mean the world to us. However, equally sex can just be an itch you scratch, a release, a bit of fun and mean very little.
Let me put it another way – sometimes we eat because we are hungry and sometimes we eat for the sake of it. Sometime we have posh dinners that we share with the people we love for a special occasion with lots of fancy food. But every now and again, a greasy dirty burger is what you need to really hit the spot. Some people eat for comfort when they are feeling down – other people like to cook to show how much they care for someone. Sex is kind of the same.
Sex can be special but it isn’t always and doesn’t always have to be a big deal. But also let’s not forget that sex can also be used for very negative means. Sex can be used as a way to control or abuse someone. However, uncomfortable or difficult conversations about rape, sexual assault and abuse are essential to be included in our work with young people if we are going to truly talk to them honestly about sex.
Regardless of whether you choose only to have sex as part of a committed relationship or if you decide to have a number of one night stands or casual partners there are always risks involved.
One is not better or safer than the other.
And whilst condoms are fabulous things and will stop you catching an STI or from getting pregnant when you don’t want to – however, if you are investing emotional interest in someone – then condoms do very little to protect your emotional health – you have to do that bit for yourself… and this is the bit that is often missing from merely risk focused RSE – the emotional side…
A great question to ask young people to consider (rhetorically – they don’t need to answer) is:
Do you enjoy the sex you have…?
Sex is only enjoyable if you are having sex because you choose to – not because you are feeling pressured, forced to or feel you should… perhaps the question should be do you enjoy the sex you choose to have…?
How someone choose to feel morally about sex is up to them – we do not have the right to judge them of make them feel bad because you see sex differently. Equally they do not get to enforce their beliefs on to others either. We all have the right to see sex how we see fit.
We need to make it clear to young people that Sex is not a competition, a way to score points or to win badges to show off to all your mates. If young people see sex as something they need to do to fit in, to look cool or to prove a point to anyone else – they are doing it wrong. Just because their mates have done something, doesn’t mean they have to…
One final point, many young people have the idea that ‘proper sex’ – penis in vagina sex is the Holy Grail – that is how you lose your virginity and is all that really matters, all the other stuff is just the warm up. This is a complete mistake. Unfortunately, this often comes from our focus as professionals talking about pregnancy and reproduction instead of ‘sex’… Not only does it disregard the notion of sex for same sex couples but also it does everyone a disservice.
It creates a whole lot of pressure for people to rush to ‘pop their cherries’ as young people say, but also people often then find sex a bit of a disappointment. There is much more to sex than putting the proverbial plug in the socket. There are lots of ways people have sex and lots of nice things you can explore by yourself or with a partner.
If we are going to talk to young people about sex – it needs to be more than merely reproduction. We need to include talk about masturbation, manual sex, oral sex and penetration – including anal sex, not to mention, talking, touching and everything else that goes along with it.
Plus read this around “What are your sexual Values” one of the most important conversations to have with young people…