Challenging Language:

“Are the words we use important when discussing sex and relationship…?” 

This is a question I keep returning back to when I am delivering training with professionals…

When it comes to sex – unfortunately much of the language we use, is steeped in moral judgement and insults. Think about the majority of the swear words we have… the majority are sexual in their nature – either depicting sexual body parts or sexual acts… isn’t it interesting that sex is always used as an insult…?

The words we choose to use to talk about sex are important – and when it comes to sexual acts there seems to be a world full of difference – for example there seems to be a gulf between making love and f*cking.

The fact is sex can mean different things to different people. Sex can be romantic, loving, passionate and equal or it can be dark, dirty and dangerous. It can be about sharing or it can be about control. As a result the language we choose to use is important; it can carry great weight and judgement if we are not careful.

It is essential not to accidentally stigmatise our audience with a casual throw away comment or to assume that our audience will all share the same views and values… Whilst this may seem like a minefield it is actually a massive opportunity.

One of the beauties of delivering SRE is that it isn’t maths (no offence to maths teachers…)! What i mean is – there isn’t often a right or wrong answer… Even if we all sit down and show our working and remember to carry the two – we still are unlikely to all come to the same answer.  SRE is all about people’s person attitudes, beliefs and values – and people have the right to make up their own mind about how they feel.  This offers great freedom and opportunity to explore topics – to play devils advocate, to ask what if, and allow the opportunity for young people to examine their attitudes and challenge what they think they believe. Is it what they really think or is it what they have been told. Is it a fact or merely a social construct?

However, with opportunity there also comes responsibility… we must be mindful that we remain non-judgemental and be careful that we don’t casually enforce our own views. Equally, it is important that we don’t fall into the trap of stigmatising some of the class, as we brazenly make sweeping statements that all people are like this – or that.

One of the major issues of how we talk about sex is the prevailing attitude that sex is something that men do to women. This is a very backward and outdated notion of sex – not only that it excludes all of those people who happen to be same sex couples (although even here we have the ridiculous belief that one partner must be the man in the relationship), but also it creates very specific gender roles and power dynamics that seem to be behind many of the issues I spend the majority of my time unpicking…

Unfortunately, many people are oblivious to the connotations of what they are actually saying. We laugh and joke unaware that many of the punch-lines to their anecdotes are either abusive in their nature or designed to reinforce this negative gender stereotype of ‘Lads, lads, lads’ and slut shaming women… How many time have we heard the excuse “it is only banter…” But is it…?

If you want to insult a girl – you talk about her looks, her weight or you call her a slag… When it comes to boys, you talk about his inadequacies in bed, the size of his penis (WE EVEN CALL IT A MAN-HOOD!!), call him a girl or gay…

It is essential that as a teacher we can not only challenge these restrictions – but also that we don’t fall into the traps of assuming that all young men and all young women fit neatly into these boxes.

I have lost count of the amount of times that I have received phone calls from schools asking for me to deliver signal sexed assemblies that have a different tone to them – for example – a common one is the topic of Sexting.

“we have a real problem with our year nines in regard to sexting – can you deliver two assemblies – one to the boys telling them to stop pestering the girls… and then one to the girls to explain that nice girls don’t do that kind of thing…”

For a proper discussion of this click here…

Please can we get away for the stereotypes that only serve as a self-fulfilling prophesy that feeds the notions that lads only want sex, watch porn and masturbate, and are incapable of being  emotionally intelligent, are into sport and cars and drinking… whilst girls, are separated into nice girls and sluts – those who are pretty and pink, can’t drive and only have sex to please their boyfriends, and those that want attention and dress like that are asking for it and that you can use and then get rid of….

Here are two great films that unpick language – The first one is about the words we use in everyday language that restrict young girls…

Always – throw like a girl. In this film – it talks about the damage this type of language does to our young women – however, it is just as damaging and limiting to our young men.


When you use the phrase – ‘you throw like a girl’ you are using the idea of being a woman as an insult – ‘stop crying, stop being a girl’ – even when you are at your weakest and most vulnerable – you should not be a girl because you are better than that… is there any wonder that so many men still hold such awful attitude when it comes to women – when this is the message we are giving them…

Furthermore, is it any wonder that young men – who are told from early on to ‘man-up’ as a result often have limited emotion literacy – an obvious explanation for the high levels of stress, anger and mental health difficulties that plague men – not to mention that suicide is still the number one cause of death for young men!

Dear Daddy –  now this film is a tough watch (especially for dad of little girls), and warning it includes a particularly offensive swear (although in context and I have never received a complaint from professionals or parents for using it), and also mentions rape, so please be aware of how this may effect your audience… however, it is a very powerful film that unpicks the use of language and the little behaviours we allow to slide and what message this gives. As the young woman speaking says, “one thing always leads to another”, and some people simply don’t get the joke and think it is real.


I highly recommend this clip and use it as often as I can.

Finally there are many sexual acts that we all laugh about or try to freak out and impress our mates with – but in practice they would not only be degrading but often violent, abusive or even class as sexual assaults or rape –  which are hardly funny…

Whether it is a ‘Houdini’, ‘Monkey face’, Yeti, or an Angry Pirate – if you would like to know what any of these mean then please feel free to check out the respect yourself sextinary…

We get asked by many young people what these sexual acts mean and have many sent in to our Sextionary – however the reason we put these in is NOT because we condone them or think they are funny – we put them in to give you a safe place to ask and talk about these things. It is a sex positive website for young people, aimed specifically to talk about any of the things that are on young people minds… The approach the website takes is the same as i would recommend to you in your classes…. non-judgemental and open minded as possible – however we will also challenge things that are down-right wrong and need to change.  Indeed, attitudes that think joking about sex, women and abuse is funny is simply not ok.

As a teacher, you have a duty to challenge young people’s language and unpick the attunes behind them. This does have a very serious edge to it – however, it is also a massive opportunity and can be really good fun… click here for a discussion on bucket fannys!

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