The ‘good sex’ project: political problems and practical solutions

Ester McGeeneypost by Ester McGeeney
Youth researcher and practitioner

For over three decades researchers, activists and practitioners have argued that pleasure should be included in the delivery of sex education and sexual health services. As 23 year old volunteer and peer educator Victoria Telford states: ‘My sex education at school was just about preventing STIs and preventing pregnancy and that was it. You are taught about puberty, the biological side of sex and the rest you are left to figure out on your own and I think you make bad choices because of that.’

Over the past year I have been working on the ‘good sex’ project – a one year, ESRC funded knowledge exchange project that uses original research to develop evidence-based approaches to sex education and sexual health service delivery. The focus of the project is on pleasure; how to develop a sex-positive approach to service delivery and how to include discussion of pleasure in direct work with young people.

As part of the project I worked with the University of Sussex and the national sexual health organization Brook to interview a series of ‘experts’ in the field: young volunteers like Victoria who are involved in campaigning for better sex education for young people, researchers who have investigated young people’s sexual relationships and practitioners who have developed resources and delivered training programmes on sexual pleasure and enthusiastic consent.

Each of the interviewees passionately articulated the reasons why it is important to talk to young people about sexual pleasure, as well as highlighting the challenges of doing so in the current socio-political climate. Whilst each interviewee was convinced of the need to talk about pleasure in sex education and sexual health interventions, several were unsure of how to do so in practice. As former social worker and Director of the Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health Steve Slack remarked, ‘The hundred million dollar question is how do you do it?

In his interview Steve talked about having been on the receiving end of this kind of ‘backlash’ when the organization that he heads up produced a leaflet for practitioners on how to start conversations with young people about pleasure. Steve received death threats and the organization was accused in the local and tabloid media of encouraging ‘child abuse’ and promoting sexual ‘promiscuity’.

Retired secondary school teacher and school governor Martin Goffe also warned about ‘playing to the tabloids’ by ‘going into schools and talking about pleasure’. The important thing, Martin argued, is to ‘develop relationships’ with young people and include discussion of pleasure and enjoyment as part of a broader programme of sex and relationships education. He suggested having a Q and A session where young people write questions on bits of paper and drop them into a box, allowing the teacher to respond to a set of anonymous questions that, in Martin’s experience were invariably about pleasure.

The interviewees’ comments clearly signaled the risks for practitioners in talking about sex and pleasure in the absence of a supportive policy framework and the provision of adequate training. As youth worker, researcher and LGBT centre manager Ali Hanbury remarked, ‘We have to remember that people who are working in sexual health, working in education, working in health are still people who live in a world where it isn’t polite to talk about sex, where we haven’t got a language to talk about sex and our own bodies that is sayable in public. Sex is banished to the realm of porn, or of soaps with sensationalist story lines about sexual deviance.’ Practitioners need access, Ali argued, to forums where they can unpick these contradictory cultural messages and talk about sexual pleasure in a safe space and before they can create such opportunities for the young people that they work with.

What we need, several interviewees noted, is an education policy that recognizes young people’s right to enjoy their sexualities without harm and the right to access good quality sex education and sexual health services. PSHE needs to be compulsory. Teachers need training. Youth services need funding. We need to keep on campaigning and, as former Director of Brook Margaret Jones reminded us, ‘it needs to be a young person’s voice’ at the heart of our future campaigns’.

In the absence of the this supportive policy framework there are however steps we can collectively take to develop our own practice, support colleagues and enable young people to develop their own campaigns and train to be social activists. There are some great free training and education resources out there (try the Trainers’ Guide To the Secrets of Mixing Pleasure with Prevention, the fantastic youtube clip by Betty Dodson on the internal clitoris or the films we developed at the good sex project). There are great books and blogs you can read and colleagues that you could ask to shadow (contact me for volunteers!). Doing this work requires confronting our fears, asking for support, trying out new ideas and remembering that although it may feel awkward, it is part of our job as youth workers and educators to talk to young people about sex and pleasure. As clinician and GUM/HIV consultant Rachael Jones commented, ‘If you have a young person before you who is having sex, its part of my job to make sure that they are having safe sex and that also means that they are having good sex…. Of course that’s part of my job. It’s not just about “I’m going to test you for Chlamydia, goodbye!”

For more information about the good sex project please visit the blog or contact Ester McGeeney