Last week, Life in my Shoes, the ground-breaking campaign from HIV charity Body & Soul, launched its long-awaited film Undefeated online, and for free.
Undefeated charts a day in the life of Blessing, a fictional character onscreen, but one whose experiences throughout the film, from what’s said about her in fear and ignorance, right down to the abuse that’s hurled at her on the bus, are all real-life stories. The character of Blessing is a jigsaw, put together with pieces of life experience from young people living with and affected by HIV attending Body & Soul’s Teen Spirit youth group. That’s what makes Undefeated so heart-breaking, but also so effective.
The natural empathy that we feel towards Blessing and by extension towards those hundreds of young people who we as the audience are told have fed into the story, is exactly what Life in my Shoes is all about. The campaign, the films and the classroom education resource that also launched online last week all rely on appealing to our empathic natures, on asking us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who is like us, only different. It could be someone who is HIV positive, someone who is bullied, or someone who is ostracised from their own communities.
Empathy is in our nature. It just needs a little nurture. Life in my Shoes does just that.
What we’re so proud of with Life in my Shoes is that the film, the resource and their messages go far beyond HIV. Yes, HIV is the campaign’s vehicle to challenging stigmatising behaviours and yes, we are committed to challenging the ignorance and misinformation that complicates and so negatively impacts the public perception of HIV, but we know that our resources, films, lesson plans and speakers inspire far more than a thorough grounding of HIV basics.
In 2011 the Sex Education Forum carried out a survey which revealed 1 in 4 young people did not learn about HIV at school. When HIV is being taught, lessons tend to focus only on the science and transmission, but rarely does it extend to the social side of HIV, which we know is what young people want to know more about. As one young person recalls:
“We went into depth in an AS biology lesson but nothing has been mentioned about the stigma attached or any of the more important emotional side of it.”
There is an appetite for more information from young people and that’s where we hope Undefeated can play a part. The film is shot and produced in a way that we believe hits home; it provides a narrative that they can relate to, and that’s the key here; a resource which young people feel they can connect to in some way.
We have been overwhelmed with the positive feedback that we have received over the past few years about the film – from the thousands of young people who have seen it in their classrooms, conferences and cinemas, to the teachers, sex education professionals and clinicians who know the importance of speaking to young people in a language, tone and medium that they understand. As Life in my Shoes becomes a resource that can be delivered nationwide and beyond, we are excited to see how the messages are taken up and incorporated into the attitudes and behaviour of young people.
Emily Kerr-Muir, Campaign Director, Life in my Shoes
Body and Soul is a core member of the Sex Education Forum.
Let’s admit it, there is a national squeamishness about using the correct names for sexual parts of the body. At the doctors, many people would rather point to their genitals and say ‘I’ve got a problem down there’ than use the correct medical names. I wonder how common it is for adults to have never used the correct names for genitalia with their sexual partner? So I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked to discover recently, that the version of Anne Frank’s diary that I read as a teenager was actually censored to take out the bits where Anne writes about her experience of body changes and her genitals. Frankness about her body came naturally to Anne, and it comes naturally to small children until they are taught otherwise.
The need for a more honest and open culture about sex and relationships is clearly explained in the new government ‘Framework for Sexual Health Improvement in England’, but sadly this ambition is not mirrored in the latest version of the National Curriculum science. The proposed curriculum for lower primary school science requires that children learn to name the main parts of the body, and gives a suggested list of body parts which does not include genitalia. And yet the genitalia are possibly the only parts of the body that children cannot yet name by this age.
The British are not short of words to describe their ‘crown jewels’. Ironically there is an abundance of slang words for penis, testicles, vagina, vulva and breasts.
When I was teaching sex and relationships education for Brook in Birmingham I discovered what a vast selection of words for sexual body parts young teens have at their disposal. A favourite activity of mine was to ask pupils to work silently, walking round the classroom from table to table and writing down slang words that they have heard for ‘penis’, ‘vagina’ etc. One of the aims of the activity was to enable pupils to move beyond their embarrassment and to pre-empt the possibility of ribaldry spoiling the lesson. Without exception I found pupils handled this activity well and it led to more mature and giggle-free discussion. Pupils found it interesting to notice that many of the slang words for penis were weapons or in some way aggressive or powerful e.g. ‘sword’ and ‘snake’, whereas the slang words for vagina and vulva were often derogatory or at best passive e.g. ‘gash’.
Further study of the British (and international) slang vocabulary for sexual organs might be instructive. For example is a high volume of slang correlated with higher levels of embarrassment about genitalia… and less sex education?
I am not against slang words, and families shouldn’t feel they have to stop using words like ‘willy’ and ‘front-bottom’ at home. The problem is that failure to teach children to name the genitalia gives out a powerful message to children: a sense of shame about their bodies. And shame breeds silence and sometimes pain, as this parent explains in a comment on a Mumsnet discussion forum in March 2013.
“So we’re OK to teach children that they have knees, ears and toes but forbidden to teach them penis, testicles and labia? It’s just some other bits of their body isn’t it? And quite important bits they learn the proper names for in case of (god forbid) them ever having to explain that those bits hurt or have been touched inappropriately etc.”
Ofsted have made it very clear that the failure of schools to teach children correct names for sexual body parts is a safeguarding issue. The words for genitalia are building blocks for understanding the difference between boys and girls, learning about normal bodily functions and hygiene, puberty, and later, about sexual health. It is also vital for any learning about physical boundaries and privacy, about what kind of physical contact is acceptable and unacceptable. When schools teach this well it is done in a matter of fact and simple way, for example an outline drawing of the human body is labeled and a set list of vocabulary (shared with parents) is taught and ticked off. This is revisited in future years so that the list can be added and pupils’ questions answered. NSPCC have recently launched their very useful and practical ‘Underwear rule’ campaign, which explains how parents, carers and schools can all play their part in educating children about their bodies and boundaries.
In contrast, pornography doesn’t come with educational sub-titles, bits to label and a vocabulary list that can be shared with parents. If we fail to overcome our squeamishness, children may well first learn about penis and vagina by being confronted by easily accessed and highly sexualized images. The contrast with a line drawing of the human body is surely obvious.
It is our responsibility as adults to safeguard children, and I believe we will look back with deep regret if we lose this opportunity in 2013 for a new National Curriculum that can guarantee that all children learn correct names for genitalia in primary science.
Objections to the National Curriculum proposals are made clear in a letter published in The Daily Telegraph (19 July 2013) entitled ‘Naming of parts’. The letter warns that the current proposals “will perpetuate shame, and brings the risk of children not having the language to understand their bodies or to recognise and report sexual abuse”. Signatories to the letter include Hilary Eldridge, Chief Executive of child protection experts the Lucy Faithful Foundation and Reg Bailey, Chief Executive of the Mother’s Union who is also the Government appointed Independent Reviewer of the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood.
Public consultation on the final draft of the National Curriculum closes at 5pm on 8 August 2013. The Sex Education Forum has published their response.
Information about how to send your response is available from the Department for Education.
Lucy Emmerson, 6 August 2013
Once upon a time I was a geography teacher. That was before I found out how many of my secondary pupils were getting pregnant. So I ended up running one of the most comprehensive sex education programmes in London. Can you imagine – it was timetabled every week for every class in the girls’ secondary modern school – soon to become a comprehensive – where I was working in the early sixties. And there were five of us in the sex education department. That’s probably what’s meant by the good old days!
Things moved on. There were two years as teacher in charge of a home for pregnant schoolgirls, then advisory work in the health education teachers‘ centre in London. This was where I started getting involved with special schools. Eventually it was young people with learning disabilities who became my specialism, my delight and my abiding passion for the next 25 years. It was my great fortune to take part in the development of Image in Action and its challenging work with young people and adults with learning disabilities until I finally retired last year, to return to my first interest by running an environmental group in the west country.
I have no doubt that learning about sex and sexual development is a powerful way of helping people with learning disabilities to understand themselves and the world around them, to become more mature and to enjoy their relationships with others. It’s one of the areas in which there has been real progress, and one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever been involved with.
As a member of the advisory group in the early years of the Sex Education Forum I couldn’t help but get involved with education – and sexual – politics, another interest that has remained with me. And I know from experience what a difference the SEF has made. We’re still waiting for SRE to be a properly acknowledged and properly taught part of every child’s entitlement. But it will happen – and the Forum will be able to claim more than a little of the credit.
Lorna Scott MA, Life Member of the Sex Education Forum
A few months ago I deposited my Biology Method Course Notes in the archive at King’s College, London. I trained as a teacher there in the era of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and Nuffield Science, and my tutor was Dorothy Dallas (or D.D. as she always signed off). As author of Sex Education in School & Society as well as innovative resources for young people such as Who’s Normal?, Pregnant at 11, and Very Dangerous Diseases, she made sure that the newly-minted biology teacher (me) was well equipped to teach sex education, which I did, and still do.
But when I look back I realise she helped me learn something even more valuable, how a grasp of scientific concepts is essential for making sense of the world. A sound understanding of reproductive biology must underpin good sex and relationships education, and the basic concepts must be acquired early in the child’s education. If you understand that humans are part of an evolutionary sequence beginning with simple, aquatic organisms and that when sex evolved it gave organisms more chances of surviving turbulent environments, you see that human genitalia, copulation, pregnancy and child care are all highly effective adaptations. This also has the beneficial effect of showing that humans are part of nature and not above it, and subject to what D.D. called ‘Nature’s Gigantic Plot’. Sir David, our No 1 National Treasure, knows all about this: I’m sure he’d like everyone to get it too.
So I am genuinely perplexed by the Government’s new draft national curriculum science, especially for primary children: it will include the only facts about the human reproductive cycle that all children (that is, all children except those in academies, free schools and independent schools) will have to learn. And yet the narrative is patchy and incomplete: no naming of genitalia, penis, vulva and vagina; no details about puberty as preparation for a key human life-cycle change; shifting to the older age group ideas about reproduction as a life process common to humans and other animals; no mention of micro-organisms and how their transmission can cause disease, essential for answering questions about HIV & AIDS. And yet ‘They should be encouraged to be curious and ask questions about what they notice’ – like the differences between girls and boys, for example?
Does the 21st century child need to be scientifically literate? I think so! Way back then I was teaching sex education based on these concepts – it wasn’t quite the 50s but shouldn’t we be moving forward by now? I hope everyone will get behind our campaign for open, honest sex education for all.
Back to D.D. – whilst biological concepts run through me like Margate through rock, it wasn’t the only thing I learned through her. There’s group work, learning through doing, trigger films, visual perception, and EPR (Education for Personal Relationships)…but that’s another story……
Chair, Sex Education Forum
As I sat eating boiled eggs with my 6 year old daughter yesterday, she told me about the chicks at school which had hatched the day before. In the playground her friend had told her that girl chickens make eggs that hatch into chicks and male chickens made the eggs that we eat for breakfast. ‘Hmm’ I said ‘not sure it’s quite like that’. We then proceeded to have a conversation about fertilization and the unique roles males and females have in reproduction. As she contemplated the conversation and munched on her soldiers she sighed and said ‘that’s amazing’. ‘Yes’, I thought ‘it really is amazing’.
So why is it that for some talking about something so amazing can be so scary? Admittedly for me the conversation felt natural, but then again after 15 years of working in sex and relationships education (SRE) one would expect a certain level of confidence- which makes me think that confidence really is the key. Over the last 25 years the primary role of the Sex Education Forum (SEF) has been about building confidence. Whether it is the confidence of teachers to deliver SRE, or schools to review SRE, for policy makers to advocate for better SRE, young people to campaign for SRE, or for parents to talk to their children, we can not underestimate the importance of organisations like SEF in showing the world that SRE is NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF!
As part of their quest to build the confidence of practitioners, SEF have published a range of resources, many of which I have had the fortune of being involved with. One resource ‘Laying the Foundations: A practical guide to SRE in primary schools’ published today, has been particularly close to my heart. Having my own young children I have realised the importance of SRE starting early and for competent and confident teachers to deal with this topic in a sensitive way. Building the confidence of primary schools to plan and deliver quality SRE which children need and deserve is really important, and this new resource is designed to do just that. As for parents, every one I have ever spoken to has agreed that when their children start asking about the birds and the bees over breakfast it would be reassuring to know that their school would help with answering these questions. Now if every school could, wouldn’t THAT be amazing!
I’m of the generation where sex education was most notable for its absence. My mother merely told me ‘not to be taken advantage of’ and I seem to remember being very close to the point of no return when I realised what she meant. I had given up biology at age 13 and it wasn’t until my final year in secondary school (how ‘too little, too late’ is that!) that I had my one and only sex education lesson. A science teacher who was married and had recently left to have a baby (all presumably judged essential qualifications to talk about sex in those days) was brought back into school especially for this.
As a young woman, the impact of what was then called ‘women’s liberation’ and of books like ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ (I still have my original copy) was enormous and life-changing. So I guess it wasn’t really such a huge step when I moved from teaching to health promotion and was invited by my enlightened (and brave) then boss Margaret Jones to take on, together with Hilary Dixon, the re-writing for the British market of a groundbreaking book written by an Australian collective of feminists. The book was called ‘Taught not Caught: Strategies for Sex Education’.
That was in 1984, around the time that Victoria Gillick was challenging in law the right of under-16s to contraceptive advice without parental knowledge or consent. My passion for young people’s entitlement to the best possible education, information, advice and support around relationships and sexuality was well and truly born.
Many, many years (and a whole range of different jobs) later, in 2006-07 I was seconded for 12 months to cover Anna Martinez’ position as Sex Education Forum Coordinator. By then, the key political drive was for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) to become statutory, and for sex and relationships education (SRE) to sit firmly within PSHE. SEF’s ‘Beyond biology’ campaign was a logical step towards this. For a long time, young people had been telling anyone who would listen that the biology of reproduction was not enough – they wanted to learn about relationships as well as sex, and they needed SRE at the right time and as part of a whole programme of PSHE.
The most memorable event for me in that busy and challenging year at SEF was when the UK Youth Parliament finally published their survey of over 21,000 young people’s views on SRE. They launched their report ‘SRE: Are you Getting it?’ with its eight recommendations in June 2007 at the House of Lords, with full cross-party support. For me, that represented SEF at its best – underpinning with strong and consistent support, while young people held the floor and gave their all to driving forward desperately needed reforms.
I retired recently, but most weeks I see or hear something in the media about sex and young people. The need to support young people to stay sexually healthy and safe will probably always be there, albeit in different guises as time and technology move on. Will SEF stay the course? Let’s hope so!
Sex Education Forum Coordinator, 2006-07
Teaching in a girls’ secondary school in Hackney in the mid-1970s triggered my professional interest in sex education. Many of my pupils were sexually active (and very verbal about their experiences), whilst knowing little. As a result, a significant number had unplanned pregnancies. As a Social Studies teacher (I guess the forerunner of PSHE), I had the task of providing some sex education and it was these lessons where the girls queued up at the door to get into the classroom.
We watched videos, discussed issues and I tried to answer questions honestly, though this was often a challenge, since I had led a much more sheltered life than most of them had. I remember one lesson where a particularly precocious girl put up her hand at the back of the class and said ‘Miss, I’ve been reading this book and it’s got lots of long words I don’t know in it. I’ve written them down. Can you explain what they mean?’
I don’t know to this day whether it was a genuine request or a wind-up, but I had to find an immediate appropriate response. I asked her for the list of words and promised that, by the following week I would have the answer to her question. Using a combination of a dictionary and a husband more knowledgeable than me, I found the answers, and shared them with the class the following week.
The response of the pupils convinced me that good information, given simply without embarrassment, and the opportunity for young people to ask questions in a safe environment is the key to good sex education.