How to make talking about sex and relationships easier – a workshop

I ran some workshops with young people in a school recently which was about how to make talking about sex and relationships easier. As you will see I used the Talking Sex Ed game which I launched earlier this year. I’ve written it up in a kind of autoethnographic article. There are bits and bobs of theory in this too.

Introductions

I began by introducing myself, using my first name (though making a joke about my surname) and the idea of the sessions and what we are aiming to achieve. Then I verbally talked through some of the expectations for the session. I might normally call a group agreement but in this case it was about setting the scene and the tone. It went something like: 

“Talking about sex, relationships, sexuality, and gender can be a bit awkward and tricky. We are going to discover how we can make this easier as part of our discussions but at the beginning it might feel a little bit awkward. If you find yourself feeling a bit awkward [at this point I gestured to my diaphragm as if this might be a spot where awkwardness might first be felt for me] it’s okay, just acknowledge it to yourself, or say it out loud. Take a long breath out, blink and refocus, and see what happens to the awkwardness after that. 

I’m not going to make anyone get involved, and you’ll see that the way the game is structured is to give people as much choice as possible about whether they get involved or not. It’s also okay, if you’re finding this a bit much, just to sit out of discussions and look at your phone for a bit. I’m not going to think any less of you or think that you are not taking part at all. All I will think is ‘this is someone who has accepted my offer of just sitting out for a bit and that’s totally fine.’ Please also don’t make each other get involved. 

I’ll be roaming around when you’re working in small groups. I’m not deliberately listening to your conversations and, as I’m deaf in one ear, I probably can’t hear you anyway. If you have any questions, or anything you want to chat with me about in small groups let me know. 

I can’t offer 100% confidentiality. If I think you’re at serious risk of harm I’ll need to speak to the head of year or the safeguarding lead for the school. I can also help you to speak to someone about this if that’s something you want. Also please be mindful of how much you want to share about your own life when you’re chatting in small or large groups. If you overshare something we can all agree to keep that in the group. 

We also need to talk about prejudice and discrimination, because there is a lot of potential for this when we talk about sex and relationships. For example, in your heads, bring to mind the kinds of words or phrases used to describe ‘men who enjoy sex’ [pause] now think of the phrases used to describe ‘women who enjoy sex’ [pause]. As you can probably see, one group receives status and another group receives stigma, and this is just one example of sexism.

Similar things also happen around race, for example there’s a lot of racism in porn. There’s also the possibility for homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and also classism, xenophobia, and disablism. Try and bring to mind words or phrases used to describe people with disabilities and sex [pause], you’ll probably find that there aren’t very many and those that exist are pretty negative. So as you can see, prejudice and discrimination can pop up when we talk about sex but also sex and relationships are also weaponised in doing prejudice and discrimination. We should try where possible not to add to that. 

However, I also want this to be a space where we can all learn about this stuff because it’s important. So if we can all agree that we don’t say anything deliberately harmful or offensive. And in turn we look on each other with kind eyes and assume that everyone’s contributions are in good faith. It’s my job to help facilitate this, so get me involved if there are any problems and I can help.

Does anyone have any questions about this? Or anything that they would need in order to feel like they could take part more?”

Introducing the game

All of this was received extremely quietly. I made note of this and said that this would probably be the most I would speak in the whole session. 

Then I asked everyone to get into small groups of between 4 and 6, saying that these group numbers seem to work best but if they are a bit below or above that’s fine. There were clusters of bunched up tables with chairs sitting around, spread out over a double classroom with the dividing doors closed. So lots of space in between different groups. 

I explained the Talking Sex Ed game as per the instructions in the resource and gave them some tips and options on how they might play it. Particularly the part about choosing their own cards and the importance of bringing more consent (choice and freedom) into how they might do that. I then distributed the 100 cards around the 5 or 6 groups which emerged, along with a tub of play-dough each and access to paper and pens. 

I said “now, you’re going to be playing this for about an hour or so (if you want to). I’m just going to float around and you can ask me questions if you like. It’s going to look like I’m not working, but I promise you I am!” This made people smile. 

The cards are designed as a jumping off point for conversations and for relationships and sexuality education generally. It’s a resource I designed specifically for this purpose as a way for me to get participants to participate in their RSE. They collect a range of discourses, dilemmas, and technologies of the self which are intended to deterritorialise RSE with a new line of flight towards a becoming RSE. What (else) can RSE do? 

Talking Sex Ed preview

‘Becoming’ RSE

As we will see, the game itself, how it’s played and how players are invited to work with the resource, also opens up the possibilities for learning how to facilitate and co-create. This deterritorialised way of working allows for a greater deal of indeterminacy. The cards might remain the same, but the language games are different each time because they come into contact with the mico-politics of the small groups that are working with them at that time. Any learning outcomes are not an over-determined, inter-active, process of sexuality educator – students, but are a becoming which stems from the intra-active and indeterminate flow of the assemblages of the session (and beyond). 

Quite quickly there was a hubbub of conversation around the rooms. Each of the participants were bringing their own understandings, perspectives, experiences, and discourses. They were facilitating the discussions themselves, sitting facing each other. These conversations consisted of an assemblage of (among many other things)

mobile phones — Andrew Tate — hormones — fragments of sexual knowledge — trans/queerness — football shirts — nail varnish — chairs — my absence-presence — commitments to marriage — spacious classroom — covid — presence-absence of teaching staff — school rules signs — play-dough — previous sexual experiences — unique cultures — concerns about pregnancy — music — the cards

My role was to provide an ‘absentpresentness’, where I was simultaneously giving and holding space in order that conversation could happen without me. Yet I was always making myself available by walking around the room, checking in non-verbally, looking for signs of discomfort, or stress, or boredom. I would switch the cards around and use that opportunity to ask verbal check-ins ‘how’s it going? / yeah it’s great’ or ‘what does this card mean?’ 

I could see that people were immediately making use of the play-dough, to make penises and vulvas (even without being invited to by the cards). There were other sculptures being made too, perhaps at the invitation of the cards ‘model what a healthy relationship / orgasm /safety  / trust might look or feel like’. I didn’t intervene but saw a lot of creativity on display.

Occasionally groups would call me over and ask for my advice. Sometimes I knew and gave long detailed answers. Other times I signposted to other resources or organisations. On other occasions I said I’d get back to them. Some groups wanted to chat with me about topics generally. ‘How many genders are there?’ was a question I was asked a few times from (people I read to be) young men. Sometimes these micro-political conversations with me allowed for a becoming other of masculinities for them, (and me).

Any interventions I was asked to give lasted no longer than 2 – 3 minutes. A lot of questions were met with more questions from me ‘what do you think?’ ‘maybe ‘what does _________ do?’ might be a more interesting question’. Asking good questions and walking away to allow them to make their own senses of questions of discourse. 

Making sense of the session

After 50 minutes to an hour of this I brought everyone together to face the whiteboard. “Okay I’m going to do some teaching now so it makes it look like I’m working. Remember I said that talking about sex and relationships can be awkward, well, you’ve been talking about it with each other about an hour or so. What I want to know is, what were you doing to make it easier to talk about sex and relationships?”

Here’s what they came up with

I summed this up for each group by saying: 

“what you’ve found in playing this game, and what I’ve just asked you to pay attention to, is all of the vital things we need in order to make conversations about sex and relationships easier. The most basic bit of advice that most sex educators tell you is that ‘everybody is different, so the key to successful sex and relationships is to communicate’. But they just stop there. What you’ve actually practised, and learnt today, is how to communicate. You’ve learnt this from other aspects of your life, your own experiences, your own understandings of what trust / openness / honesty feel like, and applied them here. Vibe isn’t just something that happens, it’s something that you create and, like you’ve done today, co-create. You make it with someone. So, if you are having a conversation about sex and relationships think about what kinds of things you can both do to create the vibe where the possibilities for the conversation are maximised. Think about the things you’ve come up with today: giving each other time, turn taking, music, rituals, privacy, choices, choosing own topics, the ability to be affirmative, listening and how we know we are being listened to, how we pay attention, making it interesting or lighthearted, learning knowledges together, having props and prompts, using a resource, how we increase comfort in our bodies, what we do without words etc”

What (else) does a becoming RSE do?

So in taking part in a becoming relationships and sexuality education the participants also learnt the kinds of things that need to be in place to allow for relationships and sexuality to become. This had an accumulative effect for the remainder of our time together, where participants, in the acknowledged space where things feel a bit easier to talk about. This resulted in greater enthusiasm for the subject and a greater confidence in taking ownership of the kinds of topics they would like to learn more about. I gave each group choices about what else they would like to explore in that space, which resulted in us learning about: 

  • safer sex practices (how to use condoms, how to make and use dams)
  • Fertility and pregnancy risks
  • What we can learn about consent from our greetings (in a pre and post covid world)
  • What thinking critically about relationship discourses might do to help us have better relationships
  • The harmful discourses about ‘first time sex’ and the lines of flight we can draw to have better first time experiences (whatever they may be)

Feedback

The students are very keen for me to come again (as are the school).

He created a very open and nonjudgmental environment which was good. Recommend for next year.

please use Justin again. His teaching style was engaging and the information was presented in a comfortable way.

the instructor used creative ways to help us learn about sex and relationships, let us have our own space and overall created a good environment to discuss these issues

I enjoyed Justins method of teaching us about sex and relationships. Though this technically wasnt a direct teaching session, the activites he put together made sure everyone contributed and was involved. He discussed the topic in a very comfortable and relaxed manner which is very important too.

I think Justin was a good choice! It was not an awkward session and he was very clear about boundaries between student’s and teachers. It was useful to learn about the “societal script” for sex and how it results in violence and discomfort. It was also good to learn about how to ensure healthy/open communication and how important it is in all types of relationships.

He really helped me. I have been struggling with a certain relationship dilema and i talked to him about it. He helped me get a more clear answer and was there for me as a guide. He made sure all the activities we did were enjoyable and consentual

I believe that it was incredibly helpful, interactive, and generally fun.


The Talking Sex Ed Game is available to buy here. It’s ridiculously cheap. You have to print and cut them yourself (it took me about an hour). There is also the option to use the resource on a tablet or laptop too (just zooming in and around one big image with all the cards).

If you want to book me to come and teach some sessions for your organisation (school, college, uni, youth club), find out more here. It’s quite costly for a lot of schools sadly (my rates have not increased in years, but budgets have decreased).

© Justin Hancock, 2022

Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people and adults in person and millions online at his website for young people BISH. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here and stay up to day by signing up for the newsletter.