It’s Simple, Sex and Relationships are Complex

RSE should allow young people to explore the complexities of sex and relationships and not simply just tell them what to think. Sex, sexuality, relationships, consent, gender are all complex topics and we shouldn’t over simplify them. However, that doesn’t meant that delivering RSE is hard. Good quality RSE is about focusing on getting the processes right. I have lots of resources for you to do that.

As part of the DO…RSE for Schools project, we asked young people about their RSE. We were struck by how little they were taught about the emotional aspects of sex and relationships. Where they were taught it was reduced to overly simple key messages.

Overly simple ‘key messages’

Students were given talks on consent, sexuality or self-esteem which amounted to a key ‘take home’ message. Messages such as: ‘just say no’, ‘it’s okay to be gay’, or ‘love yourself before you love someone else’. They dismissed such lessons as having no relevance to them. When you think about it, it’s not a surprise. 

Take a moment to think about this for yourself in private. Think about how you feel about yourself. What affects how you feel about yourself? Are there expectations placed on you around gender and sexuality? What did you learn growing up about relationships. Are some kinds of relationships more valuable to you than others? Why?

If it doesn’t work for you, why should it work for your students?

Think about all your relationships – how do you make them work? How do you meet the needs of other people in your life without neglecting your own? How easy is it for you to say ‘no’ to a partner, friend, colleague, family member? The students we are teaching are often going through much of the same stuff that we are dealing with. Why should it be any simpler for them than it is for us?

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If you’re already an RSE practitioner, you might want to come on my new Advanced RSE Training course.

Teaching Holistic RSE

Sex and relationships is also an extremely complicated topic because one aspect can’t be taught in isolation from another. For example we can’t teach ‘just say no’ without also addressing that this relates to how we feel about ourselves. That if we feel bad about ourselves compared to other people we may feel that we aren’t allowed to say no.

If there is a power difference in the relationship, where there is more at stake for us than the other person, we might feel we really can’t say no. If we have little decision making power over our bodies, we might not have experienced what saying no feels like. And that much of the wider societal messages we receive encourage us not to say no, particularly to someone who says they love us. 

A young person in our research summed this up perfectly “They just say ‘just say no’ but sometimes people don’t feel confident to do that.” They were saying to us that ‘emotional’ or ‘relationships’ side of SRE was best delivered when young people were asked to think about things themselves. Simply being told what to think in a lecture isn’t real or relevant for them

The use of facts

However the same is also true for the more factual elements of SRE. Information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), conception, contraception and the law can be taught much more simply. Information can be conveyed simply and effectively through powerpoint presentations, demonstrations and worksheets. So often the temptation is to stick to these topics – with clear learning outcomes and clear messages. But even here young people say that they learn too much about the ‘what’ and not enough about the ‘how’. 

“It separated it from people and just put it in scientific terms … ”

They might learn what STIs are, the different types, transmission routes, long term effects and treatments. However, they don’t learn as much about how to ask for help, or how to talk to a partner about risks, how to deal with the stigma surrounding STIs or how to negotiate safer sex. They might learn what the law is around sexting a sexual image. But how about how to deal with a partner pestering them for an image. Getting support if an image is shared without consent. How gender and power might result in status for some and stigma for others, or how to reduce the risks of sexting. 

The information is there but students aren’t given the opportunity to explore real life situations, how they can get help, how they can support others or how they can change culture of stigma. If students feel that they are simply being told what to think, or being scared off sex altogether, they will simply switch off. Young people may remember names of STIs, or the legal age for sexting, but how useful is this kind of sex education if they can’t put it into practice?

How Can We Change This?

When we were writing the DO… resources we wanted to address this challenge. RSE is a complicated topic but trying to simplify everything into something that would work for every young person won’t work and never has. 

This approach is also really hard to teach. How do we decide on the key message that will work for most students? How do we get to that point without excluding some people? The challenge of making all this engaging enough. How can we appear confident when we are teaching these key messages when we might be struggling with this stuff ourselves? Reducing SRE to simple messages implies that we find all this simple and have it all sorted and that students don’t. The Tea and Consent video is a perfect example of this. We wanted to get away from teachers feeling they have to be experts in sex and relationships, pretending to know all the answers. It makes teachers feel under confident and students can tell when a teacher doesn’t feel confident talking about SRE. 

How to do engaging RSE

So with DO … we shifted the focus from just imparting information and simple key messages to something more engaging and challenging. However as well as embracing the complexity of sex and relationships, we made it easier to teach. We created a set of lesson plans and supporting resources that don’t require specialist knowledge of sex and relationships but instead rely on the skills that teachers already have. These resources are about facilitating really engaging conversations rather than just talking and not listening.

We made it easier for teachers to make it easier for students to talk to each other about the issues that really matter. They are encouraged to reflect on their own values and the messages they have received about sex, gender, sexuality, themselves, consent, love and safer sex. In order to ask them to think, rather than telling them what to think, we wrote truly engaging lesson plans. All the activities are participatory: students getting involved in pairs or small groups whilst allowing them to get as involved as they want to.

You might also find my Bad Sex Ed Bingo resource useful over at BISH.

Making it about them not us

They get to explore these topics for themselves facilitated by creative and innovative learning methods: creating fictional characters to explore gender, using wordstorms to explore how they feel about themselves, practice handshakes to understand how consent feels, learning about love through diagrams and graphs, card sorts to figure out safer sex, asking some big questions about why people have sex or relationships. The course ends with a unique problem solving lesson. Where students to take part in independent learning exercise where they respond to several ‘problem page’ questions.

It’s a complex topic, but easier to deliver than you think

These activities allow for students to really understand how complex RSE can be. However the lesson plans are not complex. They are clearly laid out and structured so that each lesson builds on the next. Throughout there are detailed instructions on how to run the activities. As well as lots of great questions you can ask – if you really want to open the discussion up with students. There’s nothing quite like facilitating a really engaging lesson on RSE. It can be truly fascinating to hear the insights of young people. The key is to remember that your expertise here is not that of a sex education expert (sexpert). You’re a great teacher delivering really engaging, exciting and challenging lessons. So crack the lessons plans out, pin your ears back and start some really great conversations about sex and relationships.

For resources and support to make great RSE happen in your school download the resources, for free, from here.

© Justin Hancock, 2023

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.