RSE and Young Men

Sometimes it can be difficult for practitioners to engage with young men around relationships and sex/sexuality education. This article considers why that might be and also gives you some top tips.

Many young men will approach RSE warily at the beginning, because you are asking them to consider aspects of masculinity that they are usually strongly encouraged not to consider in public. As you can see from these accompanying images which I made for #InternationalMensDay for BISH.

Also their previous experience of RSE may have been very off-putting. Very risk focused RSE can paint young men as dangerous and careless. Also if young men haven’t had the opportunity to talk about things such as #MeToo or the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ then their barriers may already be up.

As you can see in the images above (and in this article I wrote for BISH) the learned rules of masculinity form as a protective layer of dough around the fragile jam (feelings) which must never never spill. In order for us to be doing effective work with young men around relationships and sex education we need to be able to work with their jam as well as their dough.

So we need to understand that the kinds of ethics and values that we want people to think about in RSE are often antithetical to what men are ‘supposed’ to be like. Things like; being caring, kind, careful, responsible, thoughtful, and consensual are often not encouraged in young masculinities. The jam must remain inside the doughnut (at first).

So here are a few quick tips to help. I initially posted these last year in the RSE for Schools Facebook group which I run with Alice Hoyle for teachers of RSE.

Group Agreement / Ground Rules

Always do the ground rules or group agreement. This helps with being able to immediately challenge anything that young men might say that is offensive/oppressive to others. Or even if they are just being too much dough. You can then choose a time to pick up on this after class, or specifically elsewhere in the curriculum.

In the group agreement try to make it clear that you aren’t going to put anyone on the spot. That you will try to treat everyone consensually and that you will encourage people to get involved but not force them to. In short, you try to model the kinds of behaviours that we are talking about in RSE.

Don’t put people on the spot

The use of distanced learning can help young men learn without being put on the spot and without having to interact with the facilitator. This means that young men can learn without having to admit that they have learnt anything (because obviously men know all there is to know about sex!).

Throughout DO… many of the activities allow young people to self-facilitate in groups where they know each other. Also by not asking personal questions and making it clear you aren’t going to put anyone on the spot then it makes all students feel safer. It also means jam remains safely inside the dough until they feel safe enough to talk about it.

Because of the way that many young men are socialised, from an early age, they are supposed to be interested in sex and thus are supposed to know everything about it. So it can often be difficult for them to accept that there may be stuff for them to learn. So try different learning methods that allow them to learn without admitting they are learning.

Gender includes masculinities

Make sure that your programmes are inclusive from the get go and are inclusive of sexualities, disabilities, races and genders. This also means that young men should also be given the opportunity to think critically about what masculinity might mean for them.

We all have a relationship to gender and that’s true of masculinity just as it is with the many other genders out there. Check out Gender Stories podcast and How to Understand Your Gender are both superb on this.

Many of these tips are about working with young men’s understanding of masculinity where it is, but in doing this we also need to make sure that there is plenty of scope for everyone in the class explore the rules of masculinity and femininity. Check out lesson 2 of DO… if you would like an idea of how to do that.

Remember (as lesson 2 of DO… points out) there is not one single form of masculinity to which everyone adheres to. The masculinities of a young white atheist trans man in a London school are likely to be very different from a BME Muslim young man in a Derby school. However, what these two young men have in common are that the rules of how you are supposed to be a man are pretty similar and it’s the rigid nature of these rules and how they are enforced by toxic masculinity that is the problem.

Talking about these potential cross-overs of identities can be an extremely useful way of opening up the topic of being a man in general.

So don’t be afraid of asking young men to reflect on their own relationship to masculinity. On where it gives them power but also how they might be individually trapped by the rules of being a man.

Engagement

If you’re finding it difficult to engage with young men at first, be aware of the messages which contradict what it is that men are supposed to be interested in. For example, if the messages of your programme are about risks of sex rather than pleasure then they may just not engage.

Men are often given the impression that their role in sex is to be very mechanical and to just do it. They pre-occupied with performance and size (this comes from porn, film, magazines, most sex advice and sex education). If the conditions are right, young men like talking about feelings too relationships, feelings, sensuality and pleasure too.

A simple semantic one, but I’ve found that putting people in teams, rather than small groups can work well. Also use lots of different learning methods. Keep it challenging and moving along and try to avoid didactic ‘standing at the front’ teaching. This is good for people of all genders I think.

Read more about different learning materials

The fact that men don’t like seeking help can be an overused stereotype but it can certainly be the case that they’d rather give it than receive it. Using this to your advantage in RSE can be done through asking young men to go to a sexual health service to check out how young men friendly it is rather than go there for help. You could also frame the real life scenarios lesson in DO… (lesson 6) in this way. How would you help another person

Try to put a framing on topics like consent and abusive relationships which acknowledges where young men have power and thus a *responsibility* to be good on this stuff. If young men accept that being active is an essential part of masculinity (which it maybe shouldn’t be and certainly those things are not just for men) then being good at opening up consent conversations, making sure sex is safer, and healthy relationships chat can be part of that framing too.

Check out my relationships and sex education resources. None of them are just for young men, but I’ve had a lot of experience delivering them with young men since 1999. They are all also inclusive and have activities around gender, power, and consent. Also remember to check out DO… RSE for Schools for some free resources.

©  Justin Hancock, 2019