The state of RSE in the UK

The state of RSE in the UK is not as good as it could be. Where did it go wrong, and what can we do to make it right? This article is a version of a talk I gave at a conference. It was run by St Dunstan’s School called Porn, Sex and Educating For The Difference.

My Career in Sex Ed

There are material reasons for what has held RSE back in the last few years. I’ll address this part as autoethnography. That is I’ll tell the story of my career as a relationships and sexuality educator. 

My way into relationships and sexuality education was via youth work. This was in 1998 / 1999. My local council provided ‘in work’ training to complete the JNC national qualification in part time youth work. As part of this I was doing work with young men around ‘tackling macho values’. This is what we called toxic masculinity back then. Working with young men in one to ones and small group work in youth projects, hostels, colleges etc. 

My first job specifically in sexual health work was in 1999 when I took over a project trying to increase condom use among young men. This meant taking an old ice cream tub filled with condoms and rudimentary leaflets around with me and trying to engage young men and convince them of the benefits of ‘taking responsibility’. I had joined the small specialist youth work team. This was was an outreach project of the broader city council youth service. That youth service had 30 or so full and part time youth projects around the city. In addition to a one stop shop information centre for young people had just opened up in the city centre. 

Teenage Pregnancy Strategy

Then the teenage pregnancy strategy of the New Labour government started in 2000. Councils were given hundreds of thousands of pounds to commission sexual health outreach services, RSE, and support to teenage mums. As part of this my work expanded to deliver more outreach work across the youth service. I also set up small satellite services for young men to access a wide range of condoms and information about sex and relationships. I also had funding to deliver more RSE in schools and to promote these services in schools. 

After a couple of years the work grew. I had a colleague, and a few people helcomcompcoming us to run sessions. We even had a team of volunteer men who really wanted to do this work. The specialist youth work team had a number of projects who were supporting young people of all genders, runaways, street sex workers, young people with disabilities.

In addition to the training I received as part of my youth work course I was also receiving lots of in service training. I also attended additional training at the UK’s leading RSE training and resource centre. 

Outreach teams and local authorities

In 2002 I moved down to London to work for a leading sexual health charity. I worked in a couple of boroughs in London for this charity from 2002 to 2014 doing similar work to what I was doing up north. Outreach work, RSE sessions, specialist drop in sessions for young people to access condoms, ask questions, and engage in informal RSE sessions. 

This was part of a team of 15 – 20 other outreach workers. Working in boroughs with specialist teams of around 5 people, also delivering as part of the teenage pregnancy strategy and now the national chlamydia screening programme and the provision of young people’s sexual health services generally. We were able to offer a significant amount of support to secondary schools. Enhancing their own RSE. Helping them with policy. Supplementing it with outreach sessions on, for example, using condoms, contraceptive methods, how to access local services. 

This would have been a great time to fully introduce RSE to the curriculum. To have training for specialists and a set of quality standards in addition to the RSE guidelines. Resources for schools and a higher level of pay for PSHE co-ordinators. PSHE being part of the standard timetable and regular parents PSHE sessions with co-ordinated resources. 

Then this happened

Then after 2010 the cuts to local authorities meant that contracts for sexual health services were also being cut. In order to keep a project going I sacrificed half of my hours. A year or two later I was being asked to take a 19% pay cut. A year after that my charity were undercut for the contract that I was working on. An incredibly successful project. At this point I went fully freelance (I’d been a freelance trainer and consultant since 2003). 

Eventually all the work I mentioned above disappeared. The specialist youth work team where I got my first job in RSE, gone. The youth service in which that team was based, gone. The training course where I trained, gone (and the centre’s work dramatically scaled back). The outreach team I joined, pretty much gone. The clinics which they served, pretty much gone.

Some local authorities have managed to keep some of the work going, but not as comprehensively as before. Other local authority teams outsourced themselves to become social enterprises. They then offered their services to the schools they were working in for free, for a fee. The RSE policy and parliamentary advisory organisation lost its quango status as part of the coalition government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’. Charities started to lose funding and their status.

So a lot of people who had years and years of expertise left. Those that are left don’t have the resources to be able to offer the free comprehensive service for schools they could offer previously. So there has never been a worse time for RSE to become mandatory in my view. Colleagues who campaigned for it said that funding and resources would follow, but I’m afraid this has not happened.

Culture war is part of it but it’s not the main bit

Of course RSE is always part of ‘culture war’. I first experienced this in 2003 being on the front page of the Uxbridge Gazette with the headline ‘Sex Tips for 7 Year Olds’. I’ve experienced more of this since then of course, and so have some of my colleagues. There’s more of it at the moment than there has been in previous years. Particularly for those of us who are pro-trans rights.

It’s upsetting, and difficult to deal with, because much of the criticism we face is not really in good faith. Another difficulty is that because of funding cuts it’s hard for us RSE folk to maintain solidarity. It doesn’t directly lead to a loss of funding, but it does contribute to an environment that feels risky for funders. I’ve certainly had these conversations with the company that used to fund a lot of my work.

We still have the Sex Education Forum, who are now a small charity and do great work. I’d encourage you to join. I’m a member of the World Association for Sexual Health, but generally speaking we just have to keep our heads down.

Furthermore, the usual dialectic of culture war doesn’t apply to us. Culture war headlines in a paper is usually met by uproar from liberal, left, and centre, possibly also even corporations. This can lead to fundraising opportunities and a greater profile. But I’m afraid very few people stick up for relationships and sex education or educators. As Cindy Gallop was saying (in her talk at the event), sex remains in the shadows, the private, the not talked about. 

This is a shame, because young people want it, parents want it. Whenever there is a societal issue around things like #MeToo or #EveryonesInvited or conversations which shows like I May Destroy You or Normal People bring up, people say ‘well what we need is comprehensive RSE’.

Why don’t people stick up for RSE?

Well, many of us have experienced relationships and sex education and that experience was usually not good! Awkward teachers, unhelpful lectures, uncomfortable silences, traumatising videos, anxiety and shame. The content was often too basic to be helpful, being reduced down to key messages that turn out not to be true. Such as ‘if you have sex there’s a high risk of pregnancy’, ‘STDs are very infectious and nasty’, ‘your first time will hurt and that’s okay’. In more recent years we’ve had a few more: ‘yes means yes and no means no’, or ‘porn isn’t like real life sex’. More about this in a moment.

Our experience of actually existing RSE means it’s not something that many people want to advocate for. If we haven’t experienced good, then we don’t know what is possible. This also creates a vacuum into which the fantasy of the ogre of RSE can flourish. 

So this is where the discursive and the material meet, and it has produced an anxiety about what RSE is doing, and RSE doesn’t have enough clout or resources at a policy level to fight back, and we have very few (if any) vocal supporters. It also means that because we have lost a lot of expertise, and experience, then it means that RSE that is being delivered is still sometimes not really good enough. 

Bad Sex Ed

This is a resource for young people I made for my website BISH called Bad Sex Ed Bingo. It’s so that they can critically evaluate their RSE but also provides resources and ideas for how teachers might be able to do it better. 

Bad Sex Ed Bingo

A lot of the kinds of Bad Sex Ed out there is either just the Sex Ed we got which we uncritically pass on, or it relies on some ‘common sense’ or ‘received wisdom’ around these topics which are just unhelpful, or oversimplified, or in some cases counter-productive.

A good example of this is the ‘if you have sex you will get pregnant’ which is a message which we are still too keen to give to young people. Research has shown that young people will think ‘well, I’ve had sex a few times without protection and haven’t got pregnant, so I must be infertile (maybe I’ve had chlamydia or something) so I’ll just not bother using contraception.’ You can guess what happens next.

For some reason we think it’s okay to tell adults trying to get pregnant ‘if you have regular penis in vagina sex over the course of a year then there’s an 85% chance it will lead to a pregnancy’ but if they are under 18 we have to say ‘if you have sex you will get pregnant’. I’ve written an article on the importance of getting pregnancy risks right in RSE.

We don’t take RSE seriously enough

We just don’t take this subject seriously enough. I would also argue that porn and sexually explicit media is one of these topics which we oversimplify but also where policy is based on shaky evidence. Some of the more, let’s say, scholarly and robust evidence around porn paints a much more nuanced and helpful picture. I’ve written this article which has an overview of the evidence of whether porn harms young people.

Not all young people watch porn

For example, the assumption that young people will watch porn and they are harmed by it has become so common sense that to critique it sounds silly. But first of all, not all young people watch porn. In fact, most young people under 16, even 15/16 year olds, won’t be looking at or watching porn.

Where young people do see sexual images around 50% will be on the internet, which means that 50% of the images they see aren’t (or can’t be, in UK law) hardcore porn, ie people having sex. It seems that young people’s interest in actively looking for sexual imagery online roughly correlates with their interest in sex. And that makes sense when we understand that the average age of sexual debut is still just over 16. 

‘Effects’ are small and not necessarily causative

Studies looking at trying to find an effect of porn are difficult to do because of ethical issues, but also when they do the studies with adults they are in laboratory conditions, rather than at home as part of the rituals and sexual practices that the participants might usually take part in. Even when these studies find effects they aren’t causal, but correlations.

The kinds of effects being researched are ‘more interest in casual sex, or anal sex’ or other forms of ‘non-normative sex’ as if they are problems. They could also be more interested in porn because they are more interested in non normative sex.

Also the effects that they do find are very small, accounting for 1 – 2% on values or behaviour. This means that there’s very little evidence of the ‘it was porn that made someone do something’ argument, which even if it were evidenced would be problematic. 

Media isn’t viewed passively

Crucially, young people, just like non-young people, are critical and literate of what they are watching. Everyone brings themselves, their experiences, values, understandings, knowledges, discourses, to what they are watching. This is where RSE should come in. If someone has had really great RSE on topics such as self esteem, gender, sexuality, relationships, consent, the sex we see, the body, sex (including how to make sex safer, more consensual, and pleasurable), and fantasy, then they will be much better prepared for any sexual imagery they see. It’s not just about teaching young people about porn, and remember most under 16s won’t know what you’re talking about. 

How RSE is taught has put us off talking about it

The way that RSE is taught is also often pretty similar to how we were taught it. The awkward teacher at the front of the room, trying to get through a lesson plan (that they perhaps got given the night before), very little interaction, embarrassment, and awkward vibes. Because of the anxiety of ‘saying the wrong thing’ and a lack of training, time, and good quality resources, a teacher might be tempted just to repeat very narrow discourses (or stories) about what kinds of sex and relationships are okay and which are not.

Just repeating discourses, without giving young people resources, is not going to adequately equip students with the tools to work out how they relate to all of this, how they can explore their values, the kinds of skills they might need to acquire, how to manage their feelings, how to access accurate information. Also the feeling that they will take away with them is one similar to that which many of us took away from our own RSE. Fear, shame, worry, stigma, embarrassment. 

Here’s another article on why I prefer workshops to talks.

It’s not a popular opinion but my opinion is that Bad RSE is worse than no RSE.

So we do need resources and ideally we need a kinder press, and some allies.

Good news

But there is some good news in all this and it can be summed up in one sentence. Good RSE is much easier to deliver than bad RSE. 

But what is good, and what do young people, and adults, get out of good RSE?

When I teach RSE I usually only get one lesson. I just work with over 14s, often sixth formers. Some of the class may have had some sexual experience, others may want to soon, others might not be interested until they are in an intimate loving relationship, others might not be interested at all. There might be trans or queer kids in the same lesson as boys who say they are fans of ‘masculinity influencers’. They all like the lesson and often ask for me to come back. So what am I doing? What’s my secret?

It’s about the vibe

It’s all about the vibe. It’s just as much about the process as it is the content. I move the room around, put groups of tables together, I let people sit in their friend groups as they come in.

I set a group agreement or ‘do a vibe check’ at the beginning. You can read more about this in my article about making talking about sex and relationships easier.

Then once I’ve got them on task I pass around lots of pens, paper, playdough. I go round once to make sure that they know what they’re doing and say ‘just let me know if you have any questions’. 

That’s usually the most I will talk in a lesson. If the students have a specific question that I can answer then I might give a response. But often I might just open it up and say ‘oh I don’t know what do you think?’ or ‘yeah some might agree with you but others won’t’ or ‘is this a useful idea for you? What might be even more useful?’ or ‘how might you begin a conversation with someone about this?’ I just leave them to it as much as possible, because the more I get involved the less the students are talking. When I’ve seen other teachers get involved in group discussions like this I can see the students cringing up and wishing they hadn’t. 

What made your conversations easier?

At the end of these kinds of lessons I’ll bring everyone together at the end. I’ll say ‘okay, you’ve been talking about sex and relationships for 45 minutes, or an hour, that’s a long time! Remember at the beginning we were saying that it can be a bit awkward, but you’ve managed it. Tell me, what were you doing that made it easier?’

Here’s one I did recently with some teachers. 

As a ‘learning outcome’ knowing how, and experiencing, and embodying, what we need to make talking about sex and relationships easier is a pretty extraordinary. Imagine if we learnt that at school!

Make RSE as easy as possible to take part in

In terms of delivering other topics in RSE this is also really useful because it’s what the students and the teacher needs to make it easier. All of this is something you can do. All of it. When teachers are keen to ‘see me in action’ I’m always worried that they might be a bit underwhelmed. It doesn’t look like I’m doing much! But the key is that I’m not a sexpert, but an expert facilitator. And that’s all you have to be.

Ultimately it’s about being a good teacher. Pick a good resource, such as one of mine, or even this free DO… RSE one. Build the vibe with your students, pay attention to it, make them as comfortable as possible, make it as consensual as possible, use a good resource, and reflect on what worked and what else you can do next time. 

© 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.