This term, we were delighted to lead on an important new joint initiative with our local boys’ school, UCS. We had over 200 Year 9 boys and girls together in one room talking about sex!
Well, more importantly and more accurately, they were talking about consent as it relates to sexual encounters. As one might expect, there was a lot of excitement as everyone came into the room, along with lots of nervous energy, and some embarrassed giggling from young people looking for a way to ease the awkwardness some of them felt. But it was an enormous success and a productive collaboration we look forward to developing.
When the Everyone’s Invited movement rolled through secondary schools, it was clear that more talking was needed. Many young women were outraged by what they felt was a culture of mis-treatment, either in the casual and flippant disrespect of cat-calling and objectifying language or the more active harassment and abuse some were experiencing. Many young men were bewildered to hear such sweeping generalisations lobbed at them, as if they were imbued with some sort of original sin by nature of being a teenage boy; some felt confused about what is and isn’t okay when exploring their developing sexuality and their feelings about and towards young women.
The single, simple benefit of this joint event with our neighbouring boys’ school was the fact that all the teenagers in the room were hearing exactly the same message.
The presenter could not have been clearer about what consent means, how it is given and when it cannot possibly be given. She was emphatic about it being required for everything, every time and by everyone involved. Her presentation was impressively non-gendered. None of her scenarios were clearly ‘a boy in this role’ and ‘a girl in that role’. All the scenarios were focused on two humans, respecting each other, being interested in each other’s wishes and wanting to do only what makes the other person happy.
Indeed, she rightly challenged the gender assumptions that pupils made when offering their contributions – they regularly jumped to the conclusion that the pursuer in the relationship must be the boy and the pursued must be the girl. This is a dangerous assumption and contributes to the culture we are trying to overcome. If boys think that it’s their job to be the pursuer and if girls think it is their job to wait to be pursued, the unhealthy imbalance of power in their young relationships will be perpetuated. Both boys and girls need to feel equally entitled and empowered to express their wishes, to make the first move or to say ‘no thank you’ if someone moves in their direction. And both boys and girls need to have their eyes firmly on the need to check in with the other person about what is and isn’t going to make them happy, if or when things get intimate. Everyone needs a voice and everyone needs to actively seek the wishes of the other. This is the essence of a healthy relationship, at any age and for any gender.
We have substantially increased the time we give to our pastoral programme at South Hampstead, and this includes our Relationships and Sex Education. In these lessons, whether they are delivered by external speakers or by our own specially trained staff, pupils are often keen to hear precisely what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘right’ for their age and stage. We always answer with the same response: subject to the law around 16 being the age of consent, what is ‘right’ is what you feel ready for, and what you actively want. There is no one answer that applies to everyone, either around ‘right’ or ‘normal’. We do let them know that, by the age of 16, most young people have not had sex (contrary to the urban myths that might be spread.) We want to remove any pressure they might feel, or any sense that they are falling behind their peers.
In another recent pastoral session with our Year 8s, I was encouraged to note that many South Hampstead pupils feel that their school is a good source of knowledge about such things. It was wonderful to hear we are seen as a far better source of initial information than Google! We always aim to teach in an age-appropriate way, mindful of ensuring that all our pupils feel empowered in their choice within the range of teenage sexual experiences.
Sex involves vulnerability and therefore, by definition, is never going to be talked about as openly and casually as other aspects of our lives. But this generation of young people is on such a different footing to mine. Whilst I lament the constant sexualisation of young people and the media they consume, I do think that the type of candid and up-front discussions around relationships and sex that have been a part of the South Hampstead curriculum for years – and which are now a standard part of the UK curriculum – represent a huge leap forward. When I consider the level of ‘education’ I had on the topic in my teenage years, it pales in comparison with the comprehensive and plain-speaking information and opportunities for discussion that our pupils are having now.
When I see how well our Year 9s have engaged with all of our lessons on healthy relationships and consent, and how articulately they speak about it, I feel a great sense of optimism.
I am hopeful that they will be able to navigate their early relationships with more knowledge, more confidence and more respect for the principles of treating each other well, and expecting the same in return.
Blog post written by Ms Brass, Senior Deputy Head, who heads up the pastoral programme at South Hampstead.