What was your experience of learning about sex and healthy relationships as a young person?
A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I were reminiscing about our experiences of sex and healthy relationships education growing up. Personally, my own school education was really lacking in any guidance about healthy relationships and sexual consent, instead focusing more on the biological side of puberty, with boys and girls always learning separately. Thankfully however, my parents and I have always been able to speak openly about anything affecting me, and I always felt supported by them when navigating issues around friendships, self-esteem and growing up in general.
In a fantastic step in the UK’s curriculum, potentially commencing from 2019, pupils are to be taught mandatory relationships and sex education, offering age-appropriate education around building healthy relationships – this is a fantastic step.
Friends have told me how inspirational they found their own school education, and are thankful to the teachers, parents and other figures of authority in their lives who guided them, recognising the impact their education has had on their outlook now as young adults.
Healthy relationships, sexual consent and abusive relationships are issues which young people often come face to face with from an early age, at school, with friends, and at college or university, yet they often go unspoken about due to a lack of school education, lack of understanding, and consequent stigma.
The impact of a good education – at school and at home – can have a huge positive impact on the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people, and help them to become more confident, informed adults.
The reality is that each year in England and Wales, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped, and nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted (ONS 2013). Approximately 90% of those raped knew the perpetrator prior to the offence.
Relationships and sex education is particularly significant in a time when the social landscape is changing due to digital technology. Young people are communicating via social media, offering up new ways for relationships to form and develop, and in addition for potential abuse to be perpetrated. Young people are spending hours online each day, and many are navigating issues like sexual harassment, image based sexual abuse (AKA revenge porn), sexting and cyber bullying. These can have a real impact on young people’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Here are some of the things children and young people could benefit from hearing when speaking to them about healthy relationships:
- “You are in control of your own body.” Reinforce the fact that they are in control of their own bodies. This could be by not forcing them into hugging or shaking hands with friends or family members when they do not want to. This will help them to understand that their body is their own, and equally that they do not have the right to touch other people’s bodies.
- “Real friends respect your boundaries.” Talk to them about what real friendship, affection and respect look like. Be clear that they should never feel pressured into doing anything they do not want to do, or do not feel comfortable doing – even if the person pressuring them is their girlfriend/boyfriend. Equally, teach them that they should never pressure anyone else. You can begin to speak to them about this at a young age by using examples from their own life, such as TV programmes or books you read to them.
- “Consent is an active ‘yes’.” Teach them the meaning of ‘yes means yes’. Be clear that consent means an active yes, not the lack of a ‘no’. It’s important they learn about being a respectful friend, and when they are older, a respectful girlfriend/boyfriend. Teach them to listen and act when someone says ‘stop’ or ‘no’.
- “Respect means listening to you when you say ‘No’ or ‘Stop’” Do not make excuses for bad behaviour. Do not perpetuate myths such as “Boys will be boys” or “They did that because they like you.” Talk to them about what it really means to respect somebody.
- “If you see someone in need, speak out.” Speak to your children about how they can play an active role in helping others. If they see another child in distress, inform them that they can help by speaking to you or another adult.
- “Listen to others and respect their decisions too.” Encourage children to have empathy. Asking them to observe other people’s facial expressions and body language, and listen to their words, will help them to understand how other children might feel if they, or someone else, treat them with disrespect.
- “You deserve to be treated with respect.” At an older age, speak to your teens about self-esteem. Teach them what is means to value yourself; encourage them in building a sense of self-worth which surpasses any social pressures and expectations. Especially for young women, teen years can be crucial in their understanding of body image, relationships and confidence.
- “Let go of stereotypical ideas of gender.” Have a conversation with teen boys about issues around masculinity. Open up their eyes to recognise how ideas of masculinity may affect the way they think about themselves and their relationships. Ask them how they experience ‘masculinity’ as a concept and how they think we can ensure it is one which promotes embracing individuality, respect and integrity. Likewise, encourage young girls to not feel restricted by ideas of ‘femininity’ and all of the things which come attached to this.
- “I’m always here if you want to talk.” Keep an open and ongoing dialogue – even if you both feel embarrassed. It is important you let them know that they can speak to you any time, and do not need to feel embarrassed or ashamed when talking to you. This will help them to learn that verbalising their concerns or questions around healthy relationships and consent is okay and not something to keep quiet about.
- It is really important to listen to your child or a young person in your life, so that they feel truly involved in the dialogue and able to come to you with any questions.
What are your thoughts? What would you have liked to hear as a child or young person? Let us know!
For more information about some of the issues raised, you visit the following websites:
NSPCC | https://www.nspcc.org.uk
YoungMinds | https://youngminds.org.uk/
Support Line | http://www.supportline.org.uk/index.php
Family Lives | http://www.familylives.org.uk/
Bullying UK | http://www.bullying.co.uk/
Revenge Porn Helpline | https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/
MOSAC | http://www.mosac.org.uk/
The Mix http://www.themix.org.uk/
Let Toys Be Toys | http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/