Tender is an arts charity actively engaging with young people to prevent domestic and sexual
violence using highly interactive workshops.
What was the purpose of the lesson?
Brook teaches broad lessons on relationships and sex education (RSE), empowering young people to make healthy choices about their body and health. The purpose of Brook’s workshops is to educate secondary-school students on a spectrum of RSE topics as well as to equip them with knowledge on law, healthcare and their bodily rights. Brook is the UK’s leading sexual-health charity for under-25s
Brook starts every session with ground rules such as: No talking about personal experiences. This is how facilitators set the “Brook Space” – a safe place for discussion – while acknowledging that everybody has different levels of understanding and comfort.
A common opener is to ask the group: “What is sex?” – a question that is often answered with a heteronormative statement around male/female penetration. Workshop facilitators help students to understand that while that is correct, sex can take many other forms and be defined in other ways. Acknowledging this early on sets the right tone for discussions and emphasises inclusivity.
The Values Continuum, a favourite activity, gives a flavour of Brook’s discussion-based approach – and it features in the Introduction to Safer Sex session. One side of the classroom is marked “Agree” and the other “Disagree”. When statements about relationships are read out, students place themselves along that continuum by going to that area of the room. Statements include: “It’s OK to have separate friends” or “It’s OK for your partner to not allow you to see friends at the weekend.” These statements open up key debates around healthy relationships, and the facilitator uses them as a springboard to deliver key messages about boundaries and respect.
How does it work?
Having created a safe space where students can express themselves, Brook facilitators face plenty of challenging views but pride themselves on not shutting young people down or putting them on the spot. Instead they challenge ideas from a professional angle, with a grounding in law and rights: “Well, the law says this…” or “These are the rights people have…” or “It’s OK to feel different about relationships but it’s never OK to behave abusively.”
Challenges often arise when Brook presents the group with scenarios in which consent is the focal point. In talking about consent, there is a thick layer of cultural conditioning to work through, as well as confusing messages around communicating “yes” and “no”. Unpicking conditioned opinions is tough: it’s important that problematic opinions are aired – but Brook always combats them by explaining the law.
Why does it work?
Brook’s evaluation responses from students and school staff are overwhelmingly positive, hence its high repeat-booking rate. They note that it’s good for schools to bring in external help – it can be unfair, for instance, to wheel out a maths teacher who hasn’t been trained to teach RSE. They provide up-to-date and medically accurate information, which it’s often hard for teachers of other subjects to keep up with. With its diverse staff of sexual-health experts, Brook makes sessions worthwhile and engaging for young people by listening to them and speaking to them with respect.
Most importantly, facilitators are trained to handle groups of young people from different backgrounds – they allow space for other people’s values and give students factual information in a sex-positive way.
Report by Katie Lee