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?
Like many providers of relationships and sex education (RSE), Sexual Health Circus wants to empower young people to enjoy their sexual relationships free from harm. Unlike most providers, they do it with ropes and juggling balls…
Part one is, as the name suggests, a circus act. The facilitators set up a full circus rig in an auditorium and invite a key stage 3 or 4 year group to a raucous hour of music, dancing, circus-performance tricks and clowning around.
Clowning is the operative word: the troupe’s use of jokes, puns and physical humour is what draws its audience in and sets them at ease, ready to learn. But as well as a heavy dose of humour, the practitioners use a very conversational tone. They chat onstage about the ways in which porn isn’t like sex.
“No one wears condoms,” suggests one. “No one falls out of bed,” yells another from stage left. “And you don't often see people of minority races, genders or disabilities represented in pornography,” chimes in the officious one with the folder. Their “haven’t got a clue” tone is endearing, and they make sure that the facts are slipped in on the sly.
Part one is a consolidation session – a classroom setting. Students are invited to write down anything they can remember about a given topic – say, porn and nudes – from the show. Traditional classroom methods – small group discussions, individual worksheets, quiz activities – are used, with video clips thrown in.
How does it work?
Teaching about pornography is tricky because there are students who have never (intentionally) seen any, and others at the other end of the spectrum. But pornography can affect even those who don't use it – as in the sad examples where young people’s sexual partners think what they see in porn is the norm and try to recreate it.
With this in mind, the Sexual Health Circus avoids making assumptions, judgments or prescriptions about watching porn and sending nudes. Their approach is rather to give students as much information as possible about consequences and the law, to signpost to support and, in the case of porn, to help distinguish the fantasy from the reality.
The Sexual Health Circus encourages young people to share their views in topical follow-up classes, especially on sexting. Often students hear from their peers that it is not comfortable or sexy to be asked for a nude, says facilitator Jess Herman: “Is it a normal part of flirting these days? Perhaps. Should it be? Perhaps not. Do we need to talk about it? Yes!”
Why does it work?
The Sexual Health Circus reports that 80% of students and 100% of school staff are likely or very likely to recommend them. Young people like the way it talks “bluntly and realistically” about sex. They find it funny, refreshing and attention grabbing and like the way that awkwardness is addressed head on.
Their sweet spot is around year 9s or 10s, we felt – presumably because of the silly, light-hearted methodology – but most older students still get something out of the show that they didn’t know before.
Will it stick in the mind? Yes! Will it change hearts and minds? Time will tell…
Report by Sophie Manning