Show & tell: near-peer sex ed from Sexpression:UK
University student- and volunteer-led, Sexpression:UK is a near-peer charity that delivers free relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) lessons in secondary schools and youth groups. The fact that facilitators are aged 18 to 25 makes them relatable to younger people and encourages interaction. As externals and press director Eleanor Cochrane explains, Sexpression’s digital natives have a passion for teaching sex ed to new digital natives…
How does it work?
Back in 2000, Sexpression:UK facilitators were medical students, but now we come from a mixture of backgrounds and experiences, which means we deliver really inclusive, comprehensive RSHE.
We tailor our sessions and activities to the needs of youth groups and secondary schools. We might teach a year 8 group several times in one term or hold different sessions for them during one week.
These are the 6 sessions we offer:
Bodily changes (including physical and emotional changes during puberty; periods; pregnancy)
Sex & the media (including sexting, porn and the influence of media and social media on body image and self-esteem)
Contraception & sexually transmitted infections (STIs) (including HIV/AIDS and how to access contraception)
Sexual orientation & gender identity (including prejudices against and stereotypes of LGBT+ people)
Healthy relationships & abuse (including coercive control, violent behaviour and respectful relationships as well as romantic, platonic and familial relationships)
Sex & consent (including sexual harassment and violence; laws around exploitation, abuse and rape; resisting sexual pressure and being ready for sex)
After we introduce ourselves and lay out the ground rules, we’ll do an ice breaker. With the handshake ice breaker, students go around the classroom shaking hands with each other, then they talk with one other person about what they want from the handshake and try it again, then they feed back to that person about how mapping out a plan for the handshake changed the experience. That mimics, though not perfectly, a situation with sex and setting out sexual preferences. It also sets a good precedent for the rest of the session.
Some front-of-class teaching is fine, but we find that with RSHE young people are more receptive when they’re more involved. The best ways to elicit responses are discussion, interactivity and drawing on young people’s experiences. It also helps to split the class into smaller groups.
Our whole method centres around creating a low-pressure and informal environment so that young people feel included and comfortable asking questions. Like with any subject, when delivering our RSHE lessons we encounter shy students. So if there are drawing activities or tactile objects to engage with, they won’t focus on the people around them so much but rather on what they’re holding or doing. Object-based learning is great. Using contraceptive kits and puberty packs with items like a razor, some deodorant or a tampon can bring the students’ focus to that object and away from the facilitator who’s speaking.
We’re constantly learning. For example, in the past in our puberty sessions we might draw figures with female and male secondary sex characteristics then name those figures. While trying to make the content relatable, we realised that if we chose the name of a classroom student, this could be very isolating. We now use the names Baz (for a genetically female body) and Boz (for a genetically male body).
We use anonymous questions to finish every session, which ensures that the young people can ask any burning questions. On many occasions these questions can lead to really interesting discussions and help to untangle stigma, but there can be times when students ask challenging questions. It is so important that we’re honest if we don’t know the answer and that we tell them we’ll find out for them. Inaccurate RSHE is worse than no RSHE, especially when it comes to medical and legal facts.
Why does it work?
A young person who could be embarrassed talking to a teacher might feel more comfortable talking to someone closer in age.
If you look at the education theory of self-determination, what motivates people to learn is relatedness, competence and autonomy. We aim to create an environment where young people feel comfortable with and related to those around them. We then empower them with the medical and legal facts but also with the autonomy and critical-thinking skills to make their own decisions.
We have the unique experience of being the first generation old enough to teach RSHE that has grown up with technology platforms and been exposed to online pressures. Also we might have younger siblings who are dealing with new chat apps like Kik messenger. We don’t tell students what’s right or wrong or tell them explicitly what they should and shouldn’t do – but we can identify risks and give them information so they can make decisions for themselves. When that comes from older people it’s easier for young people to say: “They haven’t been on Snapchat – they don’t know what it’s like to be in this situation.”
As facilitators we come to Sexpression with an interest in sexual health and education. We’ve opted into teaching RSHE, as opposed to teachers who are often obliged to do so – though of course some do rise to the occasion. We believe that RSHE should be comprehensive, with support of fully funded training. Once this is achieved Sexpression may take more of a supplementary role rather than being a school’s primary RSHE provider.
Most important of all, because Sexpression facilitators are fresh out of school, we are able to identify gaps in our own learning – we’ve just lived through it! – and to recommend improvements that can inform the development of our lesson plans. We want to deliver a concept that meets the needs of the next generation. Our facilitators are so committed and inspirational! We have a lot of energy to give.
From Split Banana and Tender to The Sexual Circus and Teaching “The Talk”, see our other Best In Class initiatives