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Hello! I’m Gill Leno - you might have seen me hanging around the sex and relationships forum under my Scope community alter ego @PSHEExpert. Usually I am doing my best to answer questions or make suggestions in response to questions from other forum members, but when I was asked to write a guest blog I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about something which I have been thinking about a lot recently as I prepare for the new term.
My ‘day job’ is PSHE lead in a specialist college for young adults aged between 16 and 25 with complex needs – learning, sensory and physical disabilities as well as autism spectrum conditions. As we are heading into the start of a new academic year, one of the more exciting challenges is the slew of new relationships which will inevitably start forming as everyone gets to know each other. College is a very different experience to being at school; here we try to make sure that our students know we experience them as adults and treat them as such too, including offering support for the romantic and intimate relationships which often end up forming.
As the PSHE lead, I’m responsible for coordinating some of that support, as well as developing and delivering a curriculum around sex and relationships, so I am always trying to think of ways to make it meaningful. Helpfully, the FPA’s Sexual Health Week takes place in September which gives me a relevant focus, and this year the topic is consent – great timing! I say that because as I look around at all the new friendships and couples, the thing that keeps coming back to me about consent is how complex it can be. It is something that everybody has to keep on learning about, for each and every situation and every person that we end up in a relationship with, for our whole lives. We are all so different, and communicate our wishes and desires in so many different ways. It can start to feel a bit overwhelming, but I feel sure that this is because there’s not enough included in sex and relationships education around knowing what your own boundaries and expectations are…and being included in a conversation about raising them.
Do you ever think about your rights (and responsibilities) around your relationships or sexual life? We all have the same ones – as well as being able to choose who we want to be in a relationship with, regardless of gender, faith, background, race etc, everyone also has the same rights to have intimate lives and the privacy to enjoy them, the right to choose and to say yes as well as no, and to have access to the information, services and support to make our relationships enjoyable, nurturing, happy and safe. Everyone has the same right to express their gender identity and their sexuality, and to be safe and supported in doing so. I don’t think this is talked about openly and positively enough in sex and relationships education anywhere really, but from bitter experience out in the mainstream I feel sure that it’s often left off the agenda altogether for people who have disabilities.
With that in mind, I am going to try and focus on raising expectations amongst my students – not that they will definitely find the loves of their lives here at college (and certainly not in their first week!), but that they will be supported in a respectful and equal way to express their sexuality and gender – and that this should continue in their lives after college too. Within their relationships, I want to help them find their boundaries, supporting them to find their ‘yes’ as well as their ‘no’, and to expect respect, care, kindness and pleasure in their new relationships (as well as giving that out themselves). When sex and intimacy are taught about as something dangerous or risky (or not really talked about at all!), it makes it very difficult to know when something isn’t right. If that’s flipped on its head and everyone has the opportunity to be part of learning that relationships can (and should) be brilliant, fulfilling, happy, awkward, challenging, joyful, rewarding, intimate, sexy, that’s a much better way of building confidence and making sure that the expectation of being included is there.
Having an expectation of kindness and respect in relationships helps to open up the conversation for when things are not as they should be, without shame or awkwardness, but it can be challenging if it’s not something that’s been talked about properly before. We need to change that by being open and positive and making everyone’s voices heard, and ensuring that educators, support staff, advocates and allies join in and shout about sex and relationships positively, too.