Just over a year ago I submitted my thesis for examination at The Open University. 336 pages long and very close to the 100,000 word limit, it offers an exploration of young people’s sexual cultures and sexual relationships. My focus is on pleasure – what it means to young people, whether it is possible to create safe spaces to talk to young people about ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure and whether this is something that we should be encouraging all youth, education and health practitioners to embed in their work with young people. Using survey, focus group and interview methods I asked young people what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex and asked them to talk about their own good and bad sexual experiences.
I also carried out a small survey of practitioners working in the local area – social workers, nurses, doctors, outreach sex educators and youth workers. The majority stated that they thought pleasure should be included in sexual health work with young people but very few had received training on how to do so or knew of any resources to support this sensitive area of work. The expressed enthusiasm for involving young people in conversations about pleasure as well as concern for how parents, teachers and the ‘daily mail’ might react.
Shortly after handing in my thesis I started a new knowledge exchange project with colleagues at the University of Sussex and the young people’s sexual health charity Brook. The project was designed to address this gap and to create new, flexible resources that practitioners at Brook and elsewhere could use to deliver training and education around sexual pleasure. Over the past year I have worked with colleagues to develop a one day training programme on pleasure, which has been delivered in its pilot and final form to 31 practitioners from Brook and other partner organizations.
All of the resources from the training are available here and feedback from those who attended the training suggest that some participants are putting the work into practice already.
‘We carried out a session called the amazing vagina and beyond and started with game Taboo (which they all participated in) I took a picture of all the vaginas – which were very impressive! and how much info they retained was fantastic. Feedback from the session was very positive too..’ (Brook educator)
‘J. loved the training and is planning to deliver some of it to the rest of our team. She’s also got us all reading the Dicktionary and Pussypedia – fascinating stuff. We’re also hoping to add an anatomy zone to our Bitesize programme as inspired by your training :)’ (Brook Service Manager)
In academic communities there is much talk about the need for research to have ‘impact’ in and beyond the academy. To engage with non-academic audiences and ensure that knowledge is transferred beyond the academy. So is this a straightforward example of research impact? Of a journey from PhD, to training programme, to changes in professional practice? I would suggest it is too early to tell whether attending a one day training course will have an impact on practice teams over time and would suspect that further shifts at institutional, policy and commissioning levels are required in order to make sure that there are sustained shifts in approach. What has taken place already I would suggest is a series of moments of knowledge exchange between researchers, practitioners and organizations with each moment creating new insights, knowledge and resources.
In the academic literature there is now a growing critical commentary of models of ‘knowledge transfer’ and the impact agenda highlighting the ways in which these seem to assume that knowledge generated through research can be neatly parcelled up and transferred to different practice or policy settings (Davies, Nutley and Walter 2008, Knight 2013, Colley 2013). Such a model assumes that there are two communities – research producers and potential research users and that the ‘problem’ that academics need to address is the lack of conversation between these two communities.
As several commentators have noted, such a model sits uneasily alongside social constructionist or post-structuralist theories of knowledge creation which emphasise that knowledge is impartial, contingent and created in-situ. In the critical literature terms such as ‘knowledge interaction’ or ‘embedded’ and ‘collaborative’ knowledge exchange (e.g. Lewis and Russell 2011) are used to capture a model of knowledge exchange that involves participants who collaborate with researchers not always as grateful recipients but as reflexive practitioners and citizens who argue, talk back and offer challenging interpretations of research findings.
I couldn’t agree more and offer this blog as one example of a messy, flawed journey of knowledge exchange that I hope offers some advice on how (not) to turn a PhD into a training course.
Take 1: I’ll tell you about my research. You tell me about your practice.
Towards the end of my PhD I met with a local team of education practitioners in order to develop resources on sexual pleasure. It went like this:
I delivered a short presentation about my PhD research and then I asked the group to share their ideas and experiences of working with young people on sexual pleasure. The rationale behind this was that I was the researcher and they were the practitioners. I knew about research, they knew about practice. What I thought I mustn’t do (as a researcher) was tell practitioners how to practice and what I could do was share the resources and ideas I had collected over the 4 years of doing my research and ask them to share theirs.
Aside from lots of questions about the research and what young people had said about ‘good sex’, I was pretty much met with silence. They were the practitioners but I was the researcher who had spent them past 4 years thinking about this stuff – answers, resources and top tips were expected and required.
Take 2: I’ll show you some films. You feel inspired, get ideas and go out and do it.
Earlier this year I went to a meeting with Brook’s education managers and this time I did not arrive empty handed. I showed them a clip from a short interview with a practitioner talking about why it is important to talk to young people about the diverse range of ways in which people can get turned on and experience desire. The clip was from one of several interviews documentary film-maker Susi Arnott and I have conducted with practitioners about why it is important to talk to young people about sexual pleasure.
For me it has been so exciting to hear a therapist, doctor, outreach worker and former social worker passionately making the case for pleasure and powerfully articulating all the arguments I had made in my thesis. My plan was to use these interviews to train practitioners – to inspire work in this field and to give authority to an area of work that is often viewed as subversive or taboo. When I showed the clip to the group in Bristol however it went like this:
‘to be honest Ester I switched off. As soon as you put the film on the energy in the room dropped. I can’t listen to anyone talking for longer than about a minute.’
Training practitioners using film? It was time for a rethink. I asked the group for their input on developing a training day on sexual pleasure. Rather than just asking the group to ‘tell me what you think’ I took them through a series of specific questions, sparking off lively and very useful (for me!) discussion about what a sexual pleasure training course should include, how long it should be, who it should be for, what it should be called and why it would be useful. I left armed with ideas and limits – a framework to work with and a clearer understanding of what not to do .
Take 3: I’ll collect together all the training resources I have found over the past 5 years, together with my experiences of training and being trained and work with an experienced Manager at Brook to outline a training course.
In the end the design of the training course took half a day and involved a brainstorming session with Teresa Doyle, Head of Education and Training at Brook and I. With film proving unpopular, I returned to the huge online/offline bag of resources and that I had collected over the five years I had been researching the topic of sexual pleasure. I had training materials from a fantastic course I had attended at the Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health several years previously, my own notes and materials from a previous course that I had run and developed with youth practitioner Daniel Macmillan, examples of one day training courses on pleasure developed by sexual health and education practitioner Steve Gray and another by Brook’s own Kelly Middleditch as well as the recently released fabulous tool kit created by the Pleasure Project: The Trainer’s Guide to the Secrets of Mixing Pleasure with Prevention.
There was no need to reinvent the wheel but there was need to think critically about what we wanted to achieve through running the course. Why do we need a course of sexual pleasure? What do we want the practitioners attending it to go away knowing, feeling, thinking and doing?
This is where the PhD and the luxury of having 4 years to think about one topic came in handy – helping to shape the course aims and approach, to identify what we are doing and why it is important. The brainstorming and planning for the pilot programme only took half a day but it built on years of research drawing together existing resources and thinking critically about the arguments and approaches for engaging young people in this politically sensitive area of work. When developing a tried and tested training activity on ‘why is it important to talk to young people about sexual pleasure’ I found myself returning to my thesis to extract 12 key arguments and back them up with relevant policy and research materials. There was also Teresa’s years of experience in planning, running and evaluating training programmes – she was quicker, clearer and smarter about timings, learning outcomes and the way a training day needs to flow from start to finish.
Next step: Pilot the training course, identify weakness and get support from someone who knows better!
I have now delivered the training course three times. Each time has been slightly different. The order of the activities has shifted and the content has been changed (and improved) through co-facilitating one of the sessions with an experienced trainer and practitioner, Malin Stenstrom. In particular Malin was able to assist through sharing activities and resources relating to pleasure and anatomy – something I had not covered in my PhD but that was identified as important by practitioners I met in Bristol and at the pilot session in Milton Keynes.
When delivering the training course I often felt nervous about my lack of anatomical knowledge or experience in responding to young people’s difficult questions in classroom settings. It was other practitioners who had better examples of how to respond to a 10 year old who asks about flavoured condoms or who corrected my incorrect use of anatomical terms. My experience seeped through in my familiarity with the arguments and counter arguments about why this work is important, my confidence in talking about sex, pleasure and desire and my ability to think critically about the stories young people, parents and practitioners tell us about what counts as good and bad sex.
This is all embedded in my thesis but has only be made useful and useable through collaboration and participation with experienced trainers and practitioners who have argued, critiqued and enriched my ideas- helping me to gather together a set of resources, activities and ideas developed over time within an international community of practitioners.