Category Archives: Practitioners

The million dollar question: How can workers talk to young people about sex and pleasure?

        ‘ I always discuss pleasure when I have time in my school sessions as its vital that young              people don’t just grow up being taught that sex is bad, dangerous, scary etc. SRE can                  almost feel like it teaches that we must protect girls from sex starved boys and that                     diseases and unwanted pregnancy are lurking round every corner. It needs to be made              clear that sex with the right partner and at a time when you are ready should be fun,                    lovely and enjoyable’  (Survey respondent).

    IMG_3622  Terry Delany Anatomy Inspire   good bad depends   AGM photo cards

Over the past 6 years I have been talking to youth workers, social workers, sex educators, nurses and doctors and asking if they think  sexual pleasure should be included in sex education and sexual health services for young people. Almost everyone I have met says yes. When I go on to ask how they would do this in practice, many shrug, laugh or tell me that they have no idea! When I conducted a survey of practitioners in North London in 2010, 90% said ‘yes’ – pleasure should be included in sex education and sexual health services for young people. Very few had received any training however or could recommend any good resources to use. When I asked if they had any concerns about including pleasure in SRE or sexual health services, respondents pointed to potential  problems managing professional boundaries and potential negative responses from colleagues,  parents and school governors. If not done well, respondents noted, young people and practitioners would be embarrassed and the work could be seen as encouraging young people to ‘do it’.

   Schools [might be] wary of including sexual pleasure – they think this may be                                  interpreted  as ‘promoting sexual activity’. Some young people [might be]                                         embarrassed talking about  sex and pleasure – without SRE from an early age often                    young people lack the skills and language to discuss pleasure’ (Survey respondent).     

For 90% of respondents, and the majority of people I have talked to over the past 6 years who work in this field, these concerns do not mean that the work should not be done. It means however that we need shifts in policy and social attitudes and good training and resources for practitioners to use.

The ‘good sex’ project was created to address this gap and to provide practitioners with some tools, training and resources to engage in this area of work. As part of this project documentary film maker Susi Arnott and I have been interviewing youth workers, clinicians, educators, researchers and young volunteers about why it is important to talk to young people about sex and pleasure and asking them how to do this in practice. We have hours of footage of people talking passionately about why this area of work is so important and have edited these 11 short clips that give you 11 reasons why it is important to talk to young people about sex and pleasureWe are looking for reason 12 so if you can think of one we have left out – please get in touch!

Like the practitioners I surveyed nearly 5 years ago, many of the people we interviewed to were less sure how to engage in pleasure work in practice. This, said Steve Slack from the Centre for HIV and Sexual health, is the 100 million dollar question that we need to – very carefully – address. Some people that we interviewed were more confident and suggested that work is not as complicated or as challenging as we might think it is. Here are there ideas edited into 10 short films about how youth, education and health practitioners can introduce discussion of pleasure into a consultation or an outreach session. There are many more ways that you could do this work (the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health have come up with 30!) and we hope that these films will encourage others to share their best and amazing practice with others.

Thanks to everyone who appears in this film and to all those who have shared their ideas and suggestions with me over the years.

#1 Create a safe space

#2 Find a language that works for you

 #3 Give young people the opportunity to ask questions

#4 Try asking some simple exploratory questions

 #5 Use some of the great resources out there already

 #6 Try one of these activities – or develop your own!

 #7 Include discussion of pleasure in condom sessions

#8 Support and train young people to be social activists and lead their own campaigns.

#9 Listen!

#10 Get some experience. Shadow colleagues, support each other, go on training and confront your fears!



Why is it important to talk to young people about sex and pleasure?

Over the past year documentary film maker Susi Arnott and I have been interviewing sex educators, researcher, health workers and youth practitioners about why it is important to talk to young people about sex and pleasure.

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This series of 11 clips captures their responses. Watch. Share. Tell us what you think.

#1 Sexual health is about more than preventing unwanted pregnancy and STIs. It is about the right to have safe and enjoyable sexual experiences.

 #2 To bridge the gap between what young people learn at school and what happens in their real lives.

#3 Understanding pleasure is an essential part of safeguarding young people and understanding consent. How can you say ‘no’ if you don’t know how to say ‘yes’?

#4 It’s your job!

#5 It will help you to explore safer (and maybe more pleasurable) alternatives to penis and vagina sex

#6. It helps us to make sure we include all people of all genders and sexualities in sexual health and sex education services.

#7 To challenge gender stereotypes about sex and pleasure.

#8 To make sure we give young people a more realistic alternative to pornography. 

#9 Because it’s what young people want

#10 To help young people make the right decisions.

#11 Because no-one else will

Have you got a reason 12? We would love to hear from you. Contact or tweet @brookcharity #pleasure

These films forms part of the good sex project which aims to promote ‘sex-positive’ approaches to sexual health service delivery through building a robust and accessible evidence base. The project is a collaboration between Brook and the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth at University of Sussex and funded by the ESRC.

How to be ‘sex-positive’

Last week I met Brighton and Sussex medical school’s final year students to talk with them about how to be ‘sex-positive’ in clinical contexts. Drawing on the work and ideas from the ‘good sex’ project the presentation addressed three key questions for clinicians to consider: What does it mean to be ‘sex-positive’? Why is it important to be sex-positive? How can we be sex-positive in practice?

We also looked at three short clips from an interview conducted with Brook Trustee and HIV and sexual health consultant Dr Rachael Jones. In these clips Rachael talks passionately about what it means to her to be sex-positive, why it is important and how she does this in practice. The clips are taken from the forthcoming final ‘good sex’ project films which will shortly be released. If you are interested in finding out more, read on for a summary of the presentation, watch clips from the interview with Dr Rachael and watch this space for more clips of interviews about why and how to be ‘sex-positive’ in sexual health work with young people. You can also download the powerpoint from the presentation here.


What does it mean to be sex-positive? 

  • Support young people to enjoy their sexuality without harm
  • Create an open and honest sexual culture
  • Celebrate sexual diversity
  • Adopt a holistic approach to sexuality



Why is it important to be sex-positive? 

  • Because sexual health is more than the prevention of disease, and unwanted pregnancy and includes the right to enjoy your sexuality without harm.
  • Because we need to be realistic with young people.
  • Starting with pleasure rather than risk offers a more inclusive (and more effective) framework for young people.
  • To enable young people to make positive informed decisions.
  • Its an essential part of safeguarding young people and supporting them to understand consent.
  • Because maybe no-one else will.



How can clinicians be sex-positive in practice and talk to young people about pleasure as well as risk? 

  • Find a language that works for you.
  • Include discussion of pleasure in sexual history taking and contraceptive decision making
  • Never assume
  • Ask simple exploratory questions
  • Use some of the great resources that are out there already.
  • Get some experience – shadow colleagues, support each other and confront your fears.

Interested in finding out more? Watch more clips from  interviews about why and how to be sex-positive on our previous post  Interviewing the pleasure experts or watch more from the interview with Dr Rachael Jones here.

The ‘good sex’ project: political problems and practical solutions


Ester McGeeneypost by Ester McGeeney
Youth researcher and practitioner

For over three decades researchers, activists and practitioners have argued that pleasure should be included in the delivery of sex education and sexual health services. As 23 year old volunteer and peer educator Victoria Telford states: ‘My sex education at school was just about preventing STIs and preventing pregnancy and that was it. You are taught about puberty, the biological side of sex and the rest you are left to figure out on your own and I think you make bad choices because of that.’

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How (not) to turn a PhD into a one day training course

good bad depends

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)

Terry Delany Anatomy Inspire

‘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.


Definitions: sex and pleasure

Last Friday I went to the Royal Society of Medicine’s 7th event on sexual pleasure. There were three presentations to an audience that seemed to consist largely of clinicians, students and the odd researcher. First up was Meg Barker talking about their work as a sex therapist and the phrase they repeatedly hear from their clients – ‘I want to be normal’. Drawing on research with different sexual communities, Meg looked critically at what it means to be ‘normal’ and raised questions about assumptions that sex is compulsory (no desire to have sex means you are not normal!) and that sexuality is all about gender (do you fancy men or women, or both?).


Meg showed the audience Gayle Rubin’s ‘charmed circle’ (Rubin 1984) which offers a visual representation of 1980s sexual norms. In the ‘outer circle’ Rubin maps out all the sexual practices that are deemed perverse, unhealthy, abnormal or ‘bad’. This includes S/M, pornography, casual sex and sex ‘in the park’. In the inner and ‘charmed’ circle, Rubin includes all the sexual practice that were reckoned to be ‘good’, healthy and normal – heterosexual, coupled, married sex – with bodies only and at home.

chramed circle

Rubin’s charmed circle raises questions about what has changed since the 1980s – in the contemporary sexualised era of 2014 – is sex outside of wedlock socially acceptable? What about pornography? Using vibrators? Bondage and non-procreative sex?

When I did my research in 2010 with young people living in London I found that the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex were complex and shifting and often depended on a young person’s background, religion and life experiences. For one young woman I interviewed, masturbation, same sex relationships and sex before marriage were unacceptable to her family and her local church community. ‘A moment of pleasure’, she quoted her Grandmother, ‘leads to a lifetime of sorrow.’ To her friends on the local LGBTQ scene and her much loved youth worker, masturbation and same sex relationships were to be celebrated and enjoyed. Twenty year old Chanelle was confused and unsure  – torn between a desire to marry as a ‘virgin’ to a Christian man and a desire to keep on exploring sexually with women.  ‘I’m on both sides of the fence’ – she told me.

As Meg always reminders their readers and audiences, when considering what has changed or what’s ‘good’ and ‘normal’ now, we are always in danger of creating new norms and therefore new exclusions. Perhaps Meg suggests, we should be using a different default question. Rather than asking whether things are transgressive or not, Meg suggested, we focus on whether or not they are coercive. Perhaps, Meg suggests, we can see ourselves as part of an ethical community concerned with negotiating consent in person and online – in all of our ‘sexual’ acts from posts on facebook and images sent to friends, partners to moments when bodies touch and penetrate each other.


Next week I am piloting the training course that we have been designing on sexual pleasure. As I returned to my PhD research this morning to create the resources needed for the training I came across the definitions of ‘sexual pleasure’ that were provided by the practitioners I surveyed as part of my research. There are nearly 40 definitions – some of which point towards Rubin’s norms (sex should be in a couple and with a body not an object) whilst others are much broader – ‘Pleasant and stimulating feelings derived from one or many senses’.

There is always a tension in asking people to define concepts such as ‘good sex’ or ‘sexual pleasure’ – something which I have been doing for years as part of my research and training. It can encourage people to think about concepts they may not have considered before, share ideas and challenge taken for granted assumptions. But the activity also suggestions that there is an ‘is’ – that sexual pleasure can be defined and understood when my research suggests that it can’t, since its meaning shifts depending on who is talking, to whom, in what context and at what point in their sexual careers. Part of the aim of this project is to create resources that showcase this – capturing both the diversity and slipperiness of pleasure as well as the powerful social norms that police what is and what is not good, ‘normal’ sex.

For more on Gayle Rubin’s ideas – you can download her seminal 1984 article ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’. 30 years on and it’s still a good read.

Interviewing the pleasure experts

banner young sexual body

Last year the Economic and Social Research Council funded a seminar series called  understanding the young sexual body. Over a 12 month period there were 4 events that brought together researchers, students and practitioners to look at ‘cutting edge’ research on young people’s sexual relationships and sexual health.

Seminar one was called Competing knowledges of the young sexual body, number two was the errant body, three was the invaded/invading body and last was the desiring body –  which, importantly for the good sex project, was all about sexual pleasure!

This final event, which took place last November ’13, had a stellar line up of practitioners and researchers who ran workshops on pleasure and consent and presented research on  ‘slut talk’, anal sex, fellatio, pornography, pleasure and sexual agency. For the ‘good sex’ project, this seemed like an opportunity too good to be missed so after some last minute  running around, film-maker Susi and I arrived equipped to interview any of the pleasure experts who could spare us their time.

Whilst the action went on upstairs Susi waited with her camera in an empty classroom on the floor below. In came a sex therapist, two researchers, an outreach worker, and a former social worker. The result was five fascinating interviews with people who have worked on the topic of sexual pleasure in very different ways. Each of them shared thoughts with Susi and the camera on why its important and how to talk to young people about sexual pleasure as a therapist, outreach worker or researcher.

We are not 100% sure yet how to use the material we collected. The idea is that they will form part of film that explains the rationale for talking about pleasure and that gives examples of how this might be possible. I imagined that the film could form part of the training package we are creating for practitioners – a film to convince them why and how to ‘be sex positive’ and what it actually means to have conversations with young people about ‘pleasure.’

When I showed some of the clips to a group of education workers at Brook however there was a feeling that whilst the interviews were interesting – they know this stuff already. They know that talking about sexual pleasure is important and are already doing this as part of their day-to-day work. What they need is creative and interesting resources to support their work and for commissioners and schools to get on board so that they have time to move beyond condom demonstrations and get stuck into the kinds of in-depth conversations that this work requires.

Perhaps we need to think then about who our audience for such a film might be. Is the film we imagined a film for the unconverted? For those that are suspicious of the whole idea of talking to young people about pleasure? The angry parents and concerned school governors that the practitioners I surveyed as part of my PhD research told me they were worried about? Or is it for the practitioners who don’t already talk about pleasure and who don’t see this as part of their job?

When I ask, education staff at Brook tell me that even though they already do work with young people on pleasure, they would still like some training on this subject. When I query why (they seem to know more than me half the time!) they say that they want to feel more confident in talking about pleasure and to feel like they are not making-it-up-as-they-go-along but are drawing on research and established best practice.

This was the rationale for the ‘good sex’ project in the first place – not to introduce sexual health practitioners to a ‘new’ topic but to provide evidence, training and materials to support existing practice and to help practitioners to feel more skilled and confident in the ‘sex-positive’ work that they do. Perhaps this is where these kinds of clips fit in? Not to convert the sex-positive-already-converted but to provide a sometimes much needed back up and sense of a supportive community of practice.

I’m not sure yet. Have a look and let me know what you think:

Alyssa Cowell at 7north on her training course  – Yes means yes! Exploring enthusiastic consent and pleasure.

Researcher and academic Claire Maxwell from the Institute of Education on the importance of talking about sexual pleasure with young women.

Steve Slack from The Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health addressing the ‘million dollar question’ of how to talk to young people about sexual pleasure.

Sex therapist, researcher and author of the fantastic blog and book Rewriting the rules Meg Barker on why and how to talk to young people about pleasure.

Bear with me whilst I learn to edit – the last film is coming soon!

Researcher, academic and co-founder of the amazing international girls movement against sexualisation SPARKDeb Tolman reflecting on a key study she conducted 30 years ago on young women’s sexual desire.