Tag Archives: sexual health


By Rachel Thomson

“If you’re reading this, you’re in Bred… We’re an interesting bunch of people. All of us think about sex, all of us talk about sex and there’s a rumour that some of us have actually done it. Tonight is the party of the year and everyone’s invited; from the posh knobs from Upper Crust down to the lost souls in Crumbs. Tonight, everything changes, but remember, once it’s been lost it can’t be found and once it’s stolen it gone.”

I went to London on Friday night, heart in mouth, to see the opening night of Bred, the Tricycle Theatre’s Young Company takeover show exploring sexual attitudes and dilemmas. We had started talking to the Tricycle a long time ago about how we might connect research about teenage sexuality with performance, even using performance itself as a vehicle for new research. The appointment in 2015-2016 of Tom Bowtell as director in residence with the youth company – someone with a background in immersive theatre – provided the impetus for making this happen.

Tom and team came to meet us at Sussex for the day, talking with myself, historian Lucy Robinson who set him right on the recurrent history of ‘moral panics’ about sex and teenagers, Ester McGeeney (now at Brook) who shared her research on ’good sex’ and Elsie Whittington whose co-funded PhD research on sexual consent is co-funded between Brook and the University of Sussex.  Ester,  Elsie and Alison Robert from Brook subsequently  got involved in half term workshops with the young company where they explored ideas from their research, legal issues and professional obligations associated with underage and non/consensual sex as well as facilitating a conversation with parents and carers.

I went with Ester to see a dress rehearsal just a month ago and realised that the team were getting hung up on whether or how they could represent underage sex and how to create a drama out of sex without playing into the language and sentiments of moral panic. How could they show sex as something diverse, ordinary and extraordinary, life changing and banal, funny, silly and potentially dangerous. Something that every generation freaks out about and has to revinvent for themselves? We walked away from rehearsal with our fingers crossed, uncertain that all that confusion, energy and passion could come together into something coherent.

The night began in true promenade style as we were invited to listen into a moving monologue of a trans-teenager as she/he got ready for a night out. Then ushered into the main theatre space we joined what seemed to be a fearless stand-up routine, designed to set the scene of Bred – socially divided by gentrification between the upper crust and the crumbs estate. A game of hilarious sex bingo held the crowd (have you ever flirted with an animal – admit it!) until the whole audience had found its way to the room at which point the ‘party’ began. A combination of freeze-action-monologues, choreographed dance scenes and set pieces between couples and friends allowed us to see something of the hyper-diversity that marks the sexual culture of inner city teens. There is a loud lipstick lesbian who has never kissed a girl, the obsessed, the horny, the asexual, the heartbroken, the proud virgin and the virgin desperate to lose it. We find out about the ways in which couples and friendships can be at odds with each other, and how we may only know what we feel when we have ruined everything. We also discover something about gender, that girls can pressure boys into sex and that not all boys are gagging for it.

The law appears as a key player at the end of the play when the audience is asked to choose the fate of Wolf who is at risk of becoming a sexual offender having had her way with a 15 year old boy worse the wear for drink. The audience feels put on the spot, what is the ‘right’ thing to do in these post-Saville sensitive times. The majority decision to ‘report her’ triggers two films with the two protagonists-as-adults reflecting on how this had been a critical moment in their lives.

Somehow they managed to bring it all together into an entertaining show – capturing the contradictory nature of  teenage culture torn between experiment and censoriousness, pleasure seeking and fear. The law matters in lots of strange ways, as something we can take hold of and use to support our decisions – as something to disregard or as something with agency in itself that can change the course of our lives and of others.

Bred is a performance by the Tricycle Theatre 15-18 yrs Young Company on 17 – 19 March 2016, 7pm. Devised by the 15-18’s Tricycle Young Company, Bred is inspired by factual research into the sex lives of teenagers.



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.

Good sex is…?

Our first film has been ‘officially’ released! Here is ‘Good sex is…? – a film made by a group of young people who used condoms, strawberries, cake icing and text messages (amongst other things) to bring survey data to life.  For more information about how the group turned over 200 survey responses into a 1 minute 40 second film see my previous post on Reanimating survey data: the good sex film. 

Brook’s AGM: An evening of ‘knowledge exchange’

‘Knowledge exchange is a two-way process where social scientists and individuals or organisations share learning, ideas and experiences’. (Economic and Social Research Council)

Before applying for the ESRC ‘knowledge exchange’ grant that is funding this project I had never used the term ‘knowledge exchange’ or considered what it might mean. My motivation for doing a Phd however had been because I wanted to train to be a researcher and learn ways of working with young people so that their voices could be heard in policy arenas and used to inform practice. What I remain passionately motivated by is ensuring that ideas and knowledge don’t become stuck in their silos and that they continue to move between policy makers, practitioners, young people and academic researchers. To me this is a four-way process of building, testing and rebuilding knowledge about young people’s lives and how best governments, organisations and practitioners can empower and support them.

AGM photo simon  AGM photo jody adn rebecca

Yesterday was Brook’s AGM and young people led evening event. The format of the evening was a short half hour of approving the accounts and other formal procedures followed by several hours of presentations, films and activities led by a group of Brook young volunteers who had spent the past two days planning the evening activities. The volunteers gave a short presentation (or flash mob sex-positive parade?!), showed a short video on participation and then led small group discussions with Brook members, trustees and other invitees. As we all moved around the table carousels the young volunteers talked about the projects that they are involved with and invited their audiences to share their thoughts and ideas.

This was an evening of ‘knowledge exchange’. Knowing this in advance I had prepped film-maker Susi to try and capture this knowledge-exchange-in-action on camera. The plan had been that one of the carousels would be a ‘good sex’ project carousel. To me this seemed like a golden opportunity to do some ‘knowledge exchange’ – that is to tell groups of people with interest and experience in the field about the project, show them the films and get some solid critical feedback. I had expected the evening’s exchange to go: Researcher (me) – audience – researcher, but the evening took several unexpected turns.

AGM photo susi filming

This was a young people led event and the young people decided that they were not going to talk about the ‘good sex’ project but were rather going to include a volunteer from Birmingham in their group and talk about young people’s involvement in recruitment. Instead, two of the good sex project volunteers and I were going to talk about the project to the whole room and finish the evening by showing the ‘good sex’ film. When the time came to do the presentation however I had disappeared to interview a Brook member, couldn’t be found and the film was introduced and shown by Brook staff. For me, instead of having a researcher-to-audience flow of knowledge, it flooded the other way as Susi and I were able to interview Brook members, trustees and young volunteers.

For me, the interviews with the three Brook members were especially moving and inspiring. We heard from Dilys Cossey who campaigned for abortion law reform and sexual health services for ‘unmarried’ women and who helped set up Brook nearly 50 years ago. Her account of the role of women’s movements in developing the sexual health services and legal rights that women have today left Susi and I feeling quietly humble and very grateful to all those women who have enabled us to live the lives we live today.

We also heard from Martin Goffe who talked about his work at a South London boys school in the 1970s and about how he created and ran an ‘integrated humanities’ GCSE that included sessions on sex, relationships and sexual health and trips to the local Brook clinic on the Walworth road. This was pre-national curriculum days when teachers had more freedom and flexibility to develop this kind of work, which Martin told us, included talking to the young men about pleasure; premature ejaculation, how to pleasure your female partners, how to know if your partners is enjoying sex or not. Much has changed Martin reflected, talking about his current work as a school governor and his efforts to squeeze SRE into a tight PSHE curriculum and support and encourage school teachers to deliver this work to young people.

I could have gone on asking questions for hours – drinking up the knowledge that members such as Dilys and Martin have built up over decades of activism, hard work and campaigning. This was just what our funders had ordered: an event where ‘social scientists and individuals or organisations share learning, ideas and experiences’. Luckily Susi was there to capture it on camera. Now comes the longer, slower processes of editing the footage that Susi captured and working out how to make these interviews public to continue the sharing and exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas.

AGM photo cards

Searching for methods: How to turn a PhD thesis into a film that young people might actually want to watch?

Last month I started a year long project working with the young people’s sexual health charity Brook and the University of Sussex where I work as a Research Fellow. The project is all about building bridges between academic research and professional practice and exploring ways of turning my research on young people’s sexual relationships into films and resources that young people, practitioners and the general public will watch and use to learn more about  young people’s sexual cultures and to think about how to put ‘sex-positive’ approaches into practice. The first stage of the project involves making a film with young people, for young people – exploring ways of reanimating the research data to make a film or a series of films that young people might watch on their own online or as part of sex education lessons.

For me, the first 6 weeks of the project has involved thinking about how I can turn my 80,000 word and yet to be examined thesis into a film that young people actually want to watch


This has at times felt excruciating: 10 days after handing it in the last thing I wanted to do was sit down, read my thesis and think about what key messages needed to go in the film or to think creatively about how to bring the data to life again. I didn’t want to read it, think about it and failed to see anything exciting or interesting about it (I am reassured this is a totally normal post-phd hand in feeling!) This is where collaborations are so important – each time I met with one of the members of staff at Brook I was going to be working with and each time person I met with the film maker they talked about how excited they were about the project and what a great opportunity it is to be able to be involved in such an interesting project and something that they had never done before. Their enthusiasm has been infectious and much needed. 

I knew however that it would take more than enthusiasm to make the project work. As this first stage developed I realised that there was a gap at the centre of it; we had the data, an emerging group of interested young people, a space at Brook to use, a film maker with all her kit and a load of rich data about young people’s sexual lives and relationships – what was missing was the method of reanimation. The tools for making data travel from the page to the screen. I watched The Arbour – a film that uses interview recordings mimed by actors to powerful effect. I also watched various short films that used animations to ‘voice’ interview recordings, knowing all the time that I couldn’t use these methods as I did not have the permission of my interview or focus group participants to make the recordings publicly available. Should I try getting in contact with them and asking their permission to use the recordings and make an Arbour-esque drama set i Islington with atmospheric shots of the lifts, estates, hotels, colleges, parks and flats described by participants?  I decided to rise to the challenge and instead search for creative ways of reanimating data, without playing the recordings – is it possible to listen to young people’s stories without actually hearing their voices?

The missing piece in the puzzle has been theatre director and writer Lucy Kerbel who has gone away with all my data to plan a 2 day workshop in which young people will use creative and drama techniques to bring particular data excerpts to life. The workshop starts tomorrow and I currently have no idea how it will all pan out. We are armed with a group of young people (as long as some turn up – always my biggest fear), film maker Susi Arnott, theatre director Lucy Kerbel, me, my PhD data, a technical kit provided by Susi and a creative kit provided by Lucy. Let’s see what happens…

We met four of the young people today, introduced the research, signed consent forms, talked about ‘good sex’ and ate Pizza. I realised that I must find a more interesting way of introducing my research to groups of young people and remembered how much I love working with young people…and getting to eat Pizza as part of my job. Beats writing a thesis.