Tag Archives: young people


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

Reanimating survey data: the ‘Good sex’ film

Over the summer I worked with a film maker, theatre director and group of young volunteers to explore ways of ‘reanimating’ research data.  At a two day workshop we worked with interview and survey data, using a range of creative techniques to create 4 different  films. Two of these were made using the survey data – one capturing young people’s definitions of ‘good sex’ and the other of young people’s definitions of ‘bad sex’.

This project is based on my PhD research which used different methods of data collection to try to understand how young people understand and experience ‘good sex’ and sexual pleasure. At the first stage of the research I conducted a survey of 278 young people in London, using this method to ask young people about their views on sex and relationships. The survey included a question that asked young people to complete the following statements:

Good sex is…..

Bad sex is…..

These questions generated hundreds of responses that were so diverse it was often difficult to categorise them. For example, the most common theme in young people’s definitions of ‘good sex’ was love, yet this was only mentioned by 19% of participants. The other 81% of participants expressed a range of different values, ideas and concepts, suggesting that  young people understand ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex in a variety of different ways. The tag cloud below show some of this diversity as well as some of the patterns in young people’s responses. It was created through running the lists of responses through data analysis software that counted the frequency of the words used and made the most common words large and bold.
Good sex tag cloud

At the young people’s film workshop held in London last August we used these lists of responses – handing out three pages of definitions of ‘good sex’ to each young person. Theatre director Lucy led the activity, asking each young person to choose three responses from the list and write each one on to a post-it note. As they read through the list of responses, the group laughed, agreeing with some definitions and feeling offended, disgusted or unsettled by others.

Day 1 GS Lucy Em and group

Next, Lucy informed the group that we were going to make a short film using the definitions that the group had selected. To do so, we needed to think of different ways of writing these definitions and capturing the text with film. Lucy kicked off the brainstorm by suggesting that we could have a shot of someone writing a text message. The ideas flowed – facebook, graffiti, lego, spaghetti, writing on or with a person’s body, photographing the words in a newspaper, using magnetic letters, footprints, the contraceptive pill.

Day 1 GS flipchart

After the brainstorm we sprung into action. Each person was assigned a ‘good sex’ quote and a method of reanimation. After each masterpiece had been created we captured them on film, using the iPod touches or the skills of film maker Susi. The day ended with Mattias stretched out on the floor as enough group member wrote on his torso with pink icing and Susi stood over capturing this strange moment of performance art on film.

Day 1 GS9

We resumed the next day (after a trip to Primark and Sainsburys for supplies) to finish off: writing on a t-shirt, sending messages on Skype and spelling out quotes with alphabetti. At the end of the 2 days all the footage went to Susi to edit together into a stream of images and clips.

After viewing the montage of clips together the following week we decided that the film needed voices and set about recording each of the statements. Each group member read a few – leaning forwards into Susi’s magic foam recording box and speaking into the microphone.


The film is not quite finished yet – in its current form it’s a medley of clips and voices, each animating and articulating definitions of ‘good sex’ in different ways. To me, the film captures something of the diversity of young people’s understandings of ‘good sex’ that was documented in the research data . It is also bright and colourful  – and funny. The different ways of animating the data are creative and the voice recordings make me laugh as I remember each young person with their head stuck in a box, their faces disappearing as they filled their voices with passion, humour, or desire…. ‘Good sex’ – one young woman reads with passion and intensity –  ‘is when I’m left shivering on the bed…’.

We have yet to discuss how the film could be used, but to me it would work as a discussion piece – firing off ideas about ‘good sex’, offering statements to be agreed with and disagreed with. I don’t agree with all the definitions included in the film, just as I didn’t subscribe to many of those that I encountered in doing my research. The next step will be to decide whether to keep in definitions that we know could be offensive and/or normalising (i.e. ‘man + woman + condom = good sex’) as the basis for discussion about sexual norms – what they are and how they are created, sustained and challenged, or whether we take them out, cautious of adding fuel to the fire of powerfully dominant values that frequently remain unchallenged. These are editorial decisions that we will have to make that point to a tension I explored in the final chapter of my PhD thesis:

‘Evidence of the diversity of meanings and resources for making sense of ‘good sex’ in young people’s sexual cultures suggests that this is a rich area for research/practice; for exploring conflicting moral values, experiences of difference, inequality, loss, desire, exclusion, fear and pleasure. Analysis of the data suggests that whilst some of these meanings fit closely with accounts of ‘good sex’ framed in sexual health and education policy – delay, love, reciprocity, intimacy – others such as the pleasure of anonymous sex and the sharing of sexual partners may be more challenging to explore in the ‘official’ spaces of schools, clinics and other institutional environments.
Evidence of this discrepancy is perhaps not surprising but raises questions about whether the function of the pleasure project is to challenge young people’s accounts of ‘good sex’ and offer a more feminist or ‘health-promoting’ (UNESCO 2007) alternative or to create spaces, as I did as a researcher, to give voice to a range of sexual meanings and experiences and allow young people to ‘find their own way’ (Jessica, focus group two).’

I’ll be discussing the films  with the project team next week and whilst most of the definitions of ‘good sex’ included in the film are not particularly contentious, we may find ourselves addressing a recurrent question: what do we do with the understandings of ‘good sex’ recorded in the data that we do not believe to be ‘good’ for young people’s sexual health and wellbeing. As researchers disseminating findings and as educators working with young people how much ‘diversity’ of sexual meanings and values to we make available? And to what extent do we guide young people towards particular understandings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sex and to what extent to we, as one focus group participant suggest, let them ‘find their own way’.

The story of ‘Jessica’: turning interview data into film

This blog is the story of ‘Jessica’ and how interview data has been turned into film. It starts in 2010 with a conversation between a researcher and a 17 year old woman and ends in 2013 with a short film about a young woman and her feelings of desire.

I met 17 year old ‘Jessica’ at a peer educators training session in spring 2010 whilst I was doing my PhD fieldwork in London. She completed a questionnaire and indicated that she would be interested in taking part in a focus group and/or an individual interview as part of my PhD research. I met Jessica again when she attended a focus group organised for young people who had not had many sexual experiences. Jessica was a confident and articulate participant with strong values, a bubble personality and endless stories about her friend’s relationship adventures.

When I interviewed Jessica several months later Jessica told more stories about her friends’ sexual experiences, ‘95%’ of which she informed me were ‘bad’. Jessica had kissed a boy once when she was in year 8 at school but had decided not to have any further sexual experiences until she was ‘at least 20’ and in a long term, committed relationship. When I asked her, Jessica also talked – more hesitantly – about her feelings of sexual desire and attraction; the ‘butterflies’ in her stomache, the sense of being pulled towards someone you are attracted to. Jessica was determined not to act on her desire and wavered between expressing strong conviction about her decision to not start a sexual relationship and a sense of confusion and uncertainty about what makes her different from her friends and why she chooses – no matter how strong her feelings of desire – to always say – ‘no, stop, move away’.


At a two-day creative workshop we used an extract from this interview as the basis for a visualisation activity, led by theatre director and writer Lucy Kerbel. It went like this:
We are in a training room in an office building in Old Street Lucy asks the group of 6 young people to sit or lie somewhere comfy. They are settled and quiet. Lucy asks the group to close their eyes and reads the following extract from the interview between E (me, the researcher) and J (the 17 year old woman who chose the pseudonym Jessica).

E: Do you have feelings that you would describe as sexual?
J: I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know. Um (pause) like if I’m around someone that I’m attracted to. (E: yeah) then I feel like, sexually attracted to them if that makes sense. (E: yeah) but I don’t know what that is, like.
E: How do you know when you are attracted to someone, how-yeah.
J: (Smiling) Cos…I get butterflies, I and things like that.
E: So it’s a physical feeling?
J: Yeah.
E: Yeah, Can you describe how else that feeling feels?
J: Um, like I feel sort of excited but then it’s like, I think calm down and (laughing) walk away from the situation (laughs). Um, um, I feel like smiling and things like that.
E: Yeah, and what do you do, if you are attracted to someone?
J: (Pause) You see that’s the thing like, I don’t like to do anything about it, I like to just go. Because it’s like, I don’t want this to go any further so it’s like so that’s when I always put that barrier and I’m like, no, stop, move away (laughs).
E: Are there people that you are attracted to? (J: Yeah.) People that you like?
J: Yeah but not like….like even if I am attracted to someone I don’t think like right now is a good time for me to get into a relationship that’s why I try to avoid it. Because like, right now….(sighs) I remember when I was at school. There was, that was when a lot of people started getting into relationships, around like when we were 15, 14 things like that. and even then I used to be like oh I’m not sure I want to get into a relationship right now because like, I need to focus on my education and like there’s quite a lot going on in my life right now, like my time’s being taken up so I’m not sure if a relationship is the best thing. And also, I knew loads of my friends were loosing their virginities at that age and I really didn’t want to loose my virginity. And I knew like a lot of them were regretting it, sort of, like ah, I was so stupid and I knew that those relationships lasted max 3 months until like he gets bored, or she gets bored (E: yeah) and then it’s like, it’s over. And I don’t think I could like put up with that. Like I would be devastated if that happened to me. That’s why I was like no, but like right now I am too young so then I was like, maybe later on. But then even when I went to college I was thinking, like oh I have got A levels right now and work and stuff like that and have I really got time for a relationship so I don’t know when the right time is. But not right now (Laughs. E joins in)

Lucy finishes reading the extract. Then she reads it again – this time asking the group to imagine the young woman in an environment in which she feels relaxed and comfortable.


‘Look out through the eyes of the person who is talking. You are looking out into the environment that you were imagining. What’s above you? Look down at your feet- look to one side and then to the other. What is the air like? Are you inside? Is it warm? Cool? What’s the quality of the air like?

Look around and spot one object. An object that appeals to that person. Move towards it, touch it, can you pick it up? Does it make any noise? How does the young person talking feel about that object? That place? Is the young person in a familiar place? Choose one word to describe that space. What would it be?’

Look out through the eyes of the person who is talking. You are looking out into the environment that you were imagining. What’s above you? Look down at your feet- look to one side and then to the other. What is the air like? Are you inside? Is it warm? Cool? What’s the quality of the air like?

Look around and spot one object. An object that appeals to that person. Move towards it, touch it, can you pick it up? Does it make any noise? How does the young person talking feel about that object? That place? Is the young person in a familiar place? Choose one word to describe that space. What would it be?

Day 1 Jessica Rebecca

The group open their eyes and Lucy asks them to each describe what they have just imagined. Their descriptions are rich, colourful and emotional, evoking a range of places in which a young woman might feel comfortable and relaxed in herself. Jessica is in a library with a book where she feels at home, quiet and peaceful. Jessica is at the beach on a tropical island. She is touching a smooth marble rock and feels a sense of deep emotional joy. Jessica is in her room, it’s messy and she has her laptop. It’s her space and she feels safe.

Lucy asks each group member to take a piece of blank piece of paper a pen and to write for 2 minutes, non-stop, almost without thinking. They are writing as if they are Jessica, expressing themselves to someone that they trust and feel comfortable with. One group member has English as a second language and has not been in the UK very long and another has a disability and only has the use of one hand. They all write furiously – focused.


There is a pause before Lucy asks the group to get comfy, close their eyes and listen again as she reads the extract for the third time, this time imaging Jessica is in a place where she doesn’t feel comfortable and is not relaxed. Imagine an object in the space. Think of word that described the space that they are in. This time Lucy walks softly around the room and when she taps each person on the shoulder they say the word that they are thinking of.

Still sitting and half-lying on the floor the group describe their scenes:
• At a house party. There’s a tin box. Jessica feels trapped.
• In Nandos with friends talking about their sexual experiences. There is a clock and Jessica is starring at it. Time is moving slowly.
• Jessica is in the car with her best friend. They are talking about the guy that they like. The object is the windscreen wipers.
• Jessica is in her bedroom. There is a hoody. She feels despair. The mood is dismal.
• On the bus, looking at her iPhone, feeling confused.
• At a party. It’s crowded. There is a cup. Jessica looks at the cup.

Lucy asks the group – who remain still and focused – to draw a line under their last piece of writing and write again for 2 minutes non-stop without thinking. This time, try to imagine, Lucy instructs, that you are Jessica, trying to express herself to someone that she is not comfortable talking to.

The group hand in their monologues to Lucy and as film maker Susi Arnott leads the group through a whistle-stop introductory master class in how to set up and identify different types of shot. Whilst the group play around with the camera Lucy rapidly reads the 12 short pieces of writing, using them to craft one monologue.

The monologue is based largely on one group member’s monologue and Lucy asks her to read and record the script. Her voice is captured by Susi who asks the young woman to learn inside a cardboard box lined with foam and speak into a voice recorder; the foam blocks out the surrounding noise and gives Patricia’s voice a rich. Intimate quality as if she is close-by, out of sight, but only centimeters away from our ears.

We have shifted – from data, to script, to voice. Now we need the images – the scene that will accompany the monologue.

The group receive a second masterclass on how to capture different emotional qualities using different types of shot. The group experiment with setting up different scenes in a disused office next door and capturing them from different angles. After this practice run Lucy sets the scene, drawing on the visualizations that the group described earlier. Jessica is in the library. Go, Lucy instructs the group, and create a library using whatever you can find in the offices and use the iPods to capture the scene on camera.


On task, slight chaos descends. As Susi and Lucy go and record the voice over with Patricia, the rest of the group experiment with shooting ‘Jessica’ in the ‘library’ from different angles. I try to inexpertly advise but on reflection we needed our film-making expert with us to advise on angles, to remind us to keep the camera horizontal, to stay out of each other’s shots when you are filming and to always line up the shot first and check it looks the way you want before you start filming. When Susi comes to edit the footage much of it is shakey and can’t be used. Susi manages an edit however and we get the group together the following week to watch the film and make suggestions about what to do next. Together we are able to shoot more footage and select which shots to leave in, take out, slow down and speed up for the next edit. During the session it feels as if the narrative of the film starts to emerge. This is the story of Jessica’s desire; her feelings of desire and attraction and her decision not to act on her desire but to instead focus on college and education. The film doesn’t follow Jessica – it doesn’t show us Jessica talking, interacting, flirting or walking away – it shows us her desire, her confusion, her self control. A quietly emotional, internal monologue behind a calm exterior.

The film – (not quite ready yet and currently referred to as ‘Jessica in the library’) emerged from a workshop which aimed to explore creative ways of ‘reanimating data’ – working together as a researcher, film-maker, theatre director and group of young people to find ways of bringing data to life and using film to communicate ideas about young people’s sexual lives that were captured in the research. What emerged from this process is a set of participatory methods and creative techniques for doing this as set out in this blog. It feels to me that these could be methods not just for creating film and disseminating research, but as means for enabling young people to listen to other young people’s stories, to imagine and empathise with desires and experiences that are not their own. I am not sure quite how these activities would translate into classrooms and outreach sex education sessions or what the quality of the filming would be like without the skills and experience of a professional film maker or young people who are well seasoned film-makers, but I would like to find out. If anyone wants to try – I have data extracts, iPod touches and an emerging bag of techniques. Just get in touch.

UPDATE: Take a look at the results of our first experiment with re-animating data. Here is Jessica’s story

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.