The sex education programme you wish you had
My introduction to sex education was coming across sex and city playing on channel 4 at the age of 10, I didn’t get any formal education until I was 14. The thought of inclusive discourses going on within schools felt unimaginable until I came across Split Banana.
Here I interview Anna Alexander (one half of Split Banana) about their approach to sex and relationship education and how to build an open and non judgemental space to dicuss identity, intimacy and healthy relationships.
What are the main aims/priorities of your programmes?
Our aim is for young people to have better relationships with themselves and those around them, and to understand how these exist in wider society.
We focus on giving young people the sexual health and legal knowledge they need to stay healthy and safe, alongside developing skills such as empathy, self-awareness and communication.
By the end of a Split Banana programme, young people are aware of RSE how topics and themes are influenced and impact wider systems of power and social justice.
We use arts-based learning: we believe in its power to develop reflection, curiosity and expression.
Was there a moment in your personal lives that led you to want to improve sex education?
There are too many moments to count! From talking about this to many people, I think pretty much everybody has some sort of trauma that could have been prevented had they or those around them had quality relationship and sex education. From how you feel about your body to how to navigate casual sex safely - there are a lot of gaps in the education we get.
Two big ones for me (Anna) were getting pregnant when I was 15 and seeing my best friend be in an abusive relationship for 4 years.
I had been taught how to put a condom on, but I hadn’t been prepared for the pressure to not wear one - the pressure to prioritise someone else’s pleasure over my own safety. A feeling that many of us can relate to.
And with my friend - I had been taught that abuse only counted if somebody got hit. People still ask this question when they hear the term abuse, and seem to think that the abuse is somehow ‘less than’ if it wasn’t physical. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to witness abuse, you’ll know that this isn’t true.
If me and my friends had all been taught how to name toxic and abusive behaviour and been given support around how to intervene, I think my friend would have received more of the support she needed.
And if the abuser had been taught to recognise their own problematic behaviours, would he have stopped? Who knows. Good RSE isn’t a silver bullet to stop abuse, but it’s definitely part of a bigger solution.
Either way, I know that both experiences would have been a lot less traumatic if me and everyone around me had better RSE.
How much work do you think has to be done until this kind of programme is implemented into schools?
So RSE has had it’s first curriculum update in 20 years, and whilst this is definitely a move forward there’s still a long way to go.
Even though RSE is now becoming mandatory in every school - for the first time ever - there’s next to no additional budget to implement it, and often no scheduled time on the curriculum.
For this reason, schools normally deliver RSE in one off sessions on ‘drop down days’, which whilst better than nothing, doesn’t provide the continued support that is needed for quality RSE.
Our long term dream is for all teachers to be comfortable, inspired and trained to deliver RSE topics and themes to be within their subjects. We want to see gender discussed confidently within English Literature; the colonial backdrop of beauty standards explored within History; cultural concepts of family and marriage within Religious Education; communication and body language played out within Drama. The list goes on.
This is why we’re moving towards teacher training programmes.
How do you feel your programme improves education about female pleasure in contrast to the government set curriculum?
This is really hard to give a short answer to!
If you search ‘pleasure’ in the government curriculum you get zero results. ‘Enjoying intimacy’ is probably about as close as you get.
I think that many people think that including pleasure within sex-ed is tantamount to encouraging 12 year olds to watch porn.
Many schools, educators and parents feel uncomfortable with the word ‘pleasure’ being included within RSE, and tend to avoid the topic altogether.
We think this is a mistake.
We include pleasure in the conversation by firstly teaching that penis-in-vagina (PIV) is only one type of sex.
Representation of sex as PIV still hugely dominates most of our sex-ed, and also our wider culture. We teach that this dominance is a symptom of a wider patriarchal and heteronormative culture.
Instead, we redefine what people think of as sex. We teach the difference between intercourse and outercourse - intercourse being penetrative and outercourse being oral sex and touching etc. This small change already validates and includes all of the different people that have sex, and begins to capture all of the different ways in which they do it.
This also forces us to move away from thinking about sex as just a means to reproduce, and instead to think about why we have sex, which is very often simply for pleasure.
And then when we take that notion, we can begin to see how it links with consent. If we believe that sex is a means of enjoying mutual pleasure, then asking questions such as ‘does that feel good’ or saying ‘that doesn’t feel good’ makes a lot more sense. If we can begin to understand the breadth of what counts as sexual acts, and get that they should be pleasurable, we begin to understand how we can embed consent throughout a sexual interaction.
I think expanding and validating what we think of as sex, is a crucial step in making female pleasure visible and valid within our RSE.
How can someone begin their process of re-educating themselves on sex and relationships if they are past high school age?
Depending on how and what you like to learn, there’s heaps of information online. There’s also a rise in really interesting events - I type in ‘sex’ into eventbrite once a month and look at all the stuff that’s going on.
If you want straight talking info on sexual health matters, you could look to sites such as Sexwise and Fumble.
Instagram is actually a great place for sex-ed. A lot of the stuff online is geared towards communities and voices which have been traditionally erased from RSE which is great.
No matter who you are I encourage you to fill your feed with sex-ed from multiple perspectives and communities. Try to understand how the topics intersect and are impacted by our identities and experiences.
One of the perspectives which I find lacking within the RSE landscape in general, is a voice/ info geared towards cis-het boys.
A sex-ed which is dominated by patriarchal values and voices serves no one. It is also failing at supporting boys in how to have healthy relationships and sex lives.
I’d like to see more cis-het men respectfully stepping up and into the sex-ed space. If this could be you - let’s talk.
Considering the broadness of sex education, what issues have you have to personally educate yourselves to ensure you are truly inclusive? and do you have any topics you hope to add in the future?
So many! Relationships and sex are inseperable from the tapestry of our lives, and as such, what’s relevant to one person is irrelevant to another.
As white, cis, het/bi, able bodied, thin, middle class women many of our experiences aren’t going to be relevant to the vast majority of people.
We run ‘What I Wish I’d Known’ workshops with different groups and communities, to create a RSE which is relevant and inclusive to as many people as possible.
Sex-ed is definitely a growing space, and one which has heaps of amazing voices within it, which offer new perspectives on topics on a daily basis.
We’re currently doing some work with the amazing Enhance the UK, so are learning a lot about navigating sex and relationships when you have a physical disability. Ariel Henley wrote a great article for Teen Vogue about the importance of teaching sex-ed which is inclusive of people with disabilities - definitely worth a read.
We’re also reading Queer Sex by Juno Roche (as recommended by Category Is book shop - check them out) which is so good and really makes you reflect on how you think about sex.
If your students only took one thing away from the programmes what would you want it to be?
Find a space where you can explore and look into these topics, safely and without judgement. Whether online, in books, with trusted friends, adults or all of the above. Don’t rely on porn.
You’ll know when you’re on the right track when you feel more comfortable in your own skin, more respectful of others, and can begin to see how healthy and happy relationships take many forms.
Interview by Caitlin Klara