Review of Channel 4's Sex in Class from a relationship and sex educator's perspective.In this review I will try and bring my perspective as a relationship and sex educator to look at Channel 4's one off show Sex In Class. The show is about a Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens testing out her approach to relationship and sex education for 15-16 year olds at a Lancashire school. You can read some great overall reviews from Jules Hillier at Brook and Sam Wollaston at the Guardian of the show. In this blog I am trying to focus specifically on my my perspective as a relationship and sex educator on Goedele's content and approach.
|Goedele Liekens with her charges in Sex in Class. Photograph: Matt Squire
We quickly get into Goedele's first lesson with 13 students who volunteered to be a part of the project. I was intrigued that the group was so small, in previous channel 4 shows about sex education they often involve entire year groups. I am unsure if this decision was driven by filming constraints, school limitations, a request from Goedele for a small group or a lack of volunteers. What ever the reason a group of just 13 students from a school year who volunteered to be on TV is a very different group to work with then what most relationship and sex educators work with on an average day. However, I was keen to see what I could learn from her sessions. I wanted to very delibratly think seperately about Goedele's content and approach.
Content - key difference
Overall if I had to say what the main difference in content between Goedele's sessions and the majority of UK RSE I have seen and been involved with I would say the focus on pleasure is what stands out. Now pleasure is not something UK based RSE workers ignore, in fact it was the focus of a workshop I lead last year at the Esteem Resource Network Conference and people like the fpa have been talking about it since at least 2011. But unlike Goedele I believe it is usually brought in as a part of RSE not the core subject which the rest of the materials are built around. This core theme of pleasure came up throughout the show. Apart from making pleasure so central everything she covered is covered by good Relationship and sex educators working in the UK today. For me I have always built my work around the concept of healthy relationships. Pleasure is a part of this but is not the only measure. I finished the show wondering if we need to bring pleasure more into the centre?
Approach - key difference
Goedele is very direct and blunt. But her approach goes beyond just being blunt. I felt Goedele got much more personal with the students views and experiences (however, she seemed to have toned her approach down for the UK, in Belgium she says she would sometimes give out sex toys at the the end of a course). I saw this personal focus both in the way she interacted with the young people and the type of homework she sets. I rarely see this kind of personal direct questioning in the UK. In fact I have often gone the other way, encouraging students to make situations and questions abstract as a way to encourage the students to be more honest in their questions and responses. Goedele flips this on its head. Using an example from the show Goedele got the boys to choose from a large number of photos which vulva they personally found most attractive but if I had planned that activity I would have been more likely to ask "Which of these vulvas do you think most boys your age find attractive?" This approach was repeated through out the show. Goedele directly asks a girl about a porn scene the group wrote which ended with the guy ejaculating onto the females face. Goedele asked Beth "you said, 'That's the ideal situation, that's how I would love to..'?" She makes the question personal to Beth. It becomes a question about if Beth would enjoy a male cumming on her face personally.
Some of the homework is equally personal, she instructs the males in the group to shave all their pubic hair off every day for a week. It is a personal experiential learning assignment to literally help the boys understand how many girls feel. She gives them the shaving foam and razor to complete the homework. I wonder at what age would I be comfortable setting this? For the females in the group the personal homework was to give out hand mirrors with the instructions to look at their own vulvas to better understand their own bodies. Now the advice to make use of hand mirrors can be found in many books and pamphlets about puberty. But does this advice become more personal when it becomes set as homework. Goedele further instructs the group "If you have the courage to feel with a finger inside, please do. You don't have to do anything that really makes you feel uncomfortable. If you feel too bad about it whilst you are trying it you can stop of course. But you have to know your own body." We see at least one father ringing to complain about this homework and the school's teaching staff seem undecided on the homework. "Would I be happy with them having that..set them as a homework? Do you know? I can't honestly say. I'm undecided. If it works why not?"
I really want to know what the impact of this personal approach had to the young people's own learning. By the end of the show both the males and the females seemed to be expressing that their attitudes and emotions around sex had improved. Did Goedele's sessions have an impact on attitudes because of the personalisation or the material or was the content transformative on its own? This was the biggest question I left the show with, I would love to hear what other people think.
Other bits that stood out to me as an educator.
In the 2nd lesson Goedele says to the class "if you watch pornography you know there is a lot of lies and stupid things." This statement caught me by surprise, in the first activity we saw about pubic hair it seemed like most of the boys didn't understand how porn misrepresents what is "normal". But she acts like everyone in the room agrees porn is misleading and I wonder how many young people really believe this. This may have been a deliberate phrasing of a statement to get the group to quickly accept a (possibly) new opinion. There is subtle flattery in this statement, "you know this", "you're smart" "it obvious" that may help people to accept this statement unchallenged. Therefore, the following exercises build on the premises of porn lying.
We hear some of the school's teachers commenting on this lesson about porn especially when the boys started acting up to what you could call very laddish stereotypes. One teacher said "It is difficult as a teacher to see the lesson, Your kind of automatic response is to tell them off, 'No, don't do that, don't do that,' 'No, you're wrong thinking that.' Every part of me wanted to go in and kind of tell those lads to be quiet, and get more of a balance." and another teacher commentated "she didn't challenge what they said". This opens up a fascinating aspects of RSE, how much do we need to be open to views we might think are wrong or unhelpful. When is the right moment to question a statement and when is is it right to let something be expressed. I think Goedele did a good job of getting a balance but its a thin line. Letting young people express themselves is very important but some of the comments could have made it harder for other members of the group to express their opinions.
The lesson on vulva and vagina is split by gender. This seems to really help the female group grow in confidence to ask questions and share ideas. I was briefly worried the males would not get the same lesson but thankfully they soon showed the boys going through teh same material. I completely agreed with this approach. By default I think the interactions between male and female students in lessons can lead to some great revelations and discussions. But now and then groups can benefit from single sex groups. The same material may be delivered to both but the discussion and focus shifts with the group
The show finishes with all 13 students sitting a mock relationship and sex GCSE. Goedele confidently states "you can see that they really want to do well, that they think it's important to have good grades. So, an exam is the way to have them take it seriously." I'm still not sure what I think about this idea. Most of the time I feel our school system racks up too much pressure with exams and constant grading. That constant pressure having a negative emotional impact on many young people. So would another exam just add to that burden. Or would an exam help to raise up the importance of RSE in the minds of pupils and teachers. The show clearly showed it was possible to grade some of the students knowledge and possibly some of their attitudes. But could a grade really express what we are aiming RSE to achieve.
I could write a load more but that is probably enough for today. This was another thought provoking show that highlights the need for better RSE across all schools for all pupils. For these 13 pupils Goedele's approach seemed to work at the end of the show 2 comments stood out to me. Male in the group "The most important thing is respect" Female in the group "I'm already putting what I've learnt into practice. I'm already more confident". I am still undecided how much of this positive outcome was due to the content or the approach or maybe a mixture of both.
I think we have a lot to learn from other approaches to RSE around the world. Some things may be culturally relevant and appropriate just to a specific location but other ideas and approaches need to be shared. Whilst coverage is patchy the quality of some RSE in the UK is very high. We need to hope we can help spread the good practice to every corner of the UK and always be ready to learn more ourselves.
Other quotes from the show
About males watching porn "they get all these images in their head, and expect girls like us to be that certain way and do stuff that certain way"
About pubic hair "I would leave a girl if she had a hairy fanny".
Goedele observed that "What was happening in the classroom was what happens in porn, male domination"
Female talking about the boys comments about sex and porn "We were quite shocked at what they were saying"
Boy "Cos most girls get jizzed on their face or in their mouth, so I don't think they will be bothered" Goedele challenged this stating clearly that most females don't enjoy this
Boy "If she gives me consent to shag her I'm sure I can come on her face" Other boy "I reckon you should clarify it with them first before you do it."
Update on shaving homework, "I've been itchy all day"
"We know the influence of porn is there so we need a counterbalance" Goedele