Introducing a new segment to HANX, the HANX Power Woman.
This month we interviewed Ruby Stevenson, an education specialist at Brook. Brook has been putting young people’s health and wellbeing first for 50 years, often swimming against the tide, but always putting young people front and centre. They provide services in local communities, education programmes, training for professionals and campaign to ensure that young people are better equipped to make positive and healthy lifestyle choices. Ruby is making a positive impact in the world of sexual education and wellbeing and it's our absolute pleasure to welcome her as our first ever power woman. This interview coincides with Sexual Health Week 2018 and we can't think of anyone better for the first in what we hope will be a long series.
Here's what she had to say...
Can you sum up Brook, its origin, and its main intentions?
Brook is the only national charity to offer both clinical sexual health services as well as education & wellbeing services for young people. In 1964 Helen Brook opened her first sexual health and advice centre for unmarried women, a controversy at the time, in an effort to reduce the number of illegal abortions. This bold and pioneering legacy is one we are proud to continue to this day.
Our team of clinical experts consists of doctors, nurses, counsellors, and specialists. All are highly skilled in delivering sexual health services to young people. Our relationships and sex education (RSE) is delivered nationwide by our team of education experts and we also provide professionals’ training to upskill those working with young people. Additionally, our online help and advice and digital RSE resources complement our frontline services and enable us to reach those who may not have access to our clinics or education programmes.
You work with young people-how do you approach sexual health in an accessible and engaging way? I imagine it can be an awkward or laughable subject for a lot of young people.
At Brook, we're in a good position because we're all trained to deliver engaging educational sessions to young people in a variety of different settings. While the topics we discuss can be embarrassing for lots of people, it's something we talk about every day so we're better prepared to answer any questions in a matter-of-fact manner. After working at Brook for a number of years it's almost impossible to embarrass me with an RSE-related question! It's important to create a welcoming atmosphere, and centre the session around young people's contributions and opinions. Everyone's got an opinion about RSE topics, and I encourage respectful debate in lessons. I also ensure I'm never making assumptions about young people in order to be as accessible as possible - the language I use is gender neutral, and I never assume the sex we are discussing is heteronormative.
What’s your background Ruby? How did you get involved and why?
I've been involved with Brook for three years. I initially got involved with Brook as a volunteer, as I was interested to learn more about sexual health and thought it was an important topic to feedback to peers. From there I began delivering educational sessions and then started working full time. I got involved because sex and sexual health are topics people tend to shy away from, and that can have negative effects on a person's life, I wanted to contribute to normalising these conversations. Before working with Brook, I was involved in the campaign to decriminalise sex work, interviewing a number of sex workers on their stance on the UK law surrounding their work.
Why is it important to discuss sexual health with young people and how do you think it impacts their lives in the long-term?
Evidence shows that good, comprehensive relationships and sex education which starts before the onset of sexual activity does not make children and young people more likely to have sex. In fact, it helps them to delay starting sex and makes them more likely to use contraception when they do. Children and young people repeatedly tell researchers that they believe the sex education they receive is too little, too late and too biological and they often don’t know where to go for advice. Brook has robust safeguarding procedures and is committed to ensuring that young people are protected. RSE plays a crucial part in this. For example, we need to ensure that young people learn about body parts from an early age and can use their correct names so that they have the right language to discuss any concerns. Additionally teaching young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships enables them to recognise signs of abuse in order to stay safe and develop into confident adults.
What’s one of the best days/sessions/moments you’ve had working with Brook?
I once taught a session on Pornography to a class of 14-year-old young men. We were discussing things people see in porn which may create unrealistic expectations of 'real world' sex, and I was asked a question about female pleasure. In my answer, I spoke about the clitoris, and was stunned to realise none of the students in the class had ever heard that word before! We spent a while talking about the anatomy of different genitals and the importance of pleasure during sex, as part of consent, and I left the session feeling like I'd given a lot of the students a really important life lesson. The young men seemed pretty amazed (and jealous) to learn the clitoris is the only organ in the human body which has no other purpose than creating pleasure!
Why should organizations/institutions come to you specifically?
Not only are we experts in sexual health, but we are also experts in how to communicate these messages to young people to help improve their wellbeing. I have friends who are teachers and have had to deliver RSE to their classes (with little to no training), this can be really awkward for students as well as putting professionals in an uncomfortable position. It's unlikely young people are going to be able to ask the questions they want to a staff member who'll be teaching them maths the next day! Without adequate training, there is also a risk that RSE lessons are led by opinions and not based on facts. We know that there are many schools out there doing great work teaching young people RSE but we believe this should be in addition to our impartial advice and sessions.
How do you think we can remove the stigma around sexual health and contraception? When you talk about it with young people, do they voice any concerns? What are they?
The best way to remove stigma is by continuing the conversation, not sensationalising it and encouraging people to discuss sexual health and contraception with confidence in their own lives. A big part of that is giving young people good foundational RSE, and directing them to appropriate services. The most frequent concern I see from young people is about how to communicate with other people about all this - particularly regarding discussing contraception, consent, and pleasure with partners. There are great sex-positive communities across the UK, but for the majority of young people they're not accessing these groups, and sexual health is still an embarrassing conversation which people would rather not have. It's our job to help normalise these conversations so young people are able to make positive choices in their lives.
Stay tuned for our next Power Woman post.