Sex Education: Experiences, Practices and Policies in the ‘Whirlwind’

Welcome again to the CILIA podcast series – a series reflecting the findings, talking points and work in progress of our CILIA project ‘Comparing Intersectional Lifecourse Inequalities among LGBTQI+ Citizens in 4 European Countries’. I’m Yvette Taylor a professor in the School of Education, University of Strathclyde and Scotland-based PI. I hope you’ll listen to the complete podcasts with Lou Brodie, Dr Churnjeet Mahn, Professor Sharon Cowan and Lucy Whitehouse.

In this one I speak to Lucy Whitehouse who is the founder and director of Fumble which is a sex education charity in the UK. Fumble makes digital resources on sex, relationships, healthy bodies, puberty, and mental health, co-creating content with young people, for young people. Impressively, Fumble reaches 200,000 young people a year:

Here I talk to Lucy about experiences of, failures in and importance of sex and relationships education, which CILIA respondents in Scotland had much to say about. Conversations with interviewees were often rather similar across the age range – which challenges the idea of generational difference, and increasing school improvements in formal sex education. CILIA is framed by and attentive to key transitional periods – school experience, school to (un)employment, and post-employment and retirement – as fundamental to lifecourse analysis. That said, analysis of data has suggested ways in which respondents’ experience and sense of ‘transitions’ confound these often go-to normative measures. Respondents’ sense of feeling themselves as changing, stagnating, going back and forward, are disruptive to ideas of the lifecourse, with participants ‘coming out’ or ‘re-closeting’ over time and place, online and offline

Aware of the empirical divergences from the celebratory rhetroric on progress, I started with the repeated question of whether things are ‘getting better’ for LGBTQI+ people, or if we should be cautious if not cynical about these claims (see here), even in the midst of policy-making for LGBT Inclusive Curriculum. Another consideration is the threat to educational equality work and provision, put on hold in the context of school closures and responses to the pandemic, and potentially slipping to the ‘bottom of the agenda’ (with funding implications for LGBTQI+ organisations and allied organisations, like Fumble). And there may be persistent gaps between policy intensions and the translation to practice, as Lucy cautions:

‘I’m cautious that although we hear some really good headlines and we hear things like the Scottish Government saying they want to be world leading on inclusive education, how much of that gets translated into the experiences of lonely 15 year old living in potentially dangerous homophobic family settings, that kind of thing is a real question for us…’

As Lucy states these positive intentions are often counteracted with negative ‘backlash’:
‘Sometimes you’ll hear really negative headlines on this topic and it’s difficult to pick up the thread … in this media type of whirlwind of news that we get nowadays, to pick out whether there is any progress being made’.

Lucy highlights the sourcing of other information – from peers and online – as classrooms are insufficient in equipping young people with anything other than basic ‘tick box’ material, as echoed by CILIA participants. Within even cursory information, the prevailing power of heterosexuality as notmative was conveyed, including in mysterious gaps and somewhat funny classroom arrivals:

‘I don’t ever remember it being discussed in school, like primary school or high school. I do remember the sex education that we got in primary school. It was, you know, ‘a man and a woman do this’ and, you know, ‘here’s having a baby’, and, you know, that was kind of it. And then in high school it was the same in a lot more detail, but there was no, it was just man, woman, that was it’.
Ailsa (23yrs, white, asexual, panromantic, queer, lesbian, cis woman)

‘… do you know, Kevin and Sadie are going out, next thing Kevin and Sadie are engaged, Kevin and Sadie are married. Nine months later Kevin and Sadie have a baby. How we get there (laughs), you know, how we get there is a bit of a mystery at this point (laughs)…’
Lynne (45 yrs, white, trans woman)

‘… when that stuff is presented it’s presented as man plus woman equals baby, that kind of stuff…’
Rory (20yrs, white, asexual cis man)

These responses suggest embedded repetitions across time and place, even as some respondents also expressed a sense of young people today having more or better information. As with our research findings on the importance of social networks, online and offline, Lucy highlights the role of social media in enabling different kinds of sexual and gender identifications:

‘…we get quite a lot of enthusiasm from older people who are from the LGBTQ plus community who say this is the kind of thing, I really wish I’d had this website and social media kind of resources where you can have this space. And again we do hear sort of positive anecdotal evidence of young people having and you know, young people being more open to ideas of gender fluidity and sexuality being on a spectrum. And it’s, I mean, for us, that’s very heartening …’

In CILIA, social media is queerly navigated, with participants across the age range navigating possibilities as well as risks, varying from a positive sense of being seen and embraced as part of LGBTQI+ online communities, to a sense of limitation and hostility, restricting expression and participation. Given this, I asked Lucy about the possibilities of learning outside of formal classroom contexts and if, in creating ‘LGBT Inclusion’ we should still be looking to teachers, or if we need to look elsewhere. Here Lucy flags the importance of viewing learners – whether young people or as generationally stretched to include lifelong learners – as being proactive in their own education and ‘evolution’:

‘… I think that is something that is again quite exciting about digital space, is that the sort of binary hierarchy of who’s educating and who’s being educated becomes more fluid. Because of this exchange of ideas, this exchange of experiences, and certainly we find that at Fumble what’s exciting about our work is that we do work directly with young people and co-create our content with them. And so we are responding to not just the issues that young people are facing, which are evolving all the time….’

The LGBTQI+ community has arguably always had to be creative and explorative in ‘living difference’ beyond normative frames and expectations, echoed by Lucy:

‘I think LGBTQI+ young people have historically relied more alternative forms of education alternative forms of community building and alternative forms of like peer to peer support and that has been really essential, as well. And that peer to peer support because of not having that representation in mainstream education or culture and not to overstate that…’

The question of living and doing difference is one for academic engagement and practice and here I asked Lucy about the potential for academic and practitioner collaboration, realising that this can be as much a question of structures and resources, as well as individual or community ‘goodwill’. The idea of a ‘feedback loop’ as a check and balance is a good basic, especially when unpicking empirical data with ‘real life’ policy and practice relevance:

‘… there is a feedback loop of demand for that kind of research … You and I keep returning this idea of this, these questions are great questions like ‘Are we making progress? Or are we not and how do we quantify that?’ I can tell you from my experience of working in a nonprofit with young people, the kind of themes that come up for me. But is that representative of wider society and where would I get my information, if not from academic research and how would you know that that’s a question that’s coming up unless you ask people like me?’

I hope listeners will enjoy the podcast contribution, as I’ve enjoyed thinking through how questions of sex education provision are (un)resolved in policy, practice and everyday experiences.
You can listen to the podcast series on the links below, thanks to Amanda Stanley for production and Kim Moore for music.
Google Podcasts:
Apple Podcasts:
Pocket Casts:

And our most recent newsletter is available here:

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