• Help & Advice
  • Find a Service
    Close icon

Our beliefs

Read our positions on key issues affecting the sexual health and wellbeing of the nation

We recognise that in order to meet young people’s needs we must lead the debate in the controversial, difficult subjects that affect them.

We will continue to be proactive in our lobbying and advocacy work in order to keep young people’s rights at the forefront of the political agenda.

Our position statements outline our beliefs, our vision for young people and our approach, all supported by evidence and useful resources.

Relationships and sex education (RSE)

Brook believes…
  • All young people have the right to high quality Relationships and Sex Education (RSE).
  • RSE is a critical component of safeguarding children
  • RSE is protective and supports young people to stay safe, be healthy and develop enjoyable relationships.
  • Relationships and Sex Education should begin at the start of primary school and continue to the end of secondary education through a spiral or developmental curriculum which begins in reception and builds year on year on children’s knowledge and understanding.
  • The introduction of mandatory RSE in all secondary schools from September 2020 was a positive development.
  • RSE must be taught across a range of alternative settings including pupil referral units, informal education, criminal justice and social care settings to meet the needs of young people outside of schools.
  • Primary schools need clarity about how Relationships and Health Education and science can and should provide factual and timely information on the human body,  puberty, and human reproduction; and on which aspects of the curriculum are mandatory and which are defined as sex education and are non-mandatory.
  • RSE should be comprehensive – addressing biological, developmental, and emotional aspects of sex, sexual development, sexuality and relationships.
  • RSE should be evidence-based – drawing on accurate scientific and medical information and directing young people to reliable sources of accurate information.
  • RSE should be timely and age-appropriate – to ensure that it is relevant to children’s experiences, developmental levels and behaviours; and so that children are prepared for forthcoming changes to their bodies, feelings and relationships.
  • RSE must be up to date and address current and emerging challenges and issues: informed by expert intelligence from sexual health and young people’s organisations locally and nationally.
  • RSE must be inclusive of and relevant to all students including LGBT+ students, and students of all abilities and disabilities; including those that are educated in PRUs, alternative provisions and home-schooled.
  • RSE is not effective if it focuses solely on risk and harm.
  • RSE should raise young people’s aspirations and give them the communication tools, skills and knowledge to expect and develop positive, pleasurable relationships.
  • RSE must reflect young people’s expressed needs. Schools and other providers should routinely ask and evaluate what young people want to learn and the most effective methods of teaching and learning.
  • Comprehensive RSE is relevant to all young people regardless of their cultural, ethnic or religious background and depriving any child of their entitlement to accurate RSE makes children and young people more vulnerable and denies them the necessary tools to lead a healthy life.
  • The right of parents to withdraw their children should be discouraged and must be mitigated by excellent communication between schools and parents including: evidence on the safeguarding benefits of RSE; information on the contents and timing of the curriculum; and provision of guidance and evidence-based materials to support parents to supplement school RSE at home.
  • Schools should inform young people whose parents have withdrawn them from RSE lessons that they have the right to opt into participating in lessons 3 terms before their 16th birthday.
  • Brook’s young people’s manifesto and the 12 principles agreed by the Sex Education Forum and its partners (including Brook) represent a good basis for quality RSE.
  • RSE must inform young people of their rights to confidential health information, advice and treatment and support young people to access health services in their local area.
Brook would like to see…
  • Every young person to have experienced good quality, comprehensive, inclusive RSE whatever the religious character of their school or whether they experienced their education in other settings.
  • All young people to be able to make active, informed and healthy choices; and enjoy safe and pleasurable relationships.
  • RSE included in initial teacher training for all primary and secondary teachers.
  • RSE developed as a specialist subject for teachers.
  • The government to provide adequate resource for training to upskill the teaching workforce and ensure sufficient numbers of teachers are competent, informed and confident to delivery RSE.
  • An ongoing programme of continuing professional development for teachers to ensure RSE keeps up to date with pedagogical developments, and continues to reflect up to date intelligence on current and emerging challenges for young people.
  • Guidance to provide more clarity for primary schools on what they need to teach.
  • The removal of caveats in the guidance that schools may use to deprive their students of comprehensive, accurate and inclusive RSE.
  • The Government actively promote LGBT inclusivity in RSE and across school life, and to support schools to tackle anti-LGBT campaigning at local and national level.
  • The removal of parents’ rights to withdraw children from RSE, so that RSE is brought in line with other statutory subjects.
  • For appropriate RSE topics to be taught across further and higher education.
Brook teaches…
  • Through participative, informative workshops in schools and other settings aimed at generating evidence-based discussion around sex, sexuality and relationships; increasing young people’s knowledge; and providing them with vocabulary and skills to communicate with their peers, parents and professionals.
  • Factual information about sex, sexuality, reproduction, sexual behaviour and relationships.
  • Young people the importance of accessing accurate information from reliable sources.
  • Lessons on: puberty; consent and sexual boundaries; sex and the law; sexuality and gender; sex and pleasure; safer sex and how to prevent unintended pregnancy and STIs; pregnancy testing, pregnancy decision-making and pregnancy options including abortion; healthy relationships; thinking critically about pornography and its impact; the legal, moral and practical issues around sharing sexual images; body image, body diversity and healthy bodies; HIV, PreP and the importance of prevention, early diagnosis, testing and treatment; and about child sexual exploitation, gangs and keeping safe.
  • Through our online platform, Brook Learn which is free at point of access and available to professionals and parents.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, useful links and resources

Factual briefing:

Useful links and resources:

Context:

Age-appropriate RSHE

The forthcoming Government guidance on RSHE will have a big focus on age-appropriateness. We encourage anyone designing or delivering RSHE to address a wide range of factors when assessing what to deliver and when:

Is a topic age-appropriate?

Will the topic be introducing concepts that we wouldn’t expect children or young people to know about, care about or have the capacity to understand at their age? If so, it isn’t age-appropriate.

Conversely, is this a topic that many are already curious about, exposed to, talking about, googling, or need to know about to stay safe? If so, it is age-appropriate to teach about it.

When deciding if something is age-appropriate we can’t focus on an idealised version of what we would like children to be exposed to at that age, but on giving them the tools to make sense of and stay safe in the real world they live in. These needs may not be captured or met by hard age-limits on topics or materials.

Any age-limits laid down in guidance might become obsolete very quickly as new experiences, behaviours and threats emerge through young people’s access to technology.

To create a curriculum that is right for your pupils it is important to also ask the following questions:

Are the lessons timely?

Are we ensuring that lessons prepare children and young people for changes and challenges that are coming soon, rather than simply reflecting back on key events in their lives when it’s too late to change anything.

For example:

  • Are we preparing children for what to expect during puberty in advance, so it isn’t distressing and confusing when it happens?
  • Are we talking about keeping physically and emotionally safe in romantic and sexual relationships before they happen so that young people can make healthy choices, manage risk and avoid harm?
  • Are we addressing increasingly earlier access to pornography by providing young people with the information they need to find safer sources of information about sex; the skills they need to make sense of what they are seeing; the attitudes and values to understand why many of the messages it promotes are problematic; and the resilience to recognise any harmful impact it is having on them and to seek help?

Young people often tell us that their RSE lessons were ‘too little too late’ i.e. they were not timely, and they were forced to educate themselves on many issues. (see new NSPCC research, Sex Education Forum Young People’s Poll, Brook research on Sexual Harassment and RSE, to be published).

Are lessons developmentally appropriate?

Often hard and fast rules about age don’t relate to what teachers see in their classrooms. There may be regional or local differences in children’s social and emotional development that mean schools will hold back or accelerate aspects of their curriculum. This is why Brook refers to lessons as being age and stage appropriate

There may be a range of different needs within an individual year group or even an individual classroom. Good lesson planning, differentiated resources, and skilled facilitation can help to address the spectrum of knowledge, maturity and need in the classroom.

Children with Special Educational Needs require and have a right to good RSHE too. They are at higher risk of abuse and exploitation and may need a significantly different curriculum to keep them healthy and safe. This may entail a bigger emphasis on certain topics, different timing of lessons and more repetition of lessons to embed important messages.

In some special schools, classes encompass a wide age range, with pupils grouped by capacity, academic, physical and social skills rather than by age. So, the concept of age-appropriateness may have limited use.

When do we start to introduce key concepts and topics?

It isn’t always about what topic to introduce at a given age, but how we introduce it.

It is best practice to develop a spiral, developmental or building blocks curriculum. This means teaching children basic concepts, language, knowledge and skills relevant to all RSHE topics from early years. This creates a strong foundation to build on each year by revisiting and gradually adding in increasingly detailed information and increasingly complex concepts as children grow up, experience puberty and move into adolescence and adulthood.

This approach ensures that topics are regularly revisited, supporting pupils who missed classes or joined the school later; and helps to reinforce concepts and consolidate understanding. See examples of a spiral curriculum below.

How do we assess age and developmental stage appropriateness, and what is timely?

There are many sources of information that can help guide someone designing a curriculum or scheme of work:

Safeguarding expertise

The school’s designated safeguarding lead and local multiagency safeguarding hub will be aware of the prevalence of issues such as sexual harassment in and outside of school, sexual image sharing, online grooming, sexual exploitation, self-harm, substance use, more vulnerable sexually active students and a range of potential safeguarding issues.

Classroom experience

The more time spent delivering RSHE the better teachers become at designing a curriculum and planning lessons that are pitched right for pupils’ age, stage and needs. Some external providers have decades of experience shared across large teams of practitioners and are delivering RSE every day. Schools can best accumulate this expertise by supporting consistency of staff teams delivering the RSHE curriculum and providing routine opportunities for them to share and cascade their knowledge.

Listening to young people

Schools and RSE organisations must systematically engage young people in curriculum design through surveys and focus groups: asking older year groups to reflect back on the usefulness of past RSE; and asking younger people what they need to know about now.

Teachers can capture and share questions asked by pupils in the classroom that arise ad hoc, or via anonymous question boxes (or ‘ask it baskets’). These questions provide useful clues and cues as to what young people want and need to know.

Listening to what is being spoken about in the classroom and the corridor. Is there a lot of reference to pornography or misogynist influencers? Is everyone discussing the latest storyline in Hollyoaks or the latest episode of Love Island? What is the content of the TikTok accounts pupils are talking about?

Keeping up to date with surveys, and research carried out by and with young people about their experience of RSE by expert organisations in the voluntary sector.

Parents

Consultation with parents can ensure RSHE planning is informed by any concerns they have about their children’s current questions, behaviours, life online and more: helping schools to build a fuller picture of children’s lives to ensure RSHE content is timely and relevant.

Local Authority public health teams can provide data to help inform schools on the age range for the onset of puberty and local rates of STIs and pregnancy disaggregated by age and area; as well as prevalence of other health issues such as substance use, disordered eating, mental health issues and more.

National data from the Department of Health and Social Care, UKHSA, the NATSAL Surveys, the medical royal colleges can help inform about key health issues at a national level and over time. RSHE also remains a rich area for academic research including research about what young people need to know and the most effective ways to teach.

Dealing with ad hoc questions

It is inevitable that ad hoc questions will arise in the RSHE classroom and in other subject lessons, that don’t fit the planned curriculum timings. Some of these may be feel precocious or concerning. Educators need to make a judgment about which questions they feel it is useful or appropriate to answer. It may feel safest to defer by offering to think about the question and find the right information for the next lesson while considering:

Is this question just something this individual young person needs an answer to now and if so does that raise a safeguarding flag? Brook’s Traffic Lights Tool may provide some useful insights to support decisions about this.

Is this question being asked mischievously to embarrass or test the boundaries of the teacher? If so, is it an opportunity to provide more useful or appropriate information?

Is this a question that keeps coming up, suggesting that this is something more generally on the radar of the pupils and needs to be addressed with this and other classes?

It’s not all about the curriculum

RSHE lessons may be schools’ key vehicle for teaching about relationships, sex and health, but teaching and learning does not just happen in self-contained lessons, but across the whole school. Questions and conversations can arise any time – in the classroom, the playground, the lunch hall – all teaching and support staff need confidence to deal appropriately with RSHE topics that arise organically in conversation.

A focus on curriculum content must not detract from valuing and improving the way in which we can develop and model kindness, consent and healthy relationships and RSE skills throughout the school community and in every interaction, for example through:

  • the development of shared values around inclusion, anti-bullying and equality
  • development of the kinds of social skills that are necessary to implement all the information and facts we teach, about how to be safe and healthy
  • the critical thinking skills that support young people to make sense of information wherever it comes from: online, family, peers, media; and to curate helpful, informative and supportive social media feeds
  • the resilience, communication skills and healthy bystander behaviours needed to participate in communities/friendship groups and develop healthy relationships on and offline.
Teaching through a spiral curriculum – some brief examples

About consent

Early years teachers are already teaching about consent every time they encourage a child to ask permission before borrowing a toy from another child, or teach pupils how to say that they don’t want to join in an activity with their peers. They are teaching children to manage their feelings and accept their friend’s answer when they refuse their permission or don’t want to join in.

By the end of secondary school lessons about consent will be addressing everything from discussing consent in relation to the law; the importance of consent in healthy enjoyable relationships; and some critical thinking about how sexual consent is or isn’t addressed in media representations of relationships.

About bodies and safe touch

Teaching young children accurate terminology for body parts and an understanding of private body parts not only enables them to recognise and report abuse from an early age, but lays the foundation for talking about puberty, fertility, human reproduction, sex, and sexual harassment and bullying in later years.

About healthy relationships

In early years identifying and talking about the different kinds of relationships we have in our lives (parents /carers, siblings, friends, teachers etc) and what is nice and what is different about each of those, sets a foundation for learning about healthy relationships in more complex ways throughout the key stages.

Primary school lessons on what makes us feel safe and valued; how to recognise and respond to bullying; staying safe online and off; addressing values of kindness and mutual respect; how to recognise and manage feelings and to communicate about them, resisting peer pressure…all lay the foundations for talking about healthy romantic, sexual and committed relationships later on, in secondary school.

Reproductive rights and abortion

Brook believes…
  • Reproductive health and rights (as defined by the United Nations) are human rights and should be given a higher priority in UK health policy.
  • Reproductive rights (which include, but are not limited to, the right to choose the number and spacing of your children, access to contraception, safe maternity and safe abortion) are fundamental to health, gender equality and to women’s* ability to fully participate in society.
  • Denying or limiting people’s sexual and reproductive rights can have lifelong consequences.
  • The risk of unplanned pregnancy should be addressed through RSE, better public education and easy access to high quality contraceptive services in a range of settings.
  • Anyone who is pregnant should have the legal right to decide whether to continue or end their pregnancy and the practical support to enact their choice.
  • Impartial support with decision-making and/or counselling should be provided for those who need or request it.
  • Teenage parents should be given practical support in pregnancy and parenthood to achieve the best possible outcomes for parents and children.
  • Abortion should be free, safe and accessible.
  • Abortion should be regulated and delivered in line with current evidence in order to ensure best clinical care
  • Abortion is healthcare and should not sit within the criminal law.
  • People accessing abortion and those providing abortion services should have their privacy respected; feel safe; and be free from harassment, intimidation and interference.
Brook would like to see…
  • Abortion taken out of the criminal law and regulated like other medical procedures.
  • Suitably trained nurse practitioners to be allowed to provide early medical and surgical abortions in the NHS and independent sector.
  • Clinics protected from protestors by Buffer Zones.
  • All young people – regardless of the religious character of their school or beliefs of teaching staff – given good quality, evidence-based education around pregnancy prevention, pregnancy options, pregnancy decision-making, parenting and abortion as part of a comprehensive RSE curriculum.
  • Reproductive health and rights given a higher priority in health policy with a focus on eradicating health inequality (for example higher levels of unintended pregnancy and maternal mortality within BAME communities).
  • Information and services that are inclusive and recognise that, *while most reproductive health service users are women, some trans men and non-binary people need services including contraception, abortion, cervical cancer screening and maternity care.
  • Closure of anti-abortion pregnancy advice centres, crisis pregnancy centres, or pregnancy counselling services that provide misinformation, and unethical practices with the aim of obstructing or deterring people from accessing abortion services.
  • An end to anti-abortion organisations being invited into schools where they  provide misinformation about contraception and abortion; and sometimes promote homophobic and discriminatory views.
Brook teaches…
  • Using an educational approach which aims to build a strong sense of self-worth and health literacy, to enhance motivation for self-determination and self-care.
  • That young people have a right to confidential advice and support with contraception and abortion.
  • The reasons that unwanted pregnancies happen and how they can be prevented including comprehensive information about contraceptive methods.
  • That not all unintended pregnancies are prevented by contraceptive use.
  • That not all abortions are a result of a pregnancy being unwanted.
  • Young people to reflect on what it might be like to be faced with the decision to end or continue a pregnancy including who they could talk to and where they could get support.
  • Young people to think about the factors that can inform decision-making about pregnancy, including considerations about the best context for successful parenting.
  • Evidence-based information about abortion including: the different treatment options for abortion; that abortion is a safe and legal option; how to get support with pregnancy decision-making; legal timeframes for abortion; and how to access services.
  • That there are a range of different views and values about abortion.
  • How to distinguish between areas of opinion that are open to debate, and matters of verifiable fact.
  • Where to find accurate and reliable information.
  • How to access impartial support.
  • The importance of accessing abortion care or ante-natal care as soon as possible.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services including abortion services.
  • Counselling, or referral to a service that can provide counselling, for those experiencing unintended pregnancy and who need support with the decision about whether to continue pregnancy or have an abortion.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, definitions, useful links and resources

Factual briefing:

  • Abortion is a safe procedure for which major complications and mortality are rare at all gestations
  • Abortion is common. At least one third of British women will have had an abortion by the time they reach the age of 45
  • 90% of abortions take place within the first 12 weeks and 76% within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy
  • Over the last 10 years abortion rates have decreased year on year for under 18s. There were 1,267 abortions to those aged under 16. Of these, 363 were to those aged under 15 (0.2% of the total).
  • The abortion rate in 2018 was highest for those aged 21 (at 30.7 per 1,000 women).
  • The majority of abortions are carried out using medication. Only a small proportion require a general anaesthetic
  • The majority of people who have abortions have already had at least one child
  • Statistics on abortion in England and Wales are collated by the Department of Health and Social Care are updated and published annually
  • Statistics on abortion in Scotland are updated annually and published by NHS Scotland
  • Abortion in Northern Ireland was decriminalised in 2019 and guidance on how abortion can be provided in NI will be published in 2020
  • Most people are fully fertile immediately after abortion and within three weeks of childbirth.
  • The majority of people express relief following abortion. Most do not experience adverse psychological outcomes. Many have mixed feelings e.g. feeling it was the right decision, but feeling sad that it wasn’t the right time to have a(nother) child
  • Figures collected by the Advisory Group for Contraception show that contraceptive spending has been cut by nearly 18% in real terms since 2015/16. This has resulted in cuts to and closures of services. Specialist young people’s sexual health services are increasingly being shut in favour of moving people into all-age services.

United Nation’s definitions of reproductive health and rights:

  • ‘Reproductive Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes. Reproductive health therefore implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life and that they have the capacity to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so. Implicit in this last condition are: the rights of men and women to be informed, have access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable methods of family planning including methods for regulation of fertility’
  • ‘Reproductive Rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international laws and international human rights documents and other consensus documents. These rights rest on the recognition of the basic rights of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights’ documents

Useful links and resources:

Sharing youth produced sexual imagery

Brook believes…
  • That curiosity about bodies, sex, and sexuality is a normal aspect of adolescent development.
  • That sharing sexual imagery carries significant risks for young people, including around legality, safeguarding, wellbeing, and self-esteem – specifically: participating in criminal behaviour; vulnerability to sexual exploitation and bullying; embarrassment; and risk to reputation and ongoing impact on  digital footprint.
  • That there are no technical solutions that can effectively mitigate the risks associated with sharing naked images.
  • Young people are experts in their own peer and digital cultures and do not respond well to simplistic messages.
  • Young people do respond well to being asked to identify for themselves the risks associated with different online/digital behaviours.
  • Young people need to be included in identifying solutions, behaviours and interventions that will help keep them safe.
  • Young people that seek help with incidents should receive support and safeguarding without automatically being criminalised or criminalising their peers.
  • Even when image sharing is legal (i.e. because of the age of those involved) it is still very important that images are never made or shared without consent, and that nobody ever puts pressure on another person to create or share an image.
  • That the term ‘revenge porn’ is unhelpful and unfair implying that the victim of this abuse is being punished for something they’ve done wrong. The term ‘intimate image abuse’ is a better description of this criminal activity.
Brook would like to see…
  • All children and young people provided with good quality, inclusive, comprehensive RSE and health education which helps them to develop a sense of self-respect and mutual respect; an understanding of the law, of consent, and of everyone’s right to privacy and safety.
  • All schools have policies on how to respond to ‘sexting’ incidents underpinned by the principle of proportionality, with the primary concern being the wellbeing and protection of young people.
  • Teachers have appropriate training and feel confident when managing issues related to image sharing.
  • Young people to be able to access broad educational, recreational, pastoral and wellbeing opportunities to support them to build resilience, improve self-esteem and increase their knowledge and understanding of how to stay safe and healthy.
  • Children and young people empowered and supported to be good digital citizens, and develop healthy bystander behaviour and supportive online communities.
Brook teaches…
  • About the law in relation to making and sharing naked images.
  • That young people have the right to refuse to provide or view sexual imagery.
  • About the right to privacy and the tools, skills and vocabulary to negotiate consent and resist pressure to make or share sexual imagery.
  • Young people to be able to identify the features of safe and healthy relationships and behaviours, and unsafe or abusive relationships and behaviours.
  • Young people to explore issues around consent and coercion in all relationships – whether they take place off or online.
  • Young people to identify for themselves the range of risks of sharing sexual imagery.
  • That young people can seek help – if they are concerned about requests to share images or previous incidents of sharing images – without automatically criminalising themselves or their peers.
  • How to seek help within and outside of school.
  • That there are no technical solutions or fixes that can effectively reduce or remove the risks of sharing sexual imagery.
  • A gendered and critical analysis of the ‘sexting’ culture that reflects on evidence that sharing of sexual imagery disproportionately impacts some groups e.g. LGBT young people, and young women.
  • Nurturing community approaches amongst young people to keeping themselves and their peers safe – including good bystander behaviour in relation to being sent or witnessing sharing of sexual images.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships. This might include the issues around pressure to make or share sexual imagery, or concerns about images already made or shared.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, definitions, useful links and resources

Factual briefing:

  • The police have the discretion to record illegal sexting incidents without taking action against the young people involved.
  • Police dealing with incidents of underage production and sharing of sexual imagery must record the incident on their systems. However since 2016 the police have been given discretion to code an incident as ‘Outcome 21’ on the system which means that they do not believe it is in the public interest to further investigate or take action in relation to an incident.
  • 90% of 16-24 year olds and 69% of 12-15 year olds own a smartphone, giving them the ability to quickly and easily create and share photos and videos.
  • The majority of young people have not taken or shared sexual imagery of themselves.
  • A 2016 NSPCC/Office of the Children’s Commissioner England study found that just over one in ten boys and girls (13%) had taken topless pictures of themselves (around one in four of those were girls) and 3% had taken fully naked pictures. Of those who had taken sexual images, 55% had shared them with others. 31% of this group had also shared the image with someone that they did not know.
  • Research from the PSHE Association found that 78% of parents were either fairly or very concerned about youth produced sexual imagery.

Definition of ‘sexting’ from UK Council for Child Internet Safety:

In the latest advice for schools and colleges (UKCCIS, 2016), sexting is defined as “the production and/or sharing of sexual photos and videos of and by young people who are under the age of 18. It includes nude or nearly nude images and/or sexual acts. It is also referred to as ‘youth produced sexual imagery’.

‘Sexting’ does not include the sharing of sexual photos and videos of under-18 year olds with or by adults. This is a form of child sexual abuse and must be referred to the police.”

A young person under 18 is breaking the law if they take an explicit photo of themselves or a friend; share an explicit image or video even if it’s shared between children of the same age; possess, download or store an explicit image or video of someone under 18, even if the person in the picture gave their permission for it to be created.

Intimate image abuse aka ‘Revenge Porn’:

Guidance from the Ministry of Justice defines ‘revenge porn’ as ‘the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person, without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress.’

The offence applies both online and offline, and to images which are shared electronically or in a more traditional way.

Useful links and resources:

Masturbation

Brook believes…
  • Children are naturally curious about themselves and their bodies and it is normal for them to touch their own bodies from an early age.
  • Young children do not distinguish between different parts of their body or know which are considered to be sexual.
  • Young people with learning disabilities may touch their genitals or masturbate as a part of exploring sensory touch or self-stimulatory behaviour.
  • Children should learn that their bodies are their own and that they can choose to touch any part of themselves.
  • Children should know that there are certain parts of their bodies that are private and that other children or adults should not touch them there. For young children resources like the NSPCC Pantasaurus can be helpful for teaching about this.
  • Children should understand that they and only they have the right to give or refuse permission for someone else to touch any part of their body even if it is not considered ‘private’ e.g. hands or hair.
  • Children should be taught that they should not touch themselves in places identified as private in front of other people because it can make other people feel uncomfortable or upset them.
  • As part of a spiral curriculum children can be taught from early years in an age-appropriate way about how to stay safe, and about appropriate behaviour in relation to touching their own genitals.
  • It is normal for young people (male and female) during and after puberty to experiment with touching themselves in a way that gives them sexual pleasure or results in orgasm or ejaculation i.e. masturbating.
  • Learning about your own body through masturbation may make you better able to communicate about and enjoy sex with a partner.
  • Male ejaculation may be good for prostate health.
  • There is no medical evidence that masturbation is harmful in any way.
  • There are myths across many cultures about masturbation and/or ejaculation weakening a man’s power, virility or fertility – these are not true.
  • Belief systems that prohibit masturbation may engender feelings of guilt or shame in young people who masturbate – this is not helpful or healthy.
Brook would like to see…
  • Young people understand their rights in relation to their own bodies.
  • Young people know how and where to get reliable information and advice about their bodies.
  • Young people feel confident, knowledgeable, and comfortable about their own bodies.
  • An end to the taboo of discussing masturbation (especially female masturbation) and the stigma and shame that is sometimes associated with it.
Brook teaches…
  • Children and young people to recognise and report unwanted touch and abuse.
  • That masturbation is natural and harmless, but should be done in a private place such as your own bedroom or bathroom.
  • That some young people do and some don’t like to masturbate.
  • That it is normal and healthy for people of all genders to masturbate if they find it enjoyable.
  • Masturbation alone is not only medically safe, but it is free from most of the risks associated with partnered sex e.g. STIs, pregnancy (see useful links).
  • That ‘mutual masturbation’ is a form of non-penetrative sex that many couples enjoy.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships. This might include any questions they have around masturbation.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Useful links and resources

Pornography

Brook believes…
  • It is natural for young people to be curious about sex.
  • Due to its accessibility some young people will access pornographic material accidentally.
  • Some young people actively seek out pornography to satisfy their curiosity, for sexual stimulation or to explore their evolving sexual feelings.
  • Many young people do not like or choose to watch porn.
  • Many young people think it is normal to watch porn.
  • Young people may be more likely to seek out pornography if RSE has failed to provide appropriate information or representations of different bodies, referenced people of different sexualities, or has failed to address sexual feelings and sexual pleasure.
  • Pornography is produced as entertainment for adults. It is not intended to be, and is not, a reliable source of education for young people.
  • There are many types of porn, but concern about porn often centres on the type of porn which includes acts of violence against and humiliation of women; represents unsafe sexual practices; and presents sex as something which is primarily for men’s enjoyment.
  • That viewing pornography can lead to sexual arousal and can shape sexual desires and practices.
  • Porn often involves actors with a narrow range of body types and that this may have an impact on some young people’s feelings about what a normal or desirable body should like.
  • That some young people are more affected than others by watching porn.
  • That patterns of exposure to porn, response to porn and behaviours relating to porn may be gendered and that education about pornography should be gender-sensitive.
  • There is insufficient robust evidence to demonstrate whether, why or how porn causes harm; who is most affected by it and why; and what legal, educational, therapeutic, and technological interventions could reduce these risks and harms.
  • Young people must be engaged in developing any responses to current concerns about pornography.
  • Technological approaches to making porn less accessible are unlikely to be effective – except in preventing ‘accidental’ access to porn.
Brook would like to see…
  • A more positive culture around discussing sex and sexuality.
  • Education which acknowledges and challenges gendered ideas about sex.
  • Better evidence and a more open conversation about how children and young people can be supported to live safely and develop healthy, pleasurable relationships in a context in which pornography is easily accessible.
  • All children and young people provided with good quality, inclusive, comprehensive RSE which would include accurate information, depict diverse bodies and relationships and address sexual pleasure so that pornography isn’t relied upon or stumbled upon as a source of information and education.
  • All young people to know their right to relationships that are safe and enjoyable and their own responsibility to ensure that everybody’s rights are respected.
  • All young people know who they can talk to if they are concerned by something they or their peers have seen.
Brook teaches…
  • About the law as it relates to pornography and the wider production, sharing and viewing of sexual images, with the aim of preventing young people becoming a victim or perpetrator of illegal activity.
  • Young people to think about the reasons people watch porn and what the they perceive the risks and benefits to be.
  • Young people to think critically about messages and images relating to bodies, sex, sexuality and relationships in pornography and other online and offline media.
  • Young people to identify the characteristics of safe, healthy, respectful, consenting relationships.
  • The importance of seeking active consent from sexual partners.
  • That young people have the right to refuse to participate in any sexual activity, including viewing sexual imagery.
  • That nobody is entitled to sexual pleasure at the expense of another person’s safety, or enjoyment.
  • Young people to recognise images, narratives and material that depict or promote unhealthy, non-consenting and harmful behaviours.
  • That body diversity is natural and normal and that healthy bodies come in a range of shapes and sizes.
  • Young people to recognise harmful patterns of engagement with pornography and to know where to get help.
  • About reliable sources of information about sex and sexuality that might reduce the likelihood of young people accessing pornography accidentally.
  • Professionals and older young people to reflect on the concept of ‘ethical’ porn.
  • Parents carers and teachers about monitoring and managing young childrens’online life and particularly the possibility of accessing pornography.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships; including their responses to confusing or distressing pornographic content.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour; might include the impact of pornography consumption on their relationships and their own or their partner’s behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, useful links and resources

Factual briefing:

  • In the UK it’s legal to watch or buy porn when you are 18 years old, as long as it doesn’t involve: people who are under 18; sexual assault or rape; scenes of life-threatening violence or acts that are likely to cause serious injury to a person’s anus, breasts or genitals; animals (often called bestiality); dead people (necrophilia).
  • It is illegal for an adult to show a young person under 18 porn, or to allow them to watch it.
  • Any sexual content online that involves anyone under the age of 18, can be reported (anonymously if requested) to the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF). The IWF can remove this content and look to safeguard the child or young person involved. If you have seen content like this and want to talk to somebody about what you have seen, you can call ChildLine anonymously on 0800 1111.
  • I wasn’t sure it was normal to watch it’, a report by NSPCC, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and Middlesex University includes a range of findings on exposure to, impact of, attitudes to, and feelings about pornography including:
    • More boys view online pornography, through choice, than girls
    • At 11, the majority of children had not seen online pornography (28% of 11-12 year olds report seeing pornography)
    • By 15, children were more likely than not to have seen online pornography (65% of 15-16 year olds report seeing pornography)
    • Children were as likely to stumble across pornography via a ‘pop up’ as to search for it deliberately or be shown it by other people

Useful links and resources:

Pleasure

Brook believes…
RSE is an important public health intervention
  • Part of this intervention includes addressing risks e.g. HIV prevention, pregnancy prevention, STI prevention, preventing sexual harassment, exploitation and violence, and issues around consent. 
  • Sexual and Reproductive rights are human rights. Health bodies such as the World Health Organization advocate a positive approach to sexual health rather than focusing solely on prevention of violence, disease and unwanted pregnancy.  
  • Alongside sexual health risks and harms, it’s important to represent sex and sexuality as a normal, healthy, positive, enjoyable part of being human. 
Young people are curious and want to know more about sex
  • When given the opportunity (e.g. through anonymous questions) they will ask about sexual behaviours. This is an opportunity for them to think critically about representations of sexual behaviours they see in mainstream media and online. 
  • Young people have diverse ideas about what constitutes good and bad sex, and want opportunities to talk about and ask questions about sex and pleasure. 
Normalising discussion of sex and sexual pleasure is key to tackling harmful stigma around sex, sexuality, and bodies.
  • It supports young people to manage sexual feelings without shame, but with an understanding of boundaries, rights and responsibilities.
  • Messages about sexual pleasure are often very gendered: typically, that men need or are entitled to sexual pleasure more than women or should take the lead in sexual relationships; need to ‘perform’; and that it is less acceptable for women to seek sexual pleasure, to say what they like or to masturbate.  
  • Discussion of pleasure challenges gender stereotypes and enhances discussion of gender equity, taking the pressure off individuals to enact or enforce gender roles within relationships. 
  • Historically RSE has not provided young people from LGBT+ groups with any information about sexual pleasure or enjoyable relationships. This is not only discriminatory but has led many to disengage from RSE which puts them at greater risk of poor sexual health. RSE should embed LGBT+ relationships in a way that challenges discrimination and meets the legislative requirements of the Equality Act. 
It is ineffective and harmful to exclude discussion of pleasure.
  • Young people do not respond positively to relentless warnings about risk and harm that do not reflect the context and complexity of human relationships that they see around them.  
  • Being silent on the issue of sexual pleasure when sex is being discussed is not a neutral position, it reinforces shame and stigma associated with sex and conveys a strong message that pleasure is or should be a taboo.
  • Providing a rounded and holistic picture of sex and sexuality supports young people to make informed decisions.   
  • It is dishonest to avoid discussion of sexual pleasure given that most people have sex in order to experience and/or provide pleasure; and that sex for pleasure/fun/enjoyment is an everyday part of cultural and commercial representations of relationships that we are exposed to in film, television, literature and advertising from an early age. 
  • If teaching about sex and relationships is not comprehensive/holistic then young people will not engage with it and will look elsewhere for information e.g. to peers, social media, pornography. 
  • It is important to find age-appropriate ways to provide clear messages about healthy relationships, pleasure, consent and respect ideally before children and young people are exposed to porn.  (See our pornography position statement for more information) 
It is impossible to teach effectively about consent and harmful and abusive behaviours without a discussion of pleasure
  • RSE also needs to explore healthy behaviours including the role of mutual pleasure and enjoyment within healthy relationships.  
  • Pleasure-focused RSE emphasises that sex that is coerced or forced is sexual violence and is harmful and illegal; and that it is always unacceptable for someone to seek sexual pleasure at the expense of another person’s enjoyment or safety. It teaches young people to recognise signs of exploitation and abuse.  
RSE lessons, and those delivering them, should always be sensitive to the range of experience of young people in the classroom.  
  • Some people worry that discussion of sexual pleasure is distressing or confusing for young people who have experienced sexual violence or abuse. Safeguarding and tailored support must take place alongside high quality Relationships and Sex Education. Young people who have experienced abuse should not be deprived of an understanding of healthy relationships and their rights to feel safe and experience enjoyable relationships. 
  • People’s ability to feel safe, and to enjoy sexual relationships may be impacted by their experience of trauma including FGM or sexual abuse. They still have the right and capacity for pleasure and should be provided with accurate information and education about sex and pleasure, and be able to access therapeutic psycho-sexual support with this. 
There is no evidence that talking about sex or sexual pleasure promotes early sexual activity
  • There is evidence that comprehensive sex education delays first sex. It supports young people to make informed decisions. 
  • Some people worry that talking about pleasure in Relationships and Sex Education ‘corrupts’ children or makes it easier for people to exploit them or force them to have sex, but there is no evidence for this. 
Some teachers may be embarrassed or unconfident talking about sex in positive ways (as opposed to simply emphasising risk)
  • Teachers may never have participated in positive sex education and don’t have the vocabulary or skills to facilitate these discussions. 
  • Pleasure is one of the topics that is often best delivered by external providers who are specially trained and who have a different relationship with students and may feel less embarrassment about the discussion. 
Brook would like to see…
  • Truly comprehensive and inclusive RSE – which addresses pleasure – provided to all young people in the UK (see position statement on RSE for more detail).  
  • For those in positions of influence, whether in politics or the media, to avoid disseminating false or frightening information about RSE, but to actively recognise and promote the important role of RSE as a public health intervention, providing high quality information and discussion of RSE rooted in values of consent, mutual respect, health and safeguarding. 
  • For policy makers and educators to devise curricula based on evidence, listening to what young people say they want to learn, recognising the context in which young people live, and understanding the different ways in which they access information.  
  • High quality provision of information about sex and relationships outside of schools and in the public sphere to increase knowledge and understanding, improve the quality of conversation about sex, and to tackle stigma.  
  • Better funding of psycho-sexual to support those who have experienced trauma to heal and be able to enjoy sexual relationships. 
Brook in schools…
  • Before we teach about any aspect of RSE we agree ground rules to create a safe working space. We emphasise that nobody is in the classroom to talk about their personal experiences, and that nobody will be under pressure to respond to questions or participate in exercises if they feel uncomfortable. We talk in general terms throughout and use exercises and distancing techniques to depersonalise the topic and provide opportunities (such as anonymous question boxes) to allow young people with diverse levels of knowledge and experience to learn together effectively. 
  • When we talk about sex we integrate discussion of pleasure in a positive way – acknowledging that pleasure is the reason most people are having sex.  
  • We do not give ‘sex tips’ or advice, but we can direct to our website where people can read more detailed factual information and read ‘real stories’ about a range of people’s experiences.  
  • We do ask students to think about what ‘good’ sex might feel like as part of helping to define positive relationships. 
Brook teaches…
  • That sex and sexuality is a normal and healthy part of people’s adult lives 
  • That people may have different definitions of what constitutes sex and these may include all forms of touch, including mutual masturbation, oral, anal and vaginal sex. 
  • Even religions and cultures that have strict rules about sex often still also recognise the importance of sexual pleasure as part of relationships, both for intimacy and/or as a spiritual act. 
  • That all people are entitled to feel safe and experience pleasure in relationships regardless of their sex, sexuality, or gender. 
  • That communication and active consent are essential to having safe enjoyable relationships. 
  • About anatomy, sexual arousal and desire and the important role of the brain and the whole body in enjoyable sex. 
  • That we should celebrate human bodies which are brilliantly designed to feel pleasure whether it is sensual or sexual.  
  • The ability to experience physical pleasure is not related to having a particular body type or ‘the perfect body’. It is something everyone has the potential to experience regardless of their sex, sexuality or gender; what their body looks like; what body parts they have; whether they are disabled or not; and at all stages of adult life.  
  • Pleasure is very subjective and means different things to different people, in different relationships and different points in their life. What feels nice and what helps someone to feel pleasure is as individual and diverse as people’s bodies are. 
  • That there may be conditions that impair a person’s ability to experience pleasurable sex (e.g. vaginismus, erectile issues etc) and that it is good to seek professional support because there are medical and psychological treatments and approaches that can help. 
  • To think critically about representations of bodies, sex, sexuality and sexual pleasure, and to resist peer pressure, media or porn narratives about what is the right time, place or way to have sex. 
  • The importance of recognising our own values and priorities in relationships. 
  • That our own unique desires and individual experiences of sex and pleasure are all ok as long as nobody’s pleasure is at the expense of another person’s safety or enjoyment.  
  • Sex shouldn’t be painful or uncomfortable (even the first time which many young people believe is normal). 
  • Depending on the age of students we may recommend our website which includes useful information and links. 
  • There is no evidence of medical or psychological benefit in depriving yourself of sexual pleasure (for example groups of men online sharing their attempts to withhold from sex or masturbation). See masturbation statement for more info. 
Brook services provide…
  • Individual support for a YP to access info that would help them 
  • Psycho-sexual support in services where it is commissioned  
  • Answers to questions young people have which may relate to any aspect of their sexual lives including sexual health and sexual pleasure.  
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships; including their responses to confusing or distressing pornographic content.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour; might include the impact of pornography consumption on their relationships and their own or their partner’s behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, useful links and resources…

Good sex project: This academic project examined why it’s important for youth and health practitioners to talk to young people about sex and how they facilitate those conversations. The website includes young people talking about their own experiences of sex.

According to the World Health Organization definition sexual health is a state of physical, social and emotional wellbeing that includes the right to have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences free from harm and coercion. 

Trans and non-binary people and experience

Brook believes…
  • Trans and non-binary people have the right to dignity; an entitlement to the highest attainable standard of healthcare; full realisation of their sexual and reproductive health and rights including the right to safe, enjoyable relationships. Find out more about trans and non-binary gender identities.
  • Relationships and sex education should be inclusive and celebrate diversity including recognising different kinds of families, different kinds of relationships and the full range of gender identities and expressions.
  • Trans and non-binary identities are natural and part of the rich tapestry of human experience and identity.
  • Interactions between sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation / sexuality are individual, complex and nuanced.  Gender is not always fixed, but can be fluid.
  • It is important to acknowledge the social, cultural and religious factors which impact on gender, cisnormativity and heteronormativity and that contribute to and shape attitudes.
  • Relationships and sex education should be relevant to all and ensure that young people have the information they need to maintain good reproductive and sexual health throughout their lives.
  • Sexual and reproductive health services should ensure that information is inclusive of trans and non-binary people so that they can identify and access the services they need to stay safe and be healthy.
  • Training should be available for healthcare professionals in the broad healthcare needs of trans people to ensure all healthcare is inclusive and accessible.
  • Training for educators and healthcare professionals should include a review of values and beliefs and unpacking of the impact of gender roles, expectations and attitudes to physical sex and sexuality as key to providing equal services to trans and non-binary people.
  • The experience of puberty and adolescence can be challenging and it is normal for young people to ask questions about, express concern about and explore their feelings around their changing bodies, changing relationships, sex, sexuality and gender identity.  They should be supported to do this and given space to have these conversations.
  • Comprehensive care for young people who identify as trans should be delivered in line with the best available evidence.
  • Professionals and organisations across education, information guidance, and clinics should model respectful, caring and inclusive language and communication.
  • Trans and non-binary people have a right to see diverse gender identities, experiences and expressions represented in their totality in all forms of media, and school curricula should seek to represent diversity in all subject areas.
  • The intellectual burden of educating the wider population about gender identity should not fall on trans and non-binary people. Everyone has responsibility for education, information sharing and guidance.
Brook would like to see…
  • All schools to implement inclusive, comprehensive, evidence-based RSE in line with the UNESCO technical guidance on comprehensive sexuality education.
  • Fully funded, accessible and inclusive sexual and reproductive health services for all.
  • Better monitoring and disaggregation of data in relation to sex, sexuality and gender identity to ensure research is accurately capturing trans and non-binary people’s needs and experience of healthcare; and can help ensure services are inclusive accessible and work for everyone.
  • Easier access to gender identity services for young people.
  • More research evidence on clinical and psychological outcomes of different approaches and protocols in care and treatment of trans young people; better enabling clinicians and young people to make evidence-based, informed decisions.
  • Information, education and services to avoid cisnormativity (assuming everyone is cis, aiming provision or information solely at people whose gender identity corresponds to their biological sex: thereby excluding trans and non-binary identities or experiences).
  • Information, education and services to avoid transnormativity (assuming that all trans and non-binary people will present in particular ways, choose to transition in the same kinds of ways or have the same needs: thereby excluding people whose experience or body doesn’t conform to a stereotype of a trans man or trans woman).
  • Professionals and organisations to model respectful discussion around young people’s lives, health and choices including trans healthcare issues which acknowledges different perspectives, responds to evolving evidence and centres on young people and their needs.
Brook teaches…
  • Using language and concepts that are age and stage appropriate and do not make assumptions about young people’s existing knowledge and understanding.
  • About the Equality Act and the right of all young people to equality, safety and respect.
  • Young people to explore issues around the law and consent.
  • How the core elements of healthy relationships, safety, dignity, enjoyment and pleasure are an entitlement for all regardless of sex, sexuality or gender.
  • About puberty and the changing body.
  • About sexual and reproductive health including STIs, contraception and abortion, in ways which recognise the range of different people who will need to access these services, acknowledging that people’s behaviours are what determine sexual health risk and outcomes not their sexuality or gender.
  • About the components of healthy relationships on and offline.
  • That a person’s gender identity does not affect their worth.
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their bodies, their sexual health and relationships. This might include their issues around gender identity and how that intersects with physical health issues, reproductive choices and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and Brook works within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
  • Groups which provide safe spaces for LGBT+ young people where they can share their experiences, get support, learn about issues relevant to them and socialise.
  • Signposting to useful sources of information and support on gender identity issues.
More support with your work, useful links and resources

More support with your work:

Useful links and resources:

Gender terminology

Brook believes…

The vast majority of those needing and using contraceptive care, abortion services, menstrual health, menopause, fertility and maternity care are women. However, there are non-binary and intersex people who do not identify as women, as well as some trans men, who have a uterus, cervix, ovaries; and ovulate, menstruate are fertile and experience menopause. There are non-binary and intersex people who do not identify as men, as well as some trans women, who have a penis, testicles, and produce sperm.

Everyone needs access to sexual and reproductive health services, cancer screening, education and information relevant to their bodies.

Considerations and principles in language choices

Brook provides clinical services, Relationships and Sex Education and training, online information and advice, and policy and advocacy perspectives. As an organisation we think carefully about our language. Our various strands of work require us to be flexible in the language and terminology we use. Our decisions are informed by context, audience and the purpose and objectives of our communication. All are underpinned by four key principles:

Inclusivity

We want to ensure that everyone feels welcome in our clinical services; feels included and able to engage fully in our education and training; can access the right care and feels seen and included in the information we provide.

Accessibility/clarity

We work and communicate with people of different ages, comprehension, and knowledge levels, and with different language ability. It is important that the language we use is clear and that it supports people to access the services they need even if they are unfamiliar with terminology specific to sexual health or anatomy.

Accuracy

The language we use in our data collection must help us to understand who is using our services. This informs ongoing improvement and development and ensures that each service user is accessing the right form of care for their needs.

Impact

In our advocacy and public engagement, we acknowledge the impact of gender stereotypes and multiple forms of prejudice on attitudes, laws, policy, and practice. The language we use must increase public understanding of the way sex, sexuality and gender intersect with sexual and reproductive health. It must make the most compelling case to reduce inequality, improve inclusion and to tackle the harmful stigma associated with aspects of sex, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health.

Different approaches to language

There are different ways to talk about people in relation to sexual and reproductive healthcare:

Gender neutral e.g.people, service-users, people who need contraception, anyone who needs an abortion, anyone who uses external condoms

Physiological language e.g. people with a uterus, people who menstruate, people with a penis, anyone with a prostate, if you have a cervix

Gendered language e.g. women, men, girls, boys

Gender-additive language e.g. women and all people who need abortion, men and anyone who needs to check their testicles

Gender inclusive language e.g. cis women, cis men, trans men, trans women, non-binary people

Choosing the best terminology

None of the approaches above is right or wrong in every context. We try to choose and use appropriate language depending on the aim of the communication and the target audience.

Thoughtful ‘mixing up’ of different language approaches can usefully expose people to all the available terminology, draw attention to the sexual and reproductive health needs of trans and non-binary people which are not always recognised, and normalise diversity. We believe that this approach supports the development of critical thinking skills in young people.

How well is Brook doing?

Brook’s sexual health and wellbeing information spans websites, social media, e-learning for professionals, podcasts, classroom resources, education and training presentations, as well as face-to-face support through our clinics, counselling and wellbeing programmes. We are working hard to ensure our language is inclusive, accessible, accurate and impactful throughout all we do. This is an ongoing project and we always welcome feedback and suggestions on how we can improve.

We recognise that language is always evolving and that different people prefer different forms of language. In our face-to-face work we aim to always respect people’s choices about the language they prefer to use in relation to their own identity and body.

Virginity

Brook believes…

That the concept of virginity has no medical legitimacy.

The concept of virginity and social pressure to ‘lose’ or ‘maintain’ virginity harms people in a range of ways:

  • virginity myths rest on and perpetuate gender stereotypes about males and females which harm cis, trans and non-binary people, and heterosexual and LGB people
  • focusing on first time sex as a key event detracts from the important principle that all sexual activity should be chosen and explicitly consented to every time
  • reducing the idea of sex to penetrative vaginal sex ignores the many ways in which people of different genders, sexualities and relationships experience physical intimacy and define sex
  • pressuring young people to ‘lose their virginity’, i.e. to have sex before they are ready because this may give them some kind of status or kudos – this is more often the case for men than women
  • stigmatising and shaming those people who have had sex and treated as if they are impure or promiscuous – this is more often the case for women than men
  • the attempt to maintain ‘virginity’ puts pressure on some young people to have kinds of sex they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with, because those kinds of sex do not ‘count’ as losing your virginity. e.g. girls may be told that they could or should agree to anal or oral sex because they will still be a virgin
  • maintaining virginity provides one of the reasons for subjecting girls to female genital mutilation (FGM), which is harmful and illegal
  • the importance of virginity within some cultural contexts can result in women’s exclusion from marriage, exclusion from her family and community or may even put her at risk of violent crime or murder (so called ‘honour’ crimes)
  • young people who aspire to keeping their virginity (e.g. in the US where virginity pledges are encouraged in many communities, and schools often teach abstinence-only education) may be taught that all sex is bad, not learn about safer sex at all and may be at increased risk of STIs and unintended pregnancy when they do have sex
  • having to prove you are virgin leads to medically unnecessary, invasive and potentially unsafe interventions such as virginity testing and hymen ‘repair’ surgery

The use of virginity testing is damaging

  • Virginity testing is a procedure in which a hand or instrument is used to examine a vagina and inspect whether or not the hymen is still present or intact. This practice is not based on science or medicine, as the appearance of the hymen is not a reliable indication of whether intercourse has taken place
  • In some countries cis women in custody for political activism and trans men have been subjected to virginity tests as a form of violent punishment
  • In some countries where sex between men is prohibited cis men and trans women may be subjected to anal ‘examinations’ to find evidence of sexual activity
  • The World Health Organization has said that virginity testing is ‘a violation of the victim’s human rights and has consequences detrimental to physical, psychological and social well-being’.

Hymen ‘repair’ surgery or hymenoplasty is damaging

  • Any form of surgery designed to make the hymen look intact or create scar tissue intended to bleed when intercourse takes place, is medically unnecessary and harmful
  • Non-surgical treatments such as chemical products that aim to change the vulva and vagina or simulate bleeding at first sex can lead to infection, loss of sensation and discomfort

Criminalising harmful practices around virginity

  • Providing these interventions and products may be harmful in themselves and also help to perpetuate the highly gendered and discriminatory ideas and practices associated with the concept of virginity and the policing of people’s relationships, bodies and sex lives.
  • Criminalisation of virginity testing and hymenoplasty are an important step in acknowledging and ending these harmful practices
  • Alongside legal routes it is vital that the myths and values that underpin the concept of virginity are also effectively challenged through high quality education within RSE in schools and in public discourse
  • It is vital that women can easily access services in their communities which support women who are at risk because of myths and values around virginity
Brook would like to see…
  • Universal high quality Relationships and Sex Education which addresses all sexual activity throughout the life course as worthy of care, mutual respect and most importantly enthusiastic consent
  • An end to the idea of virginity as an important state or something that tells us anything about a person’s worth or personal values
  • An end to the culture that privileges first sex as the most/only significant moment in someone’s sexual life
  • An end to harmful practices related to the idea of virginity, including virginity testing and hymenoplasty; and the use of all surgical and chemical interventions to change the vulva and vagina or simulate bleeding at first sex
  • An end to the use of harmful abstinence-only education programmes and related virginity pledges
  • More financial resources for specialist organisations working in communities with a high prevalence of so called ‘honour’ based crimes: to challenge beliefs that underpin those crimes; and to safeguard and support those at risk of those crimes.
Brook teaches…
  • Accurate, evidence-based information about bodies
  • About natural body diversity and variation in the vulva
  • That it is impossible to tell by looking at a hymen whether or not penetrative sex has taken place.
  • Young people to think critically about virginity myths and misinformation
  • Young people to think critically about the different rules and gendered expectations for men and women’s sexual behaviour:
    • Challenging narratives that reward men’s early sexual (heterosexual) experience and that focus on men’s sexual performance, positioning them as needing to lead and control sex; and denigrating men considered to be sexually inexperienced as un-masculine
    • Challenging narratives that reward women’s lack of sexual experience, and punishing or ostracising women who are perceived to have transgressed societal rules for example by being sexually active too young, or outside of marriage
    • Understanding the additional harmful impact of these rules and expectations on those who are trans, non-binary, intersex or gender non-conforming
  • That there are many different ways to define sex and this will differ depending on people’s individual feelings, their gender identity, sexuality and bodies
  • That nobody should be judged by whether they have had sex, plan to wait until marriage for sex, or choose not to have sex at all
  • That having sex once should not create an expectation or obligation to continue having sex (with the same or another person)
  • That all forms of sex and relationships must be consenting, free from violence, exploitation and coercion
  • About safer sex including prevention of STIs and HIV, and prevention of unintended pregnancy
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and supporting with pregnancy decision-making and onwards signposting to the appropriate services
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health and relationships
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour; including signposting to expert organisations that can support with risks around ‘honour’ crimes
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.
Factual briefing, useful links and resources

There is a high level of consensus amongst expert health organisations and those supporting women around ‘honour’ based violence that it is necessary to make virginity testing and hymenoplasty illegal.

The Health and Care Bill going through the UK Parliament in 2021-22 includes an amendment to criminalise the practice of virginity testing. Following publication of the report of the UK Government expert panel on hymenoplasty in December 2021 it is likely that the Government will support further amending the Bill to criminalise hymenoplasty.

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) position statement on virginity testing and hymenoplasty

World Health Organization statement on eliminating virginity testing

Organisations with specific expertise in ‘honour’ based crimes include

IKWRO the women’s rights organisation campaigns against child marriage, forced marriage, FGM, virginity testing and hymenoplasty and all forms of ‘honour’ based abuse; and provides support for women at risk.

MEWSO Middle Eastern Women and Society organisation campaigns against polygamy and virginity testing and provides support and advice for women experiencing abuse

More on virginity

The Swedish family planning association RFSU has published this leaflet on virginity. It introduces the term vaginal ‘corona’ as an alternative term to the word hymen. The word corona may be useful for helping us to understand the hymen as a kind of ring or halo of membrane that only partially covers the entrance to the vagina (in order to let menstrual blood out). This leaflet contains some useful pictures of the many different ways a corona/hymen can look.

Read more on Brook’s pages what is virginity?, having sex for the first time, and deciding to have sex.

Kink and BDSM

Brook believes…
  • Kink has historically referred to forms of sexual expression and behaviour that fall outside of what is considered everyday, ordinary or acceptable in a given place and at a given time; and for different social groups and different age groups
  • BDSM historically referred to a range of sexual practices which focused on the power dynamic between partners, giving or taking control, or giving or receiving pain
  • More recently Kink and BDSM are often used together or interchangeably to refer more generally to sexual activities and practices that are diverse and sit outside of traditional ideas of sex
  • Diverse sexual practices have always featured in human society
  • Sexual norms in different societies change and evolve over time.
  • It is now easy to access information and representations of BDSM and Kink online
  • Like many aspects of sexual representation, representations of Kink and BDSM both in pornography and in mainstream film and tv (such as 50 Shades of Grey) may not always be realistic or informative
  • Representations may be of extreme acts or simplified versions of Kink and BDSM with no context, preparation, build up, or representation of the vital communication about what each person wants and enjoys
  • Some young people seek out information about Kink and BDSM because of their own sexual feelings
  • Some young people seek out information out of curiosity
  • Some young people encounter representations of Kink and BDSM accidentally
  • Some young people have been introduced to it by a partner
  • As a result young people are increasingly likely to ask questions about Kink and BDSM and may be likely to be experimenting with Kink and BDSM earlier than in the past
  • The fact that young people may be more exposed to ideas and images about BDSM and Kink does not always mean they understand it or are emotionally prepared to engage in it
  • The most important thing about any sexual act is that it is mutually agreed, with clear consent given, and the ability to withdraw consent at any time
  • We recognise that BDSM and Kink may have specific risks and young people are unlikely to have information about these, or to be in relationships where BDSM can be safely negotiated
  • When people feel shame about their sexuality it prevents them accessing support or realising their entitlement to safety, respect and pleasure
  • Not speaking about diverse sexualities, sexualities or sexual practices does not prevent them from happening, it just makes people less safe
Brook would like to see…
  • An end to shame associated with different forms of sexual expression and sexuality
  • An emphasis in RSE on embedding an understanding of and commitment to consent; developing the vocabulary to talk about bodies and sex; and the confidence to negotiate with a sexual partner.
  • An emphasis on physical and emotional safety in sexual relationships
Brook teaches…

Brook is not asked by schools to teach about BDSM and Kink, but is sometimes required to respond to ad hoc questions about it amongst young people. Brook teaches…

  • That people respond in diverse ways to different kinds of touch, sensation, physical, visual and oral stimulation. There is no ‘right’ way to have sex or to be in a relationship – provided it is mutually agreed
  • What one person finds sexy another person might find a turn off – there are likely to be a range of factors in the development of our sexuality and sexual desire
  • That the most important thing in any relationship and sexual practice is that it is mutually agreed, and fully consenting
  • Nobody should feel pressured or coerced into any form of sexual behaviour that they are not comfortable with
  • Seeing a sexual behaviour represented in the media or in porn does not make it ‘normal’, mandatory or require that anybody/everybody emulates it
  • That there are different risks associated with different sexual practices; and physical safety and after care are vital elements of any sex, alongside pregnancy and STI prevention
  • That respecting people’s feelings is an important form of care
  • Consent, trust, good communication, reflection, preparation and a shared vocabulary to explain your desires and openly discuss sex are essential foundations for a safe BDSM/Kink experience. Often these skills and confidence come with age, experience and in established relationships
  • That it is not safe to use objects during sex or foreplay which are not designed to be used for sex (not body safe) or intended to be sex toys.
  • That the use of sex toys should be agreed in advance and both parties need to understand how to use them safely.
  • Young people to seek help if they are concerned about their relationships, or their own sexual practices or desires but that they should not feel that an interest in kink or BDSM on its own is a cause for concern.
  • Young people to identify when their own sexual practices are starting to feel harmful or having a negative impact on their life including whether a sexual behaviour is becoming compulsive, addictive or is escalating in a way that feels unsafe
  • The law in relation to consent including in relation to causing physical harm to another person in the course of a consenting sexual activity
Brook services provide…
  • The range of clinical sexual and reproductive health services including STI prevention, testing and treatment, contraception, emergency contraception, pregnancy testing and support with pregnancy decision-making, and onwards signposting or referral to the appropriate services.
  • Support with young people’s sexual health and wellbeing including a confidential and non-judgmental space in which young people can discuss any concerns they have about their sexual health, relationships and sexual practices.
  • Advice in the event that their sexual practices include using unsuitable objects or other unsafe practices, and clarification about the law in relation to kink and BDSM practices if appropriate.
  • Robust safeguarding for service-users by building trust and providing young people with a safe space and consistent process to explore problems and risks in relation to their lives, relationships and sexual behaviour.
  • Recognition of young people’s evolving capacity to consent; and work within the Fraser guidelines which allow staff to maintain confidentiality and provide contraceptive treatment and abortion referral for under 16s when it is believed to be in the best interest of the young person to do so and when they have the capacity to understand the treatment they are requesting.
  • One to one personal development work to help young people identify their goals and what will help/hinder them in achieving those.
  • Small group work offered to young people identified as vulnerable or ‘at risk’.

Life course approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights 

Brook believes…
  • In taking a life course approach to health that ‘unlike a disease-oriented approach, which focuses on interventions for a single condition often at a single life stage…considers the critical stages, transitions and settings where large differences can be made in promoting or restoring health and wellbeing.’ (PHE, 2019) 
  • In sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for all and that sexual health is inseparable from the full enjoyment of human rights, including every person’s right to bodily autonomy (UNFPA, 2020) 
  • Good SRHR includes the right to relationships that are safe and free from coercion and violence, the right to an enjoyable sex life, or not to have sex, the right to choose the number, timing and spacing of children or not to have children, and equitable access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services 
  • Good SRHR supports good mental and physical health throughout adolescence and adulthood 
  • By laying the foundations early we can embed knowledge, values and skills that will support safe, fulfilling relationships and good sexual and reproductive health over a lifetime 
  • Comprehensive high quality, scientifically accurate information on SRH provided at home and in schools is vital for young people  
  • When a young person first accesses a clinical service they may be vulnerable because of their experience of trauma or harm; they may only be lacking knowledge and vocabulary; or they may be confident asking for the service they need 
  • Safeguarding is a core aspect of work with young people in SRH services 
  • Services should tailor the level of support to the needs of individuals: providing services in diverse ways including via digital platforms, via telemedicine and face to face 
  • Seeking SRH care may be young people’s first experience of accessing healthcare alone and a positive experience can help to shape their future interactions with health professionals – teaching them to become effective help seekers and to manage their own health throughout their lives 
  • Good SRH care is relevant to people of all genders and ages. It begins with issues that arise in puberty such as menstrual health and continues throughout adulthood and into older age. It includes STI prevention and HIV prevention and management; pregnancy prevention and abortion care; psychosexual health; fertility and pregnancy care; support with gynaecological conditions; menopause; and prevention, identification and treatment of reproductive and genital cancers 
  • There should be discrete and protected services for groups of people who are vulnerable to poor SRH, or who find services more difficult to access.  This includes dedicated and specialist services for young people 
  • Lessons learned from working with young people can be applied to all-age services to ensure that services meet the needs of everyone including vulnerable adults, those who find it hard to access mainstream services, and those that have historically been at greater risk of poor sexual health outcomes  
  • Many adults did not receive any/good RSE when they were at school about how to stay safe, be healthy and access care 
  • A life course approach to sex and relationships education would increase awareness of sexual and reproductive rights; and facilitate easy access to high quality information and intergenerational learning, ensuring that reproductive and sexual health is part of wider public health messaging for all ages 
Brook would like to see…

A life course approach to relationships and sex education, including: 

  • Support for parents and early years practitioners to talk about consent, relationships, bodies and touch  
  • Comprehensive high quality RSE that starts in school and continues throughout further and higher education 
  • Accessible evidence-based resources about sex and relationships for all ages 
  • Public education, information and media interventions that reinforce accurate information and positive, inclusive messages about sex and relationships 
  • Provision of high quality information, support and clinical services for young people 
  • Provision of clinical care in a range of services including schools and youth settings, primary care, community sexual health, and through targeted outreach; and opportunistic care and referral in a range of community spaces for people of all ages 
  • A better understanding of the health, wellbeing and financial benefits to society of a proactive and positive approach to SRHR 
  • Removal of health system and commissioning barriers to accessing holistic and timely SRH care 
  • Workforce training to support provision of good SRH care and advice in diverse settings 
  • Sufficient funding to eradicate postcode lotteries for every aspect of SRH from provision of free emergency contraception in pharmacies, to fertility care, menopause care, STI and HIV prevention and care 
  • Further research and funding to understand and address why some groups of people have more difficulty in accessing SRH services than others 
  • A widespread and normalised dialogue in schools, communities – including faith communities – and across the media about SRHR; that emphasises the relationship between good SRHR and its place in a holistic experience of good health 
Brook takes a life course approach to sexual and reproductive health 

Which: 

  • Takes into account the age, stage, development and individual needs of children, young people and adults and provides the information, education and clinical services relevant to them 
  • Recognises that sex and relationships are a vital aspect of life; and works to challenge myths, breaking down taboos and tackling stigma around sex and sexuality  
  • Recognises the prevalence of abuse, sexual violence and harmful sexual behaviours and the lifelong impact these can have on survivors 
  • Works to prevent harm, abuse and violence; and safeguards vulnerable children and adults at risk of or experiencing sexual abuse, exploitation or violence 
  • Improves the quality of the public conversation around sex, encouraging positive, inclusive, consent and pleasure-focused approaches to relationships and sex 
  • Increases people’s ability to understand their bodies and stay healthy and make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health throughout their adult lives 
  • Recognises additional barriers to accessing information, clinical care and good sexual health for some people and in some communities 
Brook services…
  • Brook provides specialist young people’s services where they are still commissioned, and advocates for the value of stand-alone young people’s services, young people’s clinics within all-age services, and young people-friendly practices within all services 
  • Brook’s all-age services draw on our long track record of providing young people’s services in order to deliver high-quality clinical care and outreach to meet the needs of the whole community 
  • We utilise innovative and digital approaches to maximise and expedite SRH provision for the wider population, while providing targeted support for those experiencing most barriers to accessing care 
Useful links and resources

UNFPA definition of good sexual and reproductive health 

 A state of physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life and implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life, and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so. Find out more from UNFPA here.

The World Health Organization life course approach 

A life course approach to health aims to ensure people’s well-being at all ages by addressing people’s needs, ensuring access to health services, and safeguarding the human right to health throughout their life time. Find out more from WHO here.

The UK Government life course approach to health 

A person’s physical and mental health and wellbeing are influenced throughout life by the wider determinants of health. These are a diverse range of social, economic and environmental factors, alongside behavioural risk factors which often cluster in the population, reflecting real lives. All these factors can be categorised as protective factors or risk factors. Find out more from gov.uk.

Reproductive health is a public health issue. A consensus statement. Public Health England 

Reproductive health is relevant for all populations regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic group or sexual preference. The consensus represents an approach which is one of reproductive wellbeing respecting individual choices about pregnancy and child-rearing. It requires a flexible and continuum of care approach across the following life stages:  young people at the start of their sexual and reproductive lives; reproductive health and wellbeing of adults; health at the end of the reproductive lifespan. Find out more from PHE here.