Originally posted on medium
I’m currently working with Zero Tolerance creating and delivering their Under Pressure programme on young people, consent, exploitation and social pressures. Over the last few months, I’ve been dotting around the country talking to practitioners and trainers on how to open doors to tricky conversations with young people. These chats range from thinking about porn, to identifying grooming red flags to what we think about Love Island.
One of the most important bits for me is facilitating a space for reflective practice. Within the programme, we run through exercises that practitioners can use with young people to start conversations about the social pressures they might be under. The questions we dig into also give participants space to acknowledge their own understandings about sex, consent and relationships. How do they feel about sexting, masculinity, porn? Does bake off count as reality TV, and if so, what’s the problem with Love Island?
Some of the questions we get into are often the first time many participants have talked about these issues; be it the orgasm gap for heterosexual women, hair removal, identifying “good sex”, reflecting on toxic masculinity or incel culture; it’s a rollercoaster of emotions, and sometimes, of course, hilarious.
Instead of using our embarrassment as reason not to have these conversations with young people, we should in fact, lean into it; why are we embarrassed? Where does that come from? And how does that feed into the way we shape our world for young people?
Promoting an open, positive and respectful dialogue around sex, relationships and gender is for me, a key part of ending violence against women. Violence occurs when social dynamics such as gender inequality, racism, and homophobia create hateful environments where groups of people see other groups as less than. As disposable, as objects, as not people. Talking about empathy then, leads us to talk about boundaries and in turn to talk about consent. Talking about pleasure leads us to talking about respect and thereafter bodily autonomy. These small steps open up pathways to support young people (and, it turns out, the adults around them) to reflect on how we create and support positive, empathetic and pleasurable relationships with ourselves and others.
In promoting this approach, the biggest wall we need to tear down is the social power hierarchy between adults and young people. Our cultural narrative very much paints young people as a problem, and wherever they are (the park, their room, online) they are probably “up to no good”. Our role, in this understanding is to be “in charge”, always have the right answers, and be the final arbitrators of what is right and wrong.
But of course, we aren’t. We’re people with all our messiness and uncertainty. We were teenagers too. And we don’t know. And that is ok.
The generational gap is most keenly seen with how adults vs young people interact with social media, and young people quite clearly are the experts here. So what if the real trick to these conversations is for adults to be open and vulnerable to getting it wrong, what if the real solution to positive sex and relationships is for us not to know, but to ask.
In this understanding, our role then becomes a sounding board, a safe space for young people to work through complex ideas and feelings, a trusted place for them to find their own authenticity. To walk their own journey by asking themselves; what is empathy, what is pleasure, what is my own story? This framing means that instead of adults saying “this is what I know”, we can also ask the question “what do you think?” . By doing this simple shift, we can start having revolutionary conversations with young people right now.