SAVAGE Journal: Sex Beyond Bananas

I discuss sex education for SAVAGE Journal, after UCL Leading Women tackled the subject in collaboration with Men’s Rugby

Ask anyone what their experience of sex education was like in school and they will probably mention a traumatising demonstration of what happens to a tampon in water and a very rogue use of a banana. Fruit was always a common theme in sex education; first came the banana, then the condoms on cucumbers, and then the school nurse attempted to incorporate a pear into her description of fallopian tubes. The use of fruit seems to perfectly encapsulate the innuendo-laden inaccuracy of most sex education in schools, as well as Britain’s deep rooted discomfort with directly talking about sex. Clearly, using actual scientific models to explain bodily functions to children would be too much to ask.

It’s no secret – and no surprise – that most people’s attitude to sex is a heady cocktail of misconceptions, misinformation and misled Google searches. As far as gendered expectations go, UCL’s Leading Women and Men’s Rugby societies would seemingly be on opposite ends of the spectrum. But, in reality, the lack of education on safe sexual practices and reproductive health spanned both groups. Female students who had been on the combined pill since the age of 14 had just as many questions about its potential side-effects and the available alternatives as their male counterparts who had never taken an oral contraceptive in their lives. This was not only an extremely valuable event for those in attendance, but it also exposed a much deeper issue of how our curriculum deals with sex. There are clearly many more questions that need answering, and many more people who need to know the answers.

As of March this year, the national curriculum details that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is compulsory from the age of 11 onwards. Classes ought to cover ‘reproduction, sexuality and sexual health, without promoting early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation.’ This is a vast improvement on the previous system, which allowed independent schools and academies to opt out of teaching RSE. There is still, however, a long way to go. Firstly, these changes may not occur for another two years.  And more worryingly, schools will still have the final say on  teaching methods and curriculum omissions, whilst parents will maintain the right to withdraw their children from RSE classes completely.

What the amendments have started to address is the disparity between those setting the curriculum and those learning from it. A survey of 16- to 24-year-olds carried out by the Terrence Higgins Trust in July 2016 showed that 99% of young people thought RSE should be mandatory in all schools, but 1 in 7 had not received this education. Furthermore, 97% of students thought RSE should be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but 95% were not taught about LGBTQ+ relationships. Both of these issues have now been partially ameliorated, but is it enough?

From a young age, children are left confused and ashamed by the countless, contradictory messages they receive about sex and relationships. Even if school programmes are amended to a satisfactory standard, it’s difficult to create a national curriculum that accounts for the influence of family members, community leaders and online platforms. The government now states that all RSE should be age-appropriate, but how is this defined? With the rise of grooming through social media, online pornography and sexting, children are exposed to sex earlier than ever and its presence is increasingly pervasive. An 11 year-old now may already have been exposed to sexually explicit or damaging content before the subject is even raised by their teachers.

As well as improving the feedback loop with students, we need to assess the environment in which sex education is taught. Even in co-educational schools, RSE is often provided in single-sex environments. This creates an atmosphere of shame and illusion around gendered differences in sexual health from a young age. To this day, I have no idea what the boys did in year six when we were first taught about periods. Few seemed to have any sort of empathic understanding of menstruation in later years; girls’ trips to the toilets remained shrouded in secrecy. If children of all sexes, genders and sexual identities were taught about healthy relationships and sex together, boundaries would be broken and much of the the stigma would be lifted.

Beyond the gender element, co-educational RSE classes may help to foster more open communication between students who may later engage in relationships with each other, or other people. Taking this further still, having external organisations teach children instead of internal teaching staff could help to create a safe space in which questions can be asked without fear of judgement. Online, anonymised question systems could also be incorporated. The way we experience sex and relationships has changed – the way we are taught to approach it needs to change too.

There isn’t space in a single article to address all of the questions that current forms of RSE leave open. Even at Tuesday’s event, the hour-long Q&A was over before the conversation had even moved beyond contraception and STIs. Going forward, we need more informed, open discussions about healthy relationships, zero tolerance to harassment and crucially, consent. Imagine the change that could be instigated if completing a course or online questionnaire about these topics was a condition of entry to universities or workplaces.

Tuesday’s panel was enlightening in more ways than one. Not only did it highlight the lack of basic knowledge about sexual and reproductive health amongst students, but it raised questions over the best way forward. The latter has a more complex solution, but the panel did offer some easy-to-enact advice. Firstly, use condoms. They protect from STIs as well as pregnancy and are given out for free in most sexual health clinics and Doctors surgeries. Secondly, get tested regularly for STIs. There are different incubation periods, but the general advice was to get tested each time you have a new sexual partner. The main take-away, however, was to get educated. Curriculum changes are all well and good, but for students who passed through the school system without gaining proper scientific knowledge of sex, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

So where do you go if you have questions?

Brook are a sexual health and wellbeing service specifically directed at young people, with a clinic near Euston. They offer a range of services, from free contraception and STI testing to group education programmes and individual support sessions.

There is also an NHS clinic behind the Cruciform.

Lloyd’s Pharmacy have a service called Online Doctor, which provides web-based consultations and advice from UK registered doctors and pharmacists. If the thought of a face-to-face consultation seems too embarrassing, their anonymised online service could be a good alternative.

Featured image courtesy of Monica Garza.

Roundtable: The self-education of Joy Crookes

I visited singer-songwriter Joy Crookes at her South London home to talk life, music and Frida Kahlo over juice and jollof rice. Photos by Tineka Ashley & make-up by Marielle Mata

This post was originally published on the Roundtable Journal blog.

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Joy Crookes describes her music as a nostalgic take on little stories about her life. Others have described her as a South London sensation with a hypnotising sound, but this isn’t a description she relishes. Joy grew up in Elephant & Castle and  still lives now, just down the road from her mum. “When you’re from Peckham, Brixton or Elephant & Castle, people expect you to be a ‘South London girl’ but that’s not me. I was listening to punk bands, and being different, for no one other than myself. I’ve never felt a part of this. I spent a lot of time by myself, just working things out and figuring out who I wanted to be.”

Self-reflection is a big part of Joy’s life at the moment, and it helps explain the soulful wisdom at the heart of her lyrics. “I try and read, self-educate.” Her cosy flat is crammed with books, from The Great Gatsby to One Day, but the streets of Elephant & Castle are where she learns the most. “It’s a very grief and poverty-stricken area but it’s so diverse and beautiful in its sadness. Every time you walk down the street, you’re constantly learning things you’d never learn at school.”

Joy’s self education continued with music. “Piano is easy to teach yourself, because it’s all there in front of you. If you press that, it makes this sound, and if you press those three together, you get this chord. I’m pretty anti-theory, but I know what sounds right.” When the piano began to feel limited, she picked up a guitar. “I learnt the guitar when my mum was away one weekend. It’s harder than piano, but I wanted to learn it so I could become a songwriter.”

Once she’d nailed a few basic chords, she started performing covers: everything from her dad’s favourite artists to the song at the end of the film Juno (she starts humming: “you’re a part-time lover and a full time friend…”). After putting a string of covers on YouTube, she gradually started throwing her own songs into the mix. But, it was when she covered Hit the road, Jack with a friend that Joy was first noticed. “It took us six hours to record the bloody cover, because we forgot to press record on the best take. We just used a microphone that cost £100 and recorded it in my bedroom, no software or anything. And that just blew up out of nowhere; it’s got like 500,000 views. I got signed off the back of that.”

Apart from the vocals, most of her songs are still recorded at home. It’s at her desk, under the watchful eye of a Frida Kahlo poster, that the magic happens. She pauses here and points to the huge poster: “That woman there is a huge inspiration to me. There’s a difference between not giving a fuck and wearing your heart on your sleeve. She didn’t give a fuck, but she did it in such an honest, relatable way. She was incredibly brave, especially for a woman who, on paper, should have had all her bravery stripped from her.” Beyond the poster, Kahlo’s face adorns postcards stuck by the window, a pillow squashed into the corner of the sofa, and the case on Joy’s phone. There are books about Frida’s life on the crowded shelves and an iron-on patch of her face, waiting to embellish the right t-shirt or denim jacket. The daily reminder of Frida’s bravery is what keeps Joy going if she starts to lose faith.

Musically, The Clash has had a huge influence on Joy. “They just had no boundaries. I have every single album, and each one is so different; they were sponges to everything around them. There was a murder outside one of their studios once, so they wrote a song called Somebody Got Murdered. And they’d be listening to reggae for a week and decide to make a reggae album – but not in an appropriating way, in their own way. They were just fun.” When she spotted lead guitarist Mick Jones in Notting Hill a few weeks ago, she chased him down the street.  “I realised afterwards that I’d been crying and bowing. He was like ‘babes, I thought you were gonna ask me for directions.’ He thought I was mad.”

It’s clear that Joy’s love of music runs deep; it’s a key part of her everyday life and the way she experiences the world. “You always want to listen to a song that emulates how you’re feeling. I know if I stub my toe, I’ll want to listen to White Riot by The Clash. When I’m walking past a good-looking guy, I want These Boots are Made for Walking.” Beyond these little moments of musical mirroring, songwriting is a powerful form of therapy for Joy. But, she admits, “It scares me a little bit that expressing my feelings through music has become my job.”

Her process reflects the way she sees her career unfolding. “My music is solely dependent on what’s going on with me at that moment in time. I might start a verse and finish the song six months later, because I know that whatever I’m talking about will come to a conclusion where I’ll be able to write about it. I’ve got a song at the moment that I think is going to be about the whole Harvey Weinstein thing; how every time you go on BBC news, there’s another woman who’s been abused. And everyone’s shocked, but at the same time no-one’s shocked, because it happens to everyone. Songs like that take time and I’m not here to be a hype artist, I want to be an artist who’s respected and here for a long time.”

At just 19, she’s just been on her first European tour, a big milestone in any artist’s career and one that she counts as a learning curve. “It helped me realise that London is a bubble,” she ponders. Travelling and performing alongside her friend Jacob Banks, she visited Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Madrid and Zurich. “There are memories in every city,” she says wistfully. “Like in Zurich, we ended up in a brothel because it was called Chilli’s and we thought it was a food place.”

Joy doesn’t have a master plan, and she’s not in any particular rush to find success. “I’d like to eventually release an album, but my main goal is longevity. If I do release, I want to do it at the right time for me.” She hesitates here: “It’s hard to put a deadline or a timescale on creativity. Sometimes finding what you actually want to do next is part of the journey.”

Roundtable Journal blog: ALLES Berlin

This blog was published on the Roundtable Journal blog

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Bored of mainstream clothing and determined to stand out from the crowd, Berlin-based fashion designer Sheila Ilz Van Hofen started her label, ALLES Berlin, in 2013. Created to serve the city’s club scene, the essence of Berlin is woven into the brand’s DNA. Sheila puts a middle finger up to mass production and exploitation, and aims to be inclusive to all. The word ‘alles’ literally translates as ‘everything’.

Her pieces cut across identity lines, uniting people from all races, genders and sexual identities under one pulsating beat. “I would like ALLES Berlin to be for everybody who feels like wearing it,” she says. “Whether you like to go to parties or you just like to play around with fashion in your daily life. No matter what gender you identify with, or what size you are. I think ALLES is for people who are extroverted and a bit exhibitionist, who like to show off what they have.” The moment she realised her vision had legs? “When I saw a customer who didn’t think they could ‘pull off’ one of my bodysuits put it on and leave the pants off!” It’s that exact confidence, that moment of liberation, that ALLES is striving to share.

Instead of abiding by seasons, Sheila makes new pieces whenever inspiration strikes. Most of the time, inspiration comes from the people around her, in clubs or on the U1 train. By producing in low quantities and testing the waters before making more, Sheila has been able to reduce waste and stay creative. Selling her clothes on Depop as opposed to a traditional shop has also allowed Sheila to stay connected to her customers. This connectivity and ongoing conversation is at the heart of all ALLES does. ‘A few weeks ago, a guy ordered a bodysuit for his girlfriend and – whilst messaging about sizes etc. – we realised we were going to the same house party! So we got the chance to meet up and party together and I got to see how gorgeous his girlfriend looked in my brand. Encounters like these motivate me to keep going.’

By using an online platform like Depop, Sheila can reach beyond her home city, an opportunity previously denied to fledgling designers. This shoot, RED LOBSTER, was a collaboration with her friend Lisa Müller, who she met on Instagram. After working together on a lookbook over summer, the pair decided to take the club kid aesthetic of Berlin to the streets of London. Sheila remembers, ‘we had a lot of funny encounters with everyday people, who tried to give us tips on how to style the model’s hair or on how to pose.’ But that’s the ALLES mentality: creative expression for everyone, influenced by everyone.

Manchester International Festival: 10000 Gestures

10000 Gestures is an original dance piece created for MIF 2017. This review was originally published on Northern Soul.

Boris Charmatz is not a conventional choreographer. In fact, he ‘choreographed’ very little of his latest work, 10000 Gestures.

The piece, which premiered last night as part of Manchester International Festival (MIF), is less a dance work, more a collection of movements, performed in succession by a group of dancers. When I interviewed the festival’s former artistic director Alex Poots ahead of MIF 2015, I asked him to describe the festival in three words. His answer was of course, “18 extraordinary days”. I’m going to employ his wry statement of the obvious here and say that this work is, very simply, 10,000 gestures. For once, the title couldn’t be more fitting.

The setting for this performance, Mayfield, is something of a hidden gem in Manchester, if such a cliché is not reductive. An abandoned train station, the cavernous space provides feels intimate once Yves Godin’s lighting design comes into play and Charmatz’s 25 dancers surge forward. The pulsating energy of this gyrating orchestra of bodies not only fills the space, it seeps into every nook and cranny, breaking down any illusion of distance between performer and audience.

Watching 10000 Gestures feels like watching an acting workshop. You can just imagine Charmatz inviting these dancers into his studio and asking them to shed all inhibitions, access their innermost reflexes and magnify them a thousand times over. Each gesture borders on hyperbolic; movements are amplified and chaotic, at once heartfelt and comedic. One dancer plays air guitar on their own leg, and later on an audience member’s. Another squeezes their breasts, mimicking the innocent curiosity of a child. A wave of nostalgia comes from a raised hand pleading for an invisible teacher’s attention.

Watching all of these movements together ought to be overwhelming and chaotic, but instead it brings a certain sense of calm. Faced with such dynamic multiplicity, such a flurry of action, you can’t help but focus on singular dancers. You have no choice but to follow your senses, allowing your attention to be drawn by a particularly rigorous turn to the left or a scream to the right. In a way, 10000 Gestures is a middle finger up to the place dance holds in the art world; it celebrates the art form’s impermanence instead of criticising it. It persuades the audience that missing out is no disadvantage. Each audience member will walk away from this performance with a completely different memory and experience, and that is the best bit.

Featured Image by Tristram Kenton

Manchester International Festival: Fatherland

Fatherland is an original play, written for Manchester International Festival. It runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 22nd July, 2017. You can find more information here. This review was originally published on Northern Soul

In school, I was taught that the most convincing arguments address their own pitfalls before someone else raises them. The writers of Fatherland must have had a similar lesson somewhere between the drawing board and the curtain call.

Co-authors Scott Graham, Simon Stephens and Karl Hyde visited their hometowns (Corby, Stockport and Kidderminster respectively) hoping to unveil a new narrative about fatherhood. Instead, they unmasked their own self-indulgence, discovered their London-centric artistic angle and realised that the prospect of going home “made us prodigal sons until [we went] back and realise[d] no one [gave] a shit.”

I really hope that this realisation as portrayed on stage held some semblance of truth – the image of a slightly gobby, unabashedly inquisitive Northerner calling out three London-based writers is too good not to be true. Either way, said gobby Northerner is an effective vehicle for steering the audience towards the writers’ realisation. The original proposal may have been different, but the play presented was a fantastically thought-provoking piece, the flaws of which were artfully – and self-consciously – written into the script.

Controversial topics, such as the Islamophobic protestations of one aggressively protective father, act as signposts for the audience – a spot-the-difference generation game ensues. Here, the sharpest intake of breath came not from the stage, but the spectators. Remarks about Islam, immigrants and Brexit which were already pertinent when Fatherland was written, taunt even fresher, deeper wounds when it is performed. But the writers have not shied away from this. Their interviewees are quoted mostly verbatim, and judgement is left to the audience. Alcoholism, mental illness and violence are all dealt with in turn, weaving a complex web of emotion, interspersed with outbursts of belly-deep song. Raw humour punctuates moments of reflection: Eric Cantona is credited as a distant, metaphorical father figure in the wake of neglect. This heady mix of light and shade adds a distinctly Northern streak to this gritty piece, a running theme for this year’s Manchester International Festival.

The folk at the Royal Exchange have a penchant for clever staging. While the set for Fatherland is minimal, each corner of the theatre is utilised during the course of the play. Actors are not restricted to the centre stage. They appear in pairs, filling the aisles within arms reach, or en masse, banging on the theatre’s walls in an all-encompassing harmony that sends shivers down your spine. Occasionally, the action spills out through the open doors, as hyper-masculine football chants echo through the cavernous space.

There is something almost sinister about the use of sound and light. It’s punchy and reminiscent of the last play that two of the three co-authors (Simon Stephens and Scott Graham) worked on together. That play was of course The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But Fatherland is subtler than The Curious Incident. Sparse but carefully selected metaphors are spattered throughout, hitting a nostalgic nerve. The images of a father’s coat, for example – the coat you snuggled inside when it was cold, or tugged at the hem of for attention. These are images most people can identify with on some level, they appeal to the everyman, or simply to every man. And therein lies the beauty of this play. It acknowledges the self-indulgence of its writers at the point of inception, but also takes us on their journey of realisation. By the end, it almost doesn’t matter what the intentions for this play were. The bigger picture is one of common experience, an experience of fatherhood often tinged with regret and forgiveness in equal measure.

Featured Image by Manuel Harlan 

Chips‘n’Gravy: “I’m proud to call Manchester home”

In my latest blog for Northern Soul, I reflect on the terror attack at Manchester Arena with a renewed pride in my hometown. 

Writing for Northern Soul seems particularly pertinent today. I may not be in the North right now, but my soul definitely is. My heart hurts for all the people at the arena last night; for those who lost their lives, those nearby who were injured or distressed and the families and friends wrought with worry and grief. It seems cliché, but given the overwhelming sense of numbness I feel, it’s difficult to find better words. I guess we turn to cliché in times of distress for a reason.

My best friend called me from a club in Glasgow at 1am, distraught that the city we live in was threatened. Reading the reports, and scrolling through Twitter, my eyes prick with tears. Across the world, people are offering their condolences. But in Manchester, people are offering help. Taxis offered free rides, hotels and locals offered shelter, people supplied emergency services with cups of tea and restaurants opened their doors to those in need of comfort. In a moment of chaos and an attempt to divide us, Manchester showed why it will never be divided. We are a melting pot of race, religion, age and politics; every line along which people might be divided exists in Manchester. But we share a spirit of community and solidarity that can’t be broken. The spirit of Manchester spread across the globe last night.

In London, news of terror attacks is no less gut-wrenching or tragic, but somehow less unexpected. Despite being a two-hour train ride away last night – instead of 20 minutes from Westminster or 5 from Russell Square – it felt a lot closer to home. When something like this happens, you realise how small a world Manchester is. It’s not that difficult to believe that you could know someone affected. Whilst I knew my family were all tucked up safely in bed last night, thousands will have been shaken by uncertainty. Parents who had so reluctantly let their children go to the concert – perhaps their first – wracked with panic. My little sister was asleep, but her friends may have been there. Girls from my old school, friends of friends, my flatmate’s dad who was called in to the hospital to help. People checking in as safe on Facebook ceased to seem crass and became a source of reassurance and relief.

When London has faced attacks of a similar nature, I realise that living in a city like this requires a level of blissful ignorance. Here, we are surrounded by big venues, skyscrapers and huge public spaces. People on Twitter reflected on how the arena was an understandable target, commenting on lax security measures. But whilst we can step up security, we cannot stop living our lives. We cannot retreat into fear.

This morning, as people share their reflections on last night and the details of what happened become clear, I can’t quite untangle my feelings from the numbness. There is a deep sadness in the pit of my stomach, as I’m sure is the case for thousands of others, and I am heartbroken that young people were the targets. But more than anything, I am proud of how Manchester responded. More than anything, I am proud to call Manchester my home.