University of Edinburgh

Workshop 4: "Who told you not to do it?": exploring staff attitudes and issues and where conflicts arise for staff (focusing on post 14)

From the Conference: Sex Education for Children and Young People with Visual Impairment, Scottish Sensory Centre, March 1998

Paul Hart, Deputy Principal Officer, Sense Scotland


I presented a paper at this conference last year and it would be fair to say that I went away from the Conference feeling I had perhaps gone too far in some of the points I was trying to make. However, when I subsequentIy read the evaluations, it became clear that participants felt that many of the issues I had discussed were not only relevant to their situations but in their opinions long over-due for a public airing. I mention this now because it simply serves to illustrate that no-one can be 100% comfortable in tackIng the issues that surround sex education with the young peopIe that we work alongside. Even if you have given it considerable thought, it can leave you feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable.

I should also say that this workshop is designed to centre around participation and discussion. We will probably not arrive at any point when you think "That's the answer I've been looking for". Instead, we should raise a number of questions that will allow you to go away and think about the ways in which you are working alongside the young people in your charge.

Before turning our attention to some specific questions related to sex education I want all of you to consider the following scenario:

You are sitting in a pub and in walks your closest friend. The outfit they are wearing looks absolutely ridiculous on them. You are determined that you are going to say so, and you are merely trying to consider the best way of telling them.

Your friend sits down beside you and tells you that their long-standing relationship has just come to an end. It had been breaking down for months and this morning was the final straw Your friend had gone out to buy a new outfit and when they had returned to the house their partner had been incredibly critical of the choice. This had led to a big fight, words were exchanged and your friend has walked out of the relationship. They begin to cry on your shoulder and in between sobs, you hear a question, "What do you think of the outfit?"

'What is your response?

Tell a lie........?

Now this story:

A five year old cones down from bed in the morning and asks what happened to his tooth which was under his pillow. What do you say?

The tooth fairy took it away......

Yet another lie.

You see, telling lies can very often be a very positive thing to do, given the right set of circumstances.

But does that not conflict with information we would all have been given as children .... telling lies was considered a very bad thing. We take great pains to discourage children from lying. Yet somehow or other they learn over the years that lying can have positive outcomes, and indeed in some situations it is almost right that do you tell a lie. We had a visit in Sense Scotland a few months ago from John McInnes, the well-respected deafblind educator from Canada. He was explaining how it is important that our young people learn to lie, because that can avoid them getting into difficult or vulnerable situations (e.g. believing that nobody would tell them lies or always speaking the complete truth, even if that is to their cost).

I use these stories about lies simply to illustrate that because life is not always black and white, we all of us use our experiences to unlearn things that we have been taught. There are at least two areas in which this is seen to most effect: interaction with peers (e.g. learning how to hurt and not to hurt people's feelings), and interactions with those in authority over us (not telling the whole truth to our parents, teachers, etc.).

And if children can unlearn things that they have been taught, is that not just the same as learning something new. We go through life using our experiences and interactions to fine-tune our learning. As a small aside, think for a minute about how children learn language. We readily think that they learn through imitation, by listening to those around them. But then think of this example, which is given in Stephen Pinker's book "The Language Instinct "of a sentence a child might say:

"We holded the baby rabbits"

What does that tell you about the way in which children learn? They use their previously held experience of conjugating verbs, and when they encounter irregular verbs, they simply apply the rules that they have worked out for other verbs. In time their experience will teach them that holded becomes held. So children begin to unlearn some of the rules they understand and they learn new ways of doing things.

So what has any of this to do with Sex Education? And why did I choose the title I did for this workshop:

"Who told you not to do it?"

Well I'm working from the premise (maybe a false one and I'm happy to discuss this later in this workshop) that as educators we see part of our function not so much as teaching young people what to do, but rather, teaching them what not to do. (This is especially true when we consider sex education). So while the questions linked to the stories listed above might be: "Who told you that it was OK to tell lies?" and "Who told you to disregard certain grammatical rules?", the questions we will be more concerned with today will be along these lines:

"Who told you not to masturbate in a classroom?"
"Who told you not to hug strangers in a lift?"
"Who told you not to chat about your menstrual cycle on the bus?"

We must bear in mind that young people have learned lots about their own sexually, after all they live with it everyday. We then spend our time and energies teaching them to "unlearn" some of these things.

We will try to explore this a bit further, but first I want to look at an area that it raised in "Sex in Context", a useful resource developed by Caroline Downs and Ann Craft. In this material they quote from DFE Circular 5/94 - Sex Education in Schools, where states that amongst other things sex education should prepare pupils for "the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life".

Within the workshop we explored what some of these were in relation to sexuality

Below are listed the responses that people gave when first of all considering themselves as adults.


Marriage, relationships; pub on a Friday night: choice; joining clubs; holidays; freedom (from your parents); independence; getting a job; access to a wide range of written and video material; choosing to become a parent (or not).


Acceptance and rejection; knowledge of what you like and don't like; choices are based on the experiences you will have had (or coloured by the opinions of peers); unwanted sexual experiences; other people's expectations of you; activities driven by gender roles; looking for happiness and enjoyment; embarrassment; pregnancy.


Rights and wrongs; for your own actions; for your own health and protection; feelings of (for) others; children or others in your care; respect for yourself and others.

We then looked at the same three broad areas, but this time considered them from the point of view of young teenagers:


Lack of privacy; access to teenage magazines / TV programmes; social involvement with peers at school.


Peer pressure (to do things / not to do things); lack of self-confidence; adults forcing their own views; listening to other people's tales; reactions to your dressing; bravado and talking about "pretend" experiences; worrying about your looks; getting things out of perspective; first sexual experiences (masturbation, kissing, daydreaming, fantasising, fondling, looking at people, talking to people); aware of other people being horrible to you.


For the feelings of others; for your own actions.

When looking closely at the things we learned (or unlearned) during our time as teenagers it became obvious that we learned much of this from ourselves and from a complex set of interactions with the world around us (this included family. friends. teachers etc).

Some of the crucial areas we began to look at were as follows:

  1. How do you know the difference between public v private places to masturbate
  2. How to behave in public settings
  3. How to dress appropriately for your age
  4. When and where to kiss someone, not kiss someone
  5. What kind of things should you talk about in public
  6. Where is it OK to touch people, and not touch people

In working through two of these areas (masturbation and dressing appropriately) we asked these questions:
a) How would the average fourteen year old know how to behave in any of these situations listed above?
b) What does that tell us about the things we need to teach our pupils and clients?

As ever, time was a factor in being able to fully explore these issues, but conclusions in these discussions led to a feeling that these are not topics that can simply be left to the time when they become issues, but should grow naturally out of learning that the young person will have been involved in over a great number of years. Thus, discussions about public and private places could have been entered into with very small children, but in relation to an activity appropriate to their age. This led to some discussion about the unequal treatment of children with disabilities. One participant gave the example of challenging behaviour in public setting, which would not be accepted from a toddler. But if that toddler had a disability, then people may respond differently and allow a degree of tolerance. Does this ultimately confuse the child and give it mixed messages?

The workshop concluded by looking at two case studies (again not in great detail, but participants are free to explore these further in their own time). Again, the crucial point of this exercise was to determine at what age learning could have been appropriately taken place for the young people detailed below. A 25 year old who has some gaps in her learning will always be disadvantaged and facing greater barriers to learning new information. If learning opportunities had taken place at an earlier age, perhaps the situation outlined below would not have arisen.

Case Studies

A) We have a 25 year old woman who likes to go swimming. She is about 5'. She likes to wear arms bands in the water even though she can swim reasonably well. Just before getting in the water she always stands on the side of the pool and rubs her hands down from her shoulders to her hips.

What are the issues?
What, when and by whom should she have been taught?

B) Two men go out to the pub with a member of staff. One of the men says he is going to the toilet. After ten minutes another patron of the pub goes to the toilet and as your client has not returned, you decided to go in to see what's happening. When you go into the toilet, the member of the public is standing at the urinal, and your client is slouched over the toilet in the cubicle, masturbating. The door is wide open. You close the cubicle door. Meanwhile, the member of the public has moved to the sink and your other client has come in to the bathroom, drops his trousers to his ankles and stands at the urinal.

What things have these men not been taught?
Again, when should this have been done and by whom?