We spoke to one of the founders of Split Banana, an organization that advocates quality Relationship and Sex Education in the UK, about her thoughts on revamping RSE and all things Sex Ed!
When we began learning about sex and puberty, I remember the girls and boys being separated into two classrooms.
The girls were taken away to be taught about periods and babies, and the boys…well, I guess we’ll never know.
I remember sitting on our too-small and too-uncomfortable plastic chairs. We listened to one of our female teachers explain how one of her friends reacted so badly to the mood swings she got during her periods, that she would punch holes through the wall.
I, for one, was delighted at the prospect of suddenly gaining superhuman strength during my monthly bleed.
When I went home and told my Mum about what the teacher had said, she looked appalled.
“I promise you,” she sternly told me. “No period will ever make you mad enough that you could punch a hole in the wall.”
Whilst I was slightly annoyed at the change of plans regarding my sudden abilities, I was also confused. Why would our teacher tell us something that was very likely untrue? Something that could be considered an incredibly frightening prospect for many girls?
My only other memories of Sex Education were watching a video clearly made in the 1990’s and staring at a teacher who held up a condom. She explained what it was, and then proceeded to throw it away sans any type of demonstration.
It is very likely that many of us had the same experience. Sex Education was maybe only lasted a day or two and we ended up with more questions than answers.
Nowadays, it’s called Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). It now involves a wider range of topics including relationships (romantic and platonic), families, mental wellbeing, and the law.
This seems to be a step up from the small amount of attention our schools may have given RSE. But is it enough?
Split Banana, an organisation founded by Anna and Matilda, hosts workshops and trains educators. But perhaps most importantly, it provides a safe space for young people to engage in conversations about sex. Their aim is to help provide the Sex Education that young people deserve and desperately need.
It’s clear that many children are going to suffer massively from the upheaval in their education across the board as a result of the pandemic. How much of a priority do you think Sex Education is in terms of making up for lost time?
RSE became compulsory for the first time in 2020 so it is on schools’ radar. And we’ve found that for many schools they do really care about delivering high quality RSE.
However, because of the pandemic and lack of funding, they’re definitely struggling to prioritise it. It’s also not a subject that can be taught effectively at home for everyone, as a lot of the topics are sensitive and benefit from a safe space held by a trusted adult.
Would you have said that Sex Ed standards were up to scratch before the pandemic?
No, definitely not. Most people we speak to still say that their sex-ed was bad, incomplete or non-existent, even if they left school recently. Topics like pleasure aren’t even included within the guidelines, and schools have little idea how to cover gender and sexualities.
I think a lot of the sex-ed that’s being taught in Secondary school should really be starting in Primary. Imagine the depth of conversation you could have about gender and sexuality if you weren’t being taught it for the first time when you were 16.
Topics like pleasure aren’t even included within the guidelines, and schools have little idea how to cover gender and sexualities.
What was your experience with Sex Education like when you were in school?
My sex-ed was pretty much non-existent. Our teacher clearly felt too awkward about it so taught us railroad safety for half a term instead!
You must listen to a lot of people’s stories from their own experience with Sex Education. Do you find that there is often a common issue or problem that frequently comes up?
The main ones are still that it’s taught through a heteronormative lens. ‘Sex’ is still only seen as penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex as opposed to many different activities. Only seeing sex like this isn’t helpful for the majority of people. It’s irrelevant for many queer people, exclusionary to people with disabilities who might not be able to have this kind of sex, and also so many people just don’t get that much pleasure from this kind of sex. So it’s not really benefiting anyone.
Beyond that, I think the problem seems to be that people tend to only receive one or a handful of sessions. So the quality is entirely down to how comfortable the teacher is.
How did you come to start Split Banana? What were your aims when it first began?
Matilda and I started Split Banana when we were working at schools, and realised sex-ed was just as bad as when we got it 10 years ago. When we first began we wanted to research how RSE could be delivered in a way that wasn’t just one off sessions, but instead more integrated.
That’s how we ended up at training teachers, educators and other organisations. We think it’s so important to utilise the existing relationships students have, and also allow them to have continued conversations: to be able to go away, process the information, and come back to ask questions.
In your opinion, is there a particular group in age, gender or ethnicity that is possibly most at risk from a poor standard of RSE?
In our experience disabled people are highly at risk from poor standard RSE. On the whole, the sexual script for this group of people seems to be that they’re either totally desexualised, and presumed to lack a sexuality. Or, conversely they can be fetishised or seen as sexually deviant.
Sex education is therefore often deemed unnecessary for disabled people. This leaves them at far more risk of exploitation and abuse, but also stifles their sexuality and sexual expression! Which they of course have, just like everybody else. We want to see more sex education providers working within this space to provide this necessary service.
What elements of Sex Ed do you think should be prioritised and focused on more intently?
Pleasure would be a big one. A lot of people both inside and outside of school are still uncomfortable with including this on the curriculum. The impacts of not receiving this are felt by all of us, and especially people with vulvas: from experiencing unpleasant/uncomfortable/bad sex, to not understanding your own anatomy, and feeling ashamed at the idea that you’re allowed to enjoy sex.
If you look at the recent backlash around the New York school which explained what masturbation was, to the grief around Zoella and sex toys, we can see the moral panic about sexual pleasure and sex education still playing out around us.
It’s not that we’re saying people should have the expectation that sex will always be amazing and filled with orgasms. Instead, it’s about affirming the realities of sex so that people are prepared for it. So letting them know that sex isn’t just penis-in-vagina, many people with vulvas experience more pleasure through outercourse (non-penetrative sex) and the importance of communication during and around sex.
Remember, sex education doesn’t sexualise young people… but instead gives them the tools and information to navigate sex and relationships, and have positive experiences.
Do you think that parents should have more responsibility when it comes to Sex Education? What can they do to be more proactive if so?
I think the more people that have conversations around sex and relationships the better. So, yes! And moving away from the idea that all we need is ‘The Chat’ and instead recognising that we need quite a lot of chats!
There are a lot of great sources of information on the internet (parents can look to Outspoken, and everyone can find useful info at Sexwise and Fumble) that they can look at for guidance, as well as signposting to their kids. And beyond that, trying to hold space for curiosity in a non-judgemental way.
And remember, sex education doesn’t sexualise young people – they already have a sexuality whether you like it or not – but instead gives them the tools and information to navigate sex and relationships, and have positive experiences.
You have workshops and training available as part of what Split Banana offers. What do you think are the benefits for educators to bring in an outside source?
We believe that bringing an outside source in to support teachers is an absolute must. None of us received good RSE, so how can teachers be expected to provide it without training? What’s more, RSE covers so many topics! From anti-fatness to gender, sex and disabilities to non-heteronormative family structures. We love getting teachers excited about exploring these themes and bringing them into the classroom.
In terms of workshops, as they haven’t had support or training, many teachers still feel uncomfortable and unprepared to teach topics like gender, porn and sex itself! So having someone who’s able to come in, model a good workshop and hold space for young people to be curious can be a real help.
Over the years, Sex Education has developed quite a bit. The RSE guidelines from the Department of Education say that some of the things that should be covered include the concept of marriage, online risks and pornography, respectful relationships (including friendships), sexual exploitation and abuse….do you think that RSE has progressed enough over time to be giving children the full scope of information?
Anything would have been an improvement from the guidelines from the previous 20 years. However, these definitely don’t go far enough. For example, they still say that LGBTQIA+ information should be taught ‘where appropriate’. What does that even mean? It should be threaded through and emphasised in every topic.
We get asked how lesbians have sex, how trans-men navigate periods, how queer families are built – if we don’t include this perspective throughout then so many children are missing out on a comprehensive sex-ed.
Finally, what are your plans for Split Banana’s future?
So many! Our main dreams are to research how we can make teachers feel confident delivering RSE themes across the curriculum: from teaching about colonial impacts on sexuality in history, different cultures construction of gender in geography, how to navigate relationships in English, queer resistance in art – the list goes on!
We’ve also been doing a lot of work with improving sex-ed for disabled young people over the past year. Our next step is building out our offer for SEN students and support for their teachers.
You can follow Split Banana on Instagram @splitbananaaa to keep up with their latest news and workshops. Or check them out at www.splitbanana.co.uk!