At the heart of sex positivity is sexual health and we had the opportunity to chat to Ruby Stevenson from Brook about her work and why it matters.
Welcome, Ruby! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a sex educator and I work for a young people's charity called Brook. Brook does two things primarily: there's clinical work and then there's educational work, and both of them are done all across the country. I manage free condom distribution schemes in 4 London boroughs which provide a sustainable source of condoms for young people between 13 - 25. I train professionals in how to become more comfortable talking to young people about sex and become more informed (as well as giving them some knowledge for themselves as well!). I also run relationship and sex educational sessions in schools across London. We cover the physical stuff - contraception and STIs – as well as sessions on emotional sexual health - healthy relationships, sexuality, consent, self esteem, pornography - which I think are incredibly important. I also run talks for adults – readdressing our expectations of sex, porn, and pleasure, and run a body positive life drawing class. I talk about sex a lot, basically.
How did you get into this field?
I wish I had a better story for this. It's something that, happily, I just stumbled into. When I was at uni, I started watching porn more regularly and geeking out on all things sex – reading as much as I could get my hands on. It was a lovely, private, hobby of mine that I would talk about with friends. And I don't know why it took me so long to realise that it could be a job - and then it was like, 'Oh! All of this makes sense now!' So while I was still freelancing I ended up working with Brook delivering educational sessions, as well as a little bit of campaigning stuff as well. I was interviewing sex workers for a while and collecting different stories, lots of different projects like that. It took off pretty naturally, and I've been working with Brook for almost 3 years now.
Why would you say this kind of work is important?
I guess there's the analogy that in order to solve a problem, you need to address the roots, and you need to address the leaves. People are the roots. A lot of the issues that we have, in terms of our attitude towards sexuality, and the way that we behave in sex and relationships, is stuff that is going on with adults. I'm doing more and more work with adults, training professionals and then doing adult workshops alongside working with Brook, which is so important because sex education should never be something that stops. We are always learning, and we should always be self-aware about that and engaged with it as a life lesson and a continual journey. With all of these things - I guess with the environment as well - the more that young people are engaged with it now, the more impact it will have in years and in generations to come. That's the 'why' I think it's important.
On a more personal level, in terms of the work I do with young people, I remember what it was like to be a teenager. I remember what it was like to have a lot of fears and anxieties that the majority of teenagers have around being normal, about not doing things too early or late, about my body changing in ways that I didn't really have agency over and about a lot of questions that were going round in my mind that I didn't really feel confident enough to bring up. In my female friendship group no one admitted to masturbating all through our teens, even though we were all secretly going at it. The shame associated to female pleasure is crazy to me, and I feel lucky we’ve all turned into such a sex-positive women despite battling that shame.
I think it's so important that Brook and other external agencies are given the opportunities to go into schools because it allows for young people to see these topics ever so slightly more separately from their daily lives. So, I can go into a classroom and say, 'Look, it's physically impossible to embarrass, you can say any question or throw anything at me, I've heard it all, I can bounce back from it, no problem. I'm not going to teach you maths tomorrow.' By creating a space where young people feel comfortable, we can get into some really interesting discussions and give them the opportunity to voice their opinions. Young people are bloody amazing and they should be given every opportunity to show that to the world. At Brook we try to do our bit to amplify young people’s voices. I think sex and relationships are the most important things to learn about. It's all about communication, it's all about confidence, it's all about how you relate to yourself and how your actions have consequences in the rest of the world. And that's about life - that's about everything.
What would you say the challenges are in your field?
The biggest challenges that we face now are the cuts in funding. I love working for Brook, I think it's an incredible charity and the work we do is fantastic. We have good relationships with our commissioners who see the value in our work, but unfortunately, the cuts that local governments have been presented with from National government just mean that we are being squeezed more and more every year. We lost the Brook clinic in Brixton this year, which has been an establishment for around thirty years. That's a really sad decision that no one has taken lightly. It scares me thinking about how sexual health services are becoming increasingly privatised, it scares me thinking about how unattractive accessing sexual health services is for young people now. Clinics like Dean Street are incredible, but even there capacity has been reduced and they are facing challenges.
Does this worry you?
It is really worrying. And young people won't wait for three hours to go and see a clinical nurse. No one should have to wait that long. I would love to see counselling services being invested in more, because what Brook does on a clinical and educational level, is never only about physical health, it's also about mental health and emotional well-being. Counselling is such a vital part of that.
I guess another big challenge is other people, whether that's other organisations, or schools, or the general public, not seeing the value in what we do. We still have a cultural stigma around young people having sex, and the assumption that teenager’s ‘reckless behaviour is bleeding the system dry’, which is far from the truth. By investing in our educational work we can empower young people to make informed decisions, which saves us all in the long run. Relationship and sex education is due to become compulsory within the school curriculum in the next few years, which is something Brook campaigned for, however the outline the government has published is not nearly comprehensive enough, and we’re going to have to continue fighting to ensure young people get the education they deserve.
How do we find you and your work?
My instagram, @rubyrare, is the most active place to show me love. You’ll find me waving around condom demonstrators and being a happy naked sex positive lady! And to find out more about our London-wide condom scheme head to comecorrect.org.uk