Monday, 16 February 2015

Review of 50 Shades of Grey from a Relationship and Sex Educators perspective

Thoughts on how Relationship and Sex Educators may have to respond to the 50 Shades of Grey film with young people. 

2 and a half years ago I wrote a review of the 50 Shades of Grey book from a relationship and sex educator perspective. Today I saw the film adaptation with the aim to do the same for the film. 1 in 10 young people have read the novel and I am confident even more will try and see the film. This film (at least in the immediate future) will have an impact on young peoples perspective of sex and relationships and I am keen that people who work with young people equip themselves to respond to questions and concerns this film might raise. Imagine being asked by a young person "why do people enjoy spanking?" "What is fetish?" What is BDSM" "Explain 50 shades of grey?" are we ready to answer young peoples questions? This film raises issue of consent, healthy/unhealthy relationships, BDSM sex, boundaries, communication and value in sex. 

In the UK this film has an 18 certificate, which should stop under 18s seeing the film. However, we all know some under 18s will get to see it in the cinema. However, I am sure many more young people will end up seeing it online from an illegal site either bit torrent or online streaming. I was able to do a quick search and find both bit torrent and streaming services offering 50 Shades pirated from the cinema videos. Young people are better then me at finding full films online. So whilst this film is not meant for young people. Young people will find it and will watch it. 

Overall the film has a mixture of positive and negative aspects compared to the book. Some issue I had with the book are down played in the film whilst over issues emerge. Please bare in mind this is not an attempt at a feminist, ethical, media studies, religious or any other type of review. This is focused on trying to imagine "What impressions of relationships and sex could a young person walk away from this film with?" It is not attempting to be balanced but to try and think what issues could this raise in my work as a relationship and sex educator. 

***SPOILER WARNING, if you hadn't guessed lots of spoilers below***

Consent, Consent! Consent?

One of the biggest issue I saw cropping up in this film is consent. How does the film portray consent and does the film explore what is a healthy application of consent. This is a central theme of the film. Does Anastasia consent to the BDSM relationship Grey is presenting. I left the cinema today with the impression that compared to the book Anastasia's character has been strengthen but I still feel concerns about the message it gives. I can now understand why actors and film crew have been so confident in their denial that their is a lack of consent. Almost every sex scene begins with a discussion about if Anastasia gives consent. At times she is portrayed as positively enthusiastic in her consent. 

However, I teach in my lessons that something is only genuine consent if both people have the option and confidence to say no. The premise of the film is that to have a relationship with Christian Grey Anastasia must consent to a BDSM relationship. I tried to imagine taking this premise down to a more common example away from the glamour of dating an eccentric millionaire. If a young person asked "My partner says I must provide oral sex if I want to start a relationship with them, what should I do?" What advice would we give? Would we see that this is an example of good practice consent as it is presented as a question not a demand. Or would we see this as an act of manipulation. It could be argued that Christian is not demanding specific acts because he is willing to negotiate on the specific acts in the contract. But he is not willing to negotiate on the basic set up of the sexual relationship. On the positive side at the end of the film when Anastasia gives a very firm no he does restrain himself from following her. 

In balance I believe this film does blur what healthy consent is. Young people could walk away from this movie with an expectation that it is fine to demand sexual behavior as a condition of a relationship. That worries me as I find young people all ready often struggle to identify accurately what consent is. 


In my review of the book one positive issue I highlighted from the story was the mentioning of contraceptives. Thankfully this film does include some contraceptives. Not many (I counted 4) but some is better then none. Sadly the 2 shots of Christian opening a condom package are so quick you could blink and miss them and the 2 mentions of the oral contraceptive pill are presented as a part of the BDSM relationship and not as simply good ideas by themselves. Whilst I would always want more contraceptives in more films, ideally portrayed as a part of healthy relationships and not as the gag in a comedy, this film does better then most romance films. Hopefully this film will at least not add to young people's reluctance to use contraceptives and possibly it might encourage the use of them. 

Bad BDSM practice

A lot of media attention has been focused on the BDSM sex. In my book review I stated that.
"Media which presents unrealistic or bad fetish sex is not good because people may believe it and then make dangerous mistakes. Especially as it is a form of sex that has intrinsic risk. Young people could end up getting hurt emotionally or physical if they only draw on bad media BDSM portrayals like this."
Sadly the film still contains what I understand to be bad portrayals of BDSM sex. For example cable ties are suggested as a method of restraint which I believe to be strongly discouraged as they risk cutting off blood supply and are hard to remove. The contract also appears to be misused. It is presented originally as an essential step before starting a physical BDSM relationship. Then the film shows Christian spanking, restraining with leather cuffs, flogging, restraining with rope, cropping, restraining with ties, practicing slave positions and more with no contract signed. I am glad that the film does include details of what safewords are in theory but they don't role model Anastasia using them even during the final beating scene when it is abundantly clear she is not enjoying it. I fear young people will end up physically and emotionally hurt from trying BDSM acts they have only learnt about from this film. 


Much of the films sexual tension and thrill is built up through the dialogue between Christian and Anastasia. Communication between them is modeled better then some films and Christian even says the words "We have to be honest with each other for this to work?". Great sentiment and I hope young people do what Christian says and not what Christian does. Christian's version of honesty is for Anastasia to reveal her feelings whilst he is closed off and strongly avoids discussion of his emotions and motives. The communication comes across as primarily one way. Christian has a desire to know Anastasia in a deeply personal and intimate way but for what reason is unclear. His interest could easily be seen as another aspect of him wanting to control her and not about genuine communication in relationships. 

Focus on Mr Grey 

Compared to the book I believe the film downplays Christian Grey's stalking and abusive controlling actions. For example, the film unlike the book does not make it clear that Christian uses his power in the telecommunication business to track Anastasia phone. Christian's obsession with controlling her eating habits are toned down and his jealousy and interference with Anastasia and José's friendship is not given much screen time. Overall I think this film adaptation has reduced some of the abusive elements in the book. But Mr Grey still portrays deeply worrying and unhealthy behaviours. For example at one point it Anastasia email Christian "It has been nice knowing you" this rebuff (which in the book is later explained as a joke but in the film this is not clear) is ignored by Christian who responds by getting into Anastasia house by means unknown but most importantly uninvited. He then ties her up, blindfolds her, stimulates her body, flips her over, slaps her bottom and has sex with her. I do not believe this shows a healthy response to a rebuff. He seems to treat it is a challenge, an opportunity to remind Anastasia what sex with him is like and a rejection is a reason to try and convince her to change her mind. At this point no does not mean no to Christian Grey. Again I worry that this could encourage young people to treat a rejection by a partner as a reason to try and forcefully convince them they are wrong. 

Compared to the book this film also appears to focus on Mr Grey's pleasure over Anastasia's. We do get some close up of Anastasia's face in moments of enjoyment but this is very little compared to the books clear explanation of Anastasia's orgasms. The book celebrates what physical pleasure Anastasia is getting in the relationship whilst my viewing of the film suggests the focus of the camera is what Christian is getting from the sex and from the thrill of a new object to act upon. The film has none of Anastasia's inner monologue and without that viewpoint the focus moves more on Christian Grey. Possibly in an attempt to build up sympathy for a "damaged man" as a way to excuse his more distasteful behavior. For me I want to imagine what would a young person take away from this film. How will it impact their assessments of potential partners? Does this film feed into the fairy tale of a beauty taming a beast?

The ending?

If you didn't know the book has 2 sequels and the film has already had a sequel confirmed. This is a shame. Without the sequels the ending could be read as Anastasia finally coming to her senses and realising this man is dangerous, the relationship is unhealthy and she could do better. She leaves and is safe and to be extra generous we could read that Christian redeems himself (partly) by not following her into the lift after she says no. But there are sequels and that is not the ending of the story. Like the book the film ends with the 2 characters separated but it is presented as a separated for now situation. I honestly can't imagine how young people will respond to the ending especially if they haven't read the books. If any young people admit they have seen the film I will definitely ask what they think of the ending and what they think should happen next. 

Rectify the situation 

The final theme I wanted to highlight was something that leaped from the screen for me this morning. I do not remember having the same reaction to the scene in the book but I was thoroughly depressed by Christian Grey saying lets "rectify the situation" after Anastasia admits to never having sexual contact with anyone before. I was enraged by the suggestion that someone not having had sex was presented as a situation, a problem to over come, something to be solved and as a negative thing. Looking at this from a young person perspective this could easily and powerfully reinforce the negative stereotype that to be a virgin is a bad thing. That someone may not even be fully complete or fully grown up until they have sex. Worst of all the film presents it as Christian Grey is doing her a favour. I hate to think of young people watching this film and having their own fears of being a virgin being a negative thing confirmed. I fear that some young people will also see it as validation that to have sex with a virgin is to do them a favour. Young people have so many pressure on them to be sexually active it can and does cause emotional distress and upset. These social pressures do influence people into making decisions they regret later. On this viewing of the film this was the single biggest issue that jumped out to me. 


Whilst I do not expect that every film must be educational to be permitted I do think it is a responsibility to label situations for what they are. We can watch and even enjoy films that have villains, monsters and complex characters. The dangers come in if we absorb unhealthy messages from films and apply them to our lives. I am passionate about equipping young people to navigate the media pressures. To help them deconstruct the lies and understand true meanings of healthy relationships and positive sexual expression. To be abundantly clear I do not think that BDSM is inherently abusive but in this presentation of a BDSM relationship I think we have a thoroughly unhealthy representation of both a relationship and BDSM lifestyle. Young people deserve to know this when they have questions or concerns after seeing this film. 

After viewing this film I wonder if Relationship and Sex Education workers will start to be asked specific questions about fetish sex in lessons. Could RSE workers one day be asked to do lessons on safer BDSM, this might sound far fetched to many educators but I wonder how many educators 20 years ago expected to be doing lesson on young people creating pornography of themselves. Yet lessons on sexting are a common necessity. Personally I do not think we should be teaching 15 year olds how to tie each other up but I do think we need to be ready to answer questions in a helpful way. 

At the start of this post I said. "Imagine being asked by a young person "why do people enjoy spanking?" "What is fetish?" What is BDSM" "Explain 50 shades of grey?" " But in truth I have already been asked all those question by young people in the last 2 years. Young people have questions about 50 Shades of Grey, are we confident we are ready to answer them? 

P.S. please forgive my atrocious spelling and grammar but let me know so I can change it

Friday, 13 February 2015

Nearly 1 in 10 young people have read 50 Shades of Grey

Nearly 1 in 10 young people have read 50 Shades of Grey say relationships and sexual health education experts.

Esteem Resource Network, a project of the charity ACET (AIDS Care, Education and Training) has more than 25 years of experience in delivering workshops to young people on issues related to self-esteem, relationships and sexual health.

As part of a larger study, to be released later this year, a survey carried out by Esteem has found that almost 10% of young people report reading an explicit sex scene from 50 Shades of Grey.

Unlike the adult market, this anonymous survey shows that male readership (12%) doubles that of than female readership (6%) amongst young people.

More than 1,000 12-16 year olds were asked if, when and how they had encountered written and visual explicit sex scenes. The preliminary findings of the survey show that 67% of young people have seen explicit sex scenes, whilst 47% have encountered them in written form.

Gareth Cheesman, Project Development Officer at Esteem, who led the study said, “With more young people seeing explicit sex scenes than reading them, it raises the question as to how many young people will be seeking to watch the 50 Shades of Grey film, despite the 18-certificate rating it has been given in the UK, particularly when it becomes accessible online.”

50 Shades of Grey has brought alternative sexual activities into the public eye and it remains to be seen if this will have an impact on young people. It is significant that the book has been widely rejected by the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) community as an unrealistic and sometimes dangerous portrayal of alternative sexual activity.

Crucially, the 50 Shades of Grey story includes some highly concerning relationship dynamics which range from unhealthy to abusive. Many people feel that Christian Grey’s coercive behaviours are glamorised as part of his sexual fetish. There are concerns that some young people may see this story as justification for the acceptance of abusive attitudes within relationships.

This week saw the publication of an NSPCC survey which disturbingly revealed that 4 in 10 girls in England aged 13-17 years old have been coerced into sexual acts.

Sarah Smith, Project Director of Esteem said, “It is clear that with so many girls being coerced into sexual activity they are not comfortable with, and the added pressure on both boys and girls from written and visual media to behave in a certain way sexually, more needs to be done to support young people in developing skills to build healthy relationships, to challenge coercive behaviours and to help young people critically analyse messages they are surrounded by about relationships and sex.”

For more information about the survey contact Gareth Cheesman at or call 07732 427312

Notes to Editors
  • Esteem Resource Network is a project delivering education to young people on self-esteem, relationships and sexual health and training to youth workers, teachers, parents and health professionals. It is a project of the charity ACET (AIDS Care, Education and Training).

  • ACET (registered charity Number 299293) is a practical and compassionate response to HIV/AIDS and works to support the rapidly growing ACET International Alliance.  The Alliance is a group of independent organisations around the world working to reduce the rates of new HIV infection, care for those affected by HIV / AIDS and support for AIDS orphans.  Visit for more information.

Key points from the study
  • Young people are encountering explicit sex scenes from a wide range of written and visual media
  • Internet videos are the most common medium through which young people see explicit sex scenes
  • Published novels are the most common medium through which young people read an explicit sex scene
  • Young people’s definitions of what is classified as an explicit sex scene appears to change as they get older
  • 50 Shades of Grey has had an impact in how young people encounter an explicit sex scene with almost 10% of young people self-reporting that they have read explicit sex scenes from the book
  • Contrary to popular opinion that for adults the readership base of 50 Shades of Grey is predominantly women, this survey shows a greater readership amongst boys (12%) than girls (6%)

Conclusion / Recommendations
·         Young people need support to learn how to make sense of explicit sex scenes and the portrayal of unhealthy relationships they encounter through both visual and written media
·         Relationships and sex education is vital. Schools need greater support in delivering relationships and sex education to meet the needs of 21st century young people
·         An in-depth academic research project into the topic would help to clarify the issue further

Recommended resources
·         Esteem Resource Network delivers training on self-esteem, relationships and sexual health issues for youth workers, teachers, parents and health professionals

·         Romance Academy has released a “Fifty Shades of Grey Youth Worker Resource” to equip youth workers to run sessions that explore some of the issues raised by the story

·         The Sex Education Forum has collated a body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of relationships and sex education in schools

Quoted surveys
The NSPCC report on 40% of teenage girls pressured into having sex

Monday, 5 May 2014

Plan for the adopted, abused, HIV+ and pregnant

When I write a new lesson plan or activity  I always ask myself "how would my lesson impact someone if they had...

- experienced sexual abuse
- been pregnant
- a member of their family or themselves  infected with HIV
- been questioning their sexuality
- never seriously considered sex before
(and I've just added)
- been through the fostering/adoption system "

When a write new material I am usually  writing something that I hope I could use multiple times with multiple groups and possibly over multiple years. So whilst statistically it is unlikely that every class will have people for all the above questions. It is an almost 100% certainty that most of the materials I write will at some point be delivered to all of the above. 

I believe we have to plan for the 20%, 1%, the 0.1% and the 0.01%. I may never happen but if it did I want to ensure all my materials have a positive impact for everyone regardless of what others pressures that may have on their life. 

I know I sometimes get this wrong, the language I use and even the style of activities and presentation may sometimes miss the mark. But it's worth the effort. Taking the time to always recognise and validate everyone's experience regardless of how common or rare it is. 

Asking myself those questions is a method to check that my own personal experiences are not damaging my work. Am I always taking the time to help all students especially those who may face difficult and complex situations.

I sometimes add more questions
"how would my lesson impact someone who had...

- an addiction to pornography or erotica
- been caught sending naked pictures of themselves to other students
- been dumped just before the lesson
- a very positive enjoyable sexual experience yesterday
- long term body image worries
- Inherited genital herpes from their mum
- Just had a contraceptive implant fitted "

Those are all good questions too but the top 6 are my must important. They are a method to help me critique my own work. These young people deserve for my lessons to help them not add extra pressure, what ever they have or are currently facing.

Would you add any questions to my list?

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Update on Chester SRE work in 2013-14

Below is the Prezi I am using to give an update on my SRE work in chester this year. 

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sexting Education Resource

Today I am sharing a free resource I have made to help teenagers think about the type of images they are sharing online and by direct messages. I class this resource as in BETA, it is just my first attempt at making these images and I want to reshoot the photos. Get rid of the cluttered backgrounds and I need to find a male mannequin to use as well. You can find all the images I use at Sexting Images Resources

I have tested these images in a number of lessons for 14-15 year olds. The way I use them is getting the young people into small groups and asking them to put them in order from most risky images to share to least risky. They create a continuum of risk. Then we talk through a number of follow up questions. 
  • Which images would it be ok to share on social network?
  • Which images might be ok to share by direct message, such as snapchat or MMS?
  • Which images should we never share?
  • Which images do you think could get people into trouble with the police?
  • Which images would be embarrassing if they got passed around school?
  • Which images would you worry about a stranger online getting hold of?
  • Which images would you worry about you parents/carers seeing?
Then a key part of the activity is asking the class to think about what is the motivation of taking or sharing an image. From my experience and from what other educators have told me, motivation is key. Young people can make more balanced (and hopefully safe) choices when they have thought about the underlying motivations. Especially the motivations of why people ask for these photos? what do they want them for? Are they likely to share it?

Already I have found some problems with the photos. Firstly they are all female and I need to sort out some male photos. Second I need to improve the quality of the photos. Thirdly I need to add more photos, such as photos smoking/drinking/drugs or doing crazy stunts or breaking a law. These photos will help to widen the activity beyond the focus on sexting to include other online pitfalls. 

If you are a schools worker, youth worker or teacher and you would like to use the images, please feel free to download them and use them. The only request I have is to give me feedback. If you create any additional images I would love to see them. Like all my work on this site I have released it under a creative commons license. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The impact of a 15 year old girl being made to watch pornogrpahy - Grace's story,

Today on BBC Three Counties Radio I heard an interview with 20 year old Grace talking about her experience of being pressured into watching pornography by her then boyfriend when she was 15 years old. She was incredibly honest and open about how she felt it had negatively impacted her. If you would like to listen to the interview it will be available for a week at the BBC, skip to 1 Hour 7mins into the programme or you can read my typed up complete transcript of the interview. In this blog I want to pick out a few of things that Grace said. 

One of the first things Grace says is 
So the boy I was currently dating at the time, was obviously at that age where he had been watching it since about the age of 12 and he had heard from some of his friends that they watch it with their girlfriends. So he came up with a suggestion to me and I said no and I kept saying no and then he just kept on pushing, so I then said “well ok lets check this out, I’ve never looked at it before but lets have a look at it.
The first thing that leaps out to me in this is that he nagged her into watching it, persistent pressure made her go against what she originally clearly said she wanted. To me coercion of any kind is never acceptable. It highlights how good quality Sex and Relationship Education must have a firm foundation of exploring what makes a healthy relationship. Beyond just encouraging the positives I feel the messages needs to be made explicit. It is never ok to force and pressure your partner to do something they do not want to do. At any age and on topic.  The more 11-13 who hear, accept and put this into practice this the less problems we would have with 13+. 

The interview continues. and she says it was the first time she had ever seen any pornography and her first impression was that
It seemed quite forced, that the women, it was kind of like [She was] just there to be used for it. No expression of love between them. And I think that was what was most shocking really.  
Now obviously one person's experience can not be used to say everyone who watches porn will have the same reaction. However I do think it is a useful window into how some young people are encountering porn. A strong gender bias is evident in lots of mainstream pornography. Female objectification and degradation is a common observation. An adult might see this and feel outraged or appalled at the sexism. But i believe we should not assume the reactions from young people, without the framework of adult thinking, will be the same. Would a teenage male notice the sexism? Clearly this interview shows the 15 year old Grace noticed it wasn't what she liked and she can now reflect on why. i personally wonder if she had the same awareness as a teenager or just the emotional reaction.    

i don't think this is something we can ethically investigate in a formal study. Showing various types of porn to under 18 and trying to measure their emotional and cognitive reactions sounds very dodgy. So the question may remain unclear of what is the impact of porn on a brain that is still forming compared to the impact on an adult brain. My personal fear is that many of the sexual inequalities and violence common in much of the porn industry could be internalised and accepted by male and female young people exposed to it. Long term implications of this could be horrific. 

Later in the interview the radio presenter asks
So when you watched this pornography how did your boyfriend respond to it.

Grace replies
Well obviously he wanted to try everything he had seen on it. and it just really freaked me out, it almost felt like he was a different person after watching it with him. It was almost like “am i not good enough in this relationship for you?"
I think this may be a common reaction and the boys desire to try out what he had just watched is something I have heard boys expressing in schools lessons. Lots of variations of "I just wanted to try it after it looked so good" or "I think porn helps me find new things to do to my girlfriend". Monkey see Monkey do? Yet without a deep understanding of the biology of porn sex many young people end up confused, in pain or injured. High quality SRE can help especially when we peel back how fake porn is and show how much preparation, stretching, warm up, lube etc is needed to film the scenes they do.

Grace is also explaining how it immediatly put pressure on the relationship. Her view has be altered and damaged by the experience and particullary she is concerned about what the porn says about her boyfriends opinion of her is. 

One question and answer did surprise me a little. 
JVSDid you talk to any of your friends at the time, any of your girl friends, to talk it through with them? 
Grace Not at the time no but having spoken to them after a couple of years they were going through exactly the same thing as me. And even in some cases it was actually the girls that wanted to watch it and the boys were like “this is a bit weird why do you want to watch this with me, this is my personal kind of thing”. So it just affected all of us really in different ways.
I wish the interviewer had followed up this question asking why Grace thought the girls wanted to watch porn with their boyfriends. Was it because they were enjoying the porn? If so why was their experience of porn so different from Grace's. Was it because they just wanted to be involved with what their boyfriends enjoyed sexually? Was it curiosity? Was it trying to shame the boys into stop watching it? kind of like an ultimatum of "if you're too ashamed to watch it with me, should you really be watching it at all?" I just don't know but Grace did say that some of the boys at least find porn to be a very personal and private thing. Would an equivalent be a partner asking their girlfriend to read out loud passages from 50 Shades of Grey or some of the explicit One Direction fanfiction. Is privacy during teenage sexual development just a natural normal aspect of discovery and exploration. I'm certain many adults would be worried about their partner knowing every sexual thought that pops into their head. 

Near the end of the interview Grace explains what impact she think the experience had on her. 
You kind of put yourself in the frame of mind that all boys want to do the same and it is definitely not the case. It is the case in some instances but you just get in this frame of mind that boys just want one thing and its so not true. But because I’ve seen that and I’ve heard of other things you kind of protect yourself a little bit and you don’t give yourself over as much.
Negative sexual experiences in someones teenage years are known to have long lasting impacts. I think it is impossible to protect young people from all negative experiences. Partly because what is negative for one person might be a positive for another. But I hope we can help give young people more tools to identify earlier warning signs and equip them to avoid some pitfalls. Overall I think a healthy level of resilience is needed amongst young people. It is misguided of adults to assume that what shocks us the most is what will damage young people the most. We have to listen to young people constantly to ensure the provision we offer help young people with their biggest issues not our biggest freak outs. 

The interview ends and they move into discussion with Jason Royce from the Romance Academy. They discuss a lot of aspects of the issue and its well worth a listen (I didn't have the energy to transcript the whole thing). Jason does a great job of exploring the issue and offering so positive steps. 

I was very impressed with the BBC for doing this interview as it is such a sensitive and volatile topic. Grace's story shows how clearly we need to keep pushing for better Relationship and Sex Education in schools, youth clubs and at home. Many teenagers get caught up in situations they don't feel comfortable with and with people who don't take one "No" as an answer and think pestering coercion is acceptable. I think this emotional abuse needs to be a focus of SRE if we truly want to help people. Pornography doesn't look like it will be going any where soon and young people will continue to access it. So we must help give them the skills to navigate and avoid the unhealthy pressures it can create.