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Mental health, body image, consent: why PSHE issues need a rebrand

A scandal over a consent workshop for university students highlights the need to reframe our terms of reference, writes a leading teenage mental health expert

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George Lawlor was absolutely everywhere, in media terms, last week.

For the uninitiated, Lawlor is a University of Warwick student who sparked "social media outrage" (when is social media ever not outraged?) after he refused to attend an "I Heart Consent" campus workshop and instead posted a selfie holding a sign saying "This is not what a rapist looks like".

As ever, the situation was more nuanced than the rather binary land of Twitter would lead us to believe. Clearly, it’s both daft and misleading to post a picture declaring that rapists don’t look like you when a rapist can look like anyone. Equally obviously, in a world where 20 per cent of female and 5 per cent of male university students report being victims of sexual harassment, there is a need for affirmative action.

However, I can also understand why, as a young man in today’s social climate, Lawlor felt affronted by what he saw as an implication that he was likely to rape someone. He later described the invitation to the workshop as “quite insulting to my humanity and empathy”.

What struck me most, however, was that Lawlor evidently had absolutely no idea what a consent workshop actually entails. Two years ago, neither did I.

In the autumn of 2013, I was invited by my editor at Cosmopolitan to report on a "Sex Workshop" in Camden, North London. I wasn’t sure what said workshop would entail (I pictured some kind of hideous scenario in which I’d be forced to discuss a sexual act in front of a group of cackling women on a hen-do) but I’m always grateful for the opportunity to expand my horizons in service to journalism.

Permission to say 'no'

As it turned out, the event was in fact a consent workshop and it was brilliant. One particularly memorable exercise involved asking the person next to you a series of fairly innocuous questions, such as "May I touch your arm?" and measuring your own response upon hearing the words "yes" and "no". The idea was to understand that acceptance or rejection had no bearing on you and was not a personal rebuff, but instead a reflection of the other person’s boundaries. 

The real eye-opener was when we reversed the exercise. As a perpetual people pleaser, I cannot tell you how empowering it felt to be given permission to use the word "no", without qualification or apology. And while of course the exercise did make me reflect on my romantic and sexual relationships and whether I had always given consent willingly, it also made me think about a variety of professional and social scenarios throughout my life where the ability to say "no" might have come in handy.

I remember distinctly the thinking as I left the workshop: "Imagine if we lived in a world where you had to ask permission before you touched someone’s arm. How different life would be. How much better."

I genuinely believe every human being, regardless of gender or sexuality, could benefit from contemplating the above and how it applies to their own life. Lawlor claims a consent workshop at his age (19) is unnecessary, but I was 32 at the time and it had a profound impact on me.

I mention this because the publicity storm surrounding Lawlor led me to question whether PSHE subjects in general need a rebrand. There is, in my experience, so much misconception as to what they actually involve.

When I first began teaching body image lessons almost a decade ago, for example, I had novelty on my side. Teenagers had invariably never heard of a body image lesson before, which meant I instantly had their attention. Today, I have to spend a significant portion of my lesson reassuring students that we’re not about to go into a field somewhere, hold hands and make a caring circle while wearing a crown of daisies and telling each other we’re beautiful to the strains of Kumbaya on an acoustic guitar.

One 15-year-old ran up to me after class this week and said: “That was really good, Miss. When I first heard we were having a session on body image I thought you were going to walk in and go ‘Everyone, don’t be insecure! Be confident!’ and that would be it and it would be really lame”. Aside from the fact that this would have made for an exceedingly short class, I wondered whether it was time to call my session – which involves psychology, critical thinking with regard to the media, advertising and the internet and learning new communication skills – something else.

Similarly, I visibly see some (in particular) teenage boys disengage entirely at the mere mention of the words "mental health". Which leads me to ponder whether there is a better way to frame the issue – one which conveys that this is a topic relevant to everyone with a brain.

Of course, in attempting to rebrand, we run the risk of sounding like we’re trying to be "down with the kids" (education’s very own anathema). So, as ever, I’m throwing this question out to the TES readership – Have you found a way to name PSHE subjects more accurately and that appeals to the George Lawlors of this world?

Natasha Devon is the mental health champion for the Department for Education

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