They used to treat girls like trophies...;Boys and relationships

8th January 1999 at 00:00
They used to treat girls like trophies. They were homophobic. Now these tough Welsh boys are free-thinking, emotionally honest 'new men'. Kate Rew reports on the remarkable results being achieved by a pioneering sex education initiative for young men.

It's Wednesday night in a youth club in Wales. A group of lads are playing pool and talking about football. They're Valley boys, from the Rhondda, an old mining community "where men are men and women are women", according to Irene Kerry, a youth worker at the club; where "men don't talk about their feelings and women generally stay at home", says David Middleton, director of the Family Planning Association in Wales. "The two sexes don't mix much," he adds. "If the women do go to the pub, they'll sit at tables while their husbands stand at the bar."

The average age at which girls lose their virginity is 16 in England, 15 and getting lower in Wales, but "more like 13 in this area", says Irene Kerry.

There's a strong "meeting culture", local slang for casual sex. "Some of the boys will 'meet' two or three girls a night," says Irene. "They don't even chat them up, they just say 'Do you want to meet me?', and if they say 'Yes' they go around the back of the club or down one of the lanes. Sometimes it's not even that personal: one of their friends might go up and say, 'Do you want to meet my friend?' " Community education programmes have failed to break this pattern; girls turned up to meetings organised by the FPA, but boys weren't interested. Then, two years ago, the FPA took a new approach: sex education for young men.

"A lot of sex and relationship work is anti-sexist, telling boys what words not to use, how to treat girls properly," explains Irene Kerry. "Leaflets talk about 'getting your boyfriend to wear a condom', as if all boys are sexually irresponsible and bad. We started with the assumption that boys are good. Instead of trying to change their behaviour we trusted them and worked with their experience."

What this work has created appears to be a "super league" of emotionally intelligent "new men". They used to be homophobic, now they're not; they used to treat women like trophies, now they don't; they didn't all wear condoms, now they think it's stupid not to.

So how did they do it? "We haven't taught the boys anything," says Simon Blake, the FPA project officer responsible for the group work. "We've just given them the space and time to think about things.

"Boys are just as interested in relationships as girls are. They want to know how to deal with things like their friend telling them he's gay. They want to be good at relationships. You just have to get beyond the macho stuff and engage them on a level they find interesting."

Irene Kerry says the boys have changed dramatically. "When this project started there was very little mixing. The girls met them, pulled them, and there were no real friendships. Now the segregation has gone, and they've taken up the role of tutors for the rest of the youth club. I've heard them say, 'One screw isn't worth risking your life over. You don't know who else she's been to.' "When one of the younger ones got a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) and was calling a girl a slag, the older boys stopped him, pointed out it must have been given to her by someone else.

"And when they had a session about relationships versus one-night stands they realised they were just on some sort of treadmill or trophy race, which for some of them was emotionally quite damaging. To get off it they just needed someone to say it was OK to have emotions about sex."

Tonight's session starts with introductions. Ages usually vary between 14 and 18, but tonight they're all 17 or 18. Simon Blake begins with an "icebreaker", a game designed to build trust and break down barriers. The boys are asked to pretend to be a "machine" of interdependent parts. There's a lot of laughing and shouting, and after five minutes they perform a sort of mechanical chain reaction. It culminates with the penultimate lad jumping up and straddling his mate. "When we started this programme there was no physical contact," says Blake. "Now they all touch each other."

Icebreakers are a vital part of the programme. "With boys you have to spend longer making them feel safe and comfortable within the group," says FPA development officer Joanna Laxton. "Girls feel comfortable chatting straight away, but macho culture means boys find it harder to be honest with each other." The stereotype of men knowing it all, being best at everything, and wanting sex all the time also means boys find it hard to be honest about their sexual experience. To deal with this, the programme concentrates on creative "distancing" approaches, using role play and case studies to allow boys to explore what they want to know about relationships without saying what has (or hasn't) happened to them. "We discourage personal disclosure," says Blake. "Discussions are general, and applicable, whatever their sexual experience."

Tonight the boys are asked to act out how a boy would react if his best friend started seeing his ex-girlfriend three days after they had split up. They jump up on the stage and start fooling around. "You have to use their energy rather than trying to control it," says Blake. "Extreme levels of laughter may just indicate it's too close a subject. On the whole I sit back and trust the process, rather than intervene. When we did a session on abortion I asked what the boys would do if their girlfriend got pregnant. They started with the outrageous - 'Finish with her'; 'How do you know it's yours?' - and after that they shifted down and talked about it properly."

The boys spend 15 minutes discussing how it would feel, if they would take sides, whose fault it is, and then present their role play. They act out a typical scene: boys playing pool, talking about football.Boy 1 tells Boy 2 he's seeing his ex. Boy 2 starts pushing Boy 1 around; friends try to pull him off and calm him down.

But what they do next is not so typical. "Let's sit down and talk about this," says one. They then run through the basics of conflict resolution: they identify and acknowledge Boy 2's hurt feelings ("I can't believe you'd go in there so fast," says one. "They've just finished mate, what are you up to?"), and let him have his say, all the time letting Boy 1 apologise ("I wanted to tell you") and concentrating on the fact that the two friends have known each other a lot longer than the girl, and it's their relationship which is important.

The mates suggest they "kiss and make up".

"You wouldn't know it," says Irene Kerry, "but one of those boys has a criminal record for glassing a girl as a result of a similar situation. Role-plays act as a blueprint for real relationships. I've heard boys say, 'Well you can always talk to me', and you know they mean it in real life too, and they will help each other in a crisis."

Working with boys means being prepared to deal with the trivial and the explicit. As well as talking about what to do "if you put a condom on and your dick goes soft", the boys requested practice in chat-up lines. After a while of saying, "The stars fall out of your eyes" they realised they'd be better off talking to girls like they do to each other.

Simon Blake says the work operates on four levels: information, values, skills and emotions. "Information is no good on its own. You need to raise their self-esteem so they can put what they know into practice." So after talking about condoms, unplanned fatherhood (rather than pregnancy) and STDs, the boys practise putting condoms on "demo dicks", do role-plays to practise the time they would bring up the subject with their partners, and talk about what would stop them using one.

The real test is that the boys attend voluntarily (they've come here tonight before going out on a pub crawl) and the fact they feel happier themselves.

"We're more respectful, more open. We talk more now and we're more educated about diseases. And I'm getting on much better with my Dad," says one.

"It's more than sex education," says David Middleton of the FPA. "Giving them practice at negotiating situations which are stressful and tense allows them to be successful, more balanced human beings. The thing is, the boys now say the girls need it, too. 'We want to talk about relationships and negotiate,' they say, 'but the girls just don't know how.' "

* A survey of 1,400 boys has found that 40 per cent rely on teachers for sex education. A third of the boys interviewed for an independent Oxford-based project called Tomorrow's Men wanted more information about relationships and 20 per cent wanted to know how to resist pressure to have sex. Co-ordinator of the survey, Adrienne Katz, says teaching boys about relationships could be a significant way to address the recent 11 per cent rise in under-age pregnancies. "There's a huge gap. They clearly do want to know more," she says. "Handling a relationship in a cool way is seen as part of being adult. If they don't know how, the bravado takes over."

Through the boys' survey and a parallel one with girls, she found that boys can be caring with their girlfriend while crass in talking about women in general.

She says the problem for teachers, who rarely have specialist training, is that anonymity for boys is crucial. They don't want to ask embarrassing questions and have to face that person the next day at school. bringing in outside professionals - for instance from the Brook Advisory Service or the Family Planning Association- seems to work better.

* The FPA is running a seminar on sex and relationships education for young men, on February 10-11 in Wales, March 3-4 in Scotland, and April 21-22 in London. A practical guide called STRIDES is also available. Tel: 0171 837 5432.

Training in group work and an examination of your own attitudes and values are essential in running this type of sex and relationships education. While the project featured here is about working with boys, the FPA believes sex education should ideally be done in a mixture of single-sex and mixed groups.

Popular FPA booklets aimed at children are 4 Boys: a below-the-belt guide for young men, and 4 Girls: a below-the-bra guide for young girls. Also, Love Stings, about a boy with an STD, will be available from February.

Another useful source of advice for teachers is theSex Education Forum,tel: 0171 843 6052, which has a factsheet on supporting sex and relationships education for boys called Let's hear it for the boys (free to teachers). For Brook Advisory Service resources, tel: 0171 833 8488.

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