Sex Ed and mission…no, really! | Debs North [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

Portrait photo of the author
Debs North runs Lemon Jelly Youth Work, a Devon-based charity delivering brilliant youth work locally, and PSHE/SRE resources and programmes nationally. PODS – the sex and relationships edition – is a collection of resources and articles for youth workers, teachers and parents.

Youth work in schools has always ended up being challenging, pushed to the edges of the “real work” of education and discipline.

Because of this it has often been underappreciated and minimally funded, but it has also provided opportunities to work with young people in their times of greatest need. Counselling was an obvious salve and help, but it became clear that sex education could be life-changing and empowering to a larger audience. Removed from the usual period talks and don’t-get-chlamydia lectures, it has enabled wholeness and freedom in the young people I work with.

The material we developed over a period of time has always been responsive, well researched and collaborative with young people. We know the difference we have made through the feedback we receive from young people, parents and teachers. And we now deliver a wide range of sex education and resources from the age of 10 through to college, and even to parents via our quiz nights.

To have wholeness as a goal of mission has sometimes seemed OTT, amorphous, floating unattached to any particular doctrine or even faith. But it has grown out of a personal as well as a professional need to make sense of God and humans in the face of endless conflicting evidence, experiences and gut feeling. Young people are the most excellent callers of bulls**t there are… as well as being the most susceptible to it! Youth work invites us to listen to their insight as well as protect them from their naivety. Wholeness and congruence seemed to be the place where God might reside in the middle of all that.

Sex education is an essential conversation, a place to grow and wonder and develop a self. Much has been written about our terrible attitudes to sex and relationships, young people’s dependence on porn for information, and the effects this is having. Lemon Jelly stepped into this gap with real words and real challenges; and real information. Our hope is that young people will begin to encounter themselves, begin to step outside the prescribed roles and activities, to ask difficult brave questions and find their own likes and desires. This is not about abstinence… unless it is. This is not about licence to swing from chandeliers… unless it is. This is about self-actualisation and the tools to reach this lofty ideal… and the thought that maybe this path of wholeness is a path to God.

Recently a group of young people met with me to collaborate on an article about taking nudes (naked pictures that are sent to others). It was a secret celebration for me as I experienced youth worker nirvana – when your previously damaged and needy 13-year-olds reach 17 to 20 and sit you down and teach you about their world. The group carried a range of needs when they were younger. They carry a different range of needs now. Fabulously, a lot of healing and growth has happened in the interim, hardly any of it down to youth work – most of it down to resilience and the innately human desire to live. But I know youth work helped!

I listened as they talked confidently about a subject they used to ask questions about. They told me things I had no idea of, even though this is my area of expertise and I like to think I’m very up to date! Their insight changed a resource I was in the process of writing. I watched their joy and sense of fun as they realised they were teaching the old lady. I buzzed as they told me “what to tell the young people”.

None of what they told me was anything adults would want to hear about young people sending naked pictures to other young people. It definitely wasn’t anything a school would say in the midst of a panic about Brenda sending Bob a picture of her boobs and it going viral.

But. For me, it was incredible. And God was everywhere.

Not because they said anything godly. Not because they came to faith. But because I was witnessing growth and wholeness wending its merry way in front of me like cartoon ivy.

Now. Many friends of no faith would say this was just the natural process of maturity. I have known these young people through the process and can observe the changes. Well, maybe. Probably.

But I believe God resides in these processes, that God lives in biology and cells and the space between our atoms. And my mission is to enable and support brilliant growth and change. To be alongside the biology and the maturing. To learn from it as much as teach it.

So. I have no neat parcels of healed and perfected young people tied up with bows to offer. I have only young people and myself on a path. Realistically, my mission for wholeness doesn’t entail a destination of bows and perfection. Many Makers and Keepers have questioned whether that destination is where God is – maybe wholeness, and therefore God, is just about showing up on the path and walking together.

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