*Posted originally on the 24th of July 2014 by theanonymousthoughts

Risk taking behaviours education in schools

Gael Cochrane, Edinburgh Council


The third speaker at our Girl’s Education evening, Gael Cochrane, brought another perspective to the discourse, namely in that all the work she does is Edinburgh-based. In her work as a development officer for substance misuse and sexual health at Edinburgh Council, Gael mainly works in education and prevention by coordinating a team of sexual health officers to go into the majority of secondary schools in Edinburgh. As well as educating young people this team tracks changes in teenagers’ attitudes towards issues pertaining to sexual health, relationships and substance misuse. The team goes back to the same schools for half a day every year; as a result they have a good snapshot of what’s going with young people in Edinburgh at any one time, and issues which are constantly evolving.

Gael’s talk centered mainly on the sexual health side of things, since it remains the area that raises issues particular to young women. This being said, it is now recognised that substance misuse and sexual health (particularly alcohol use) are pretty much inextricably linked – it is no longer possible to look at sexual health in isolation from other risk-taking behaviours. The information sessions the team run are specifically centered on health education, but a large part of what they do is about relationships, which are absolutely key to young people’s emotional and sexual well-being.

Anyone working and/or engaging with young people, in accordance with the Risk taking Behaviours Policy, has come to recognise that young people are going to take risks. During adolescence the part of your brain which is responsible for impulses, risk-taking and its consequences is ‘on hold’, so to speak – an absolutely normal part of development. This conclusion is the product of years of research. As a result education emphasises what young people can learn from mistakes, as well as seeking to minimise harm resulting from these same lapses in judgement. The focus is always on the big picture, not on anything in isolation. The general consensus is that if young people are going to engage in risky behaviour they have to be given the tools to ensure they are as safe as they can be – this is where education comes in, which can provide them with honest and accurate information, working to ensure that they are informed enough to make decisions. This policy has come from bottom up – that is to say, it has developed because of work on the ground.

Why is this important for young women? The rates of STIs are rising, and have been rising for a number of years. One in every ten sexually active young people aged 16-25 has an STI, and in Lothian young women have higher rates of chlamydia than anywhere else in Scotland. Under 20s have the highest prevalence of STIs, and the rates of gonorrhea are the second highest in Scotland. Why is this? The answer is simple: young people aren’t using condoms anymore. This in itself marks a significant shift – since the 1990s, which saw huge amounts of education about how to protect oneself from HIV, something has changed. The rates of condom use have gone down, while the rates of alcohol use have gone up. It has further been proven that when people drink alcohol they’re far less likely to use condoms. A 2006 study of under 25s about the relationship between alcohol/condoms revealed that 87% would use one not having drunk alcohol. This dropped to 43% after having had a couple of drinks, and just 13% after more than a couple. This dramatic drop accounts for why STIs have risen in the recent future.

HIV trends have changed, too. Although one person in Scotland is still diagnosed with the disease every day, medications have improved and people are living far more normal lives with HIV. What has changed is that 37% of people who are HIV positive are heterosexual. Injecting drug users only account for 13% of HIV positive cases today – this has gone down as a result of people being fairly clued up about how to inject safely. However, rates of heterosexual young people contracting the disease have increased.

On a more positive note, this is the first year rates of teen pregnancy (which used to be high in Scotland) have dropped since 1994. While this is excellent news, it obviously remains a reality for many young women, and has a major impact on education – most teenagers who become pregnant don’t continue with education.

Gael’s team works to ensure young women are made aware that there are options available for them to do so. This 25-strong team – which has been going for 20 years – first came about as a reaction to HIV and the vital need for education in how to prevent contraction of the disease. The key message when it started out has grown and developed – now, the focus (as it has been for the past few years) is very much on sexual health and relationships, as well as substance misuse and its impact.

Here Gael talked about changes she has noticed in the last two years particularly, some of which are hugely concerning – for example, although rates of homophobic language and racism dropping, there has been a huge change in attitudes about gender. Young people are now talking about very specific gender roles, women being objectified and women’s value being in terms of how they appear. Gael mentioned a research report carried out by Zero Tolerance entitled ‘He’s the stud and she’s the slut’. One of the questions put to young people was about waxing pubic hair, the results showing that 40% of 14 year olds in Scotland have full body waxes. This is a dramatic rise from a couple of years ago – then you might get the odd person, normally admitting “my boyfriend told me to do it”, yet now it seems to be accepted as a common practice among very young women, who have a notion that women are not expected to have body hair. There has also been a rise in sexting (the sending of explicit images using smartphones), slut-shaming, and simply the use of the word ‘slut’, which is very prevalent now. In addition there has been a really concerning rise in sexual violence, with young men interviewed talking in more violent terms. A lot of young women had no notion that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, with some seeing it as something you do “to please guys”. Others felt that LGBT sex and related issues were simply not discussed. Fortunately the work Edinburgh Council does is all-inclusive, talking about all types of sexual activity. Another major issue is that of consent, and non-consensual sex; there has been a huge rise in young people talking about this, with some young men not really recognising that no means no.

While there have been some noted positive shifts in attitudes and discourse reflected by how young people are talking about these issues, it is clear that there remain long-standing problems, as well as some really worrying more recent developments affecting both genders. It’s therefore of vital importance that the type of education Gael and her team do continues to happen not just locally, but nationwide.



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