Sex ‘education’ in Barking and Dagenham and the demonization of young women

10 Jun

(correction to original post – I mistakenly thought that the second sex ed poster was an initiative of Barking and Dagenham council. It turns out that the theatre company ‘Chain Reaction‘ is responsible for the offending poster. ‘Chain Reaction’ receives its funding from the council and so I suspect that the council commissioned these posters and let Chain Reaction take the ‘credit’.)

Walking along a main road I looked up to see banners with flamingos on them hanging from a line of lampposts. On closer inspection it turned out these were mating flamingos with the text below it informing us

‘female flamingos stick their heads under water whilst mating. Whatever way you like doing it, make sure you use a condom’.

I’m no prude, I was just surprised at the sheer number of these posters – the street was pretty much filled with mating flamingos. But these feathery friends were delivering a fair enough point.

However, another poster around the corner on the high street was a lot more sinister. It depicted a young pregnant woman sitting on a bench looking very fed up with an estate in the background. Underneath the bench there were heaps of nappies and children’s toys and above the text informed us ‘condoms are free, babies aren’t’. There was just so much wrong with this. From playing on negative stereotypes of teenage mothers (see below for further discussion), to placing the responsibility of contraception wholly on young women, to determining the right to have children on wealth.

The poster wasn’t about informing young women about safe sex, it was encouraging the entire high street of Barking to judge this young woman for having a baby whilst being poor. It was about social control – young poor women shouldn’t have babies. It was hateful on young working class women.

I was absolutely horrified at the poster. I kept on staring at it in disbelief that such a thing existed. How is the council getting away with this? Rather than putting up posters demonising young women, they should be dealing with the real issues that the poster portrayed in a warped sort of way – such as poverty and the status of women.

Maybe she was sitting on the bench looking fed up because there are no parent and children services left in her borough from which she can receive support, because the grants for pregnant mothers were scrapped by David Cameron, and because the government will force her into low-paid work when her child is five rather than recognising her work as a mother. The local government is hacking away at services and is hoping to replace these with fostering judgement and hatred in the community. Young women are being failed and demonised.

You can make a complaint to the council about this advert here

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Nina Power’s book One Dimensional Woman reproduces an extract from an interview with Toni Morrison in Time magazine from twenty years ago. She offers a fantastic rebuttal to stereotypes of ‘unwed’ and teenage mothers and argues that rather than seeing them as the problem, it is the way in which we organise society. Here’s a short extract:

Q. You don’t feel that these girls will never know whether they could have been teachers or whatever?

A. They can be teachers. They can be brain surgeons. We have to help them become brain surgeons. That’s my job. I want to take them all in my arms and say, ‘your baby is beautiful and so are you and, honey, you can do it. And when you want to be a brain surgeon, call me – I will take care of your baby.’ That’s the attitude you have to have about human life. But we don’t want to pay for it.

I don’t think anybody cares about unwed mothers unless they’re black – or poor. The question is not morality, the question is money. That’s what we’re upset about. We don’t care whether they have babies or not.

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4 Responses to “Sex ‘education’ in Barking and Dagenham and the demonization of young women”

  1. Chain Reaction June 21, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Hi Izzy

    Having read your comments I felt compelled to respond with a little context.

    The poster of the young girl that you refer to above was created as part of a project called Spread The Word, commissioned by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and run by Chain Reaction Theatre Company to educate the young people of the borough aged 15-19 about the realities of being a teenage parent. Barking and Dagenham has had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country for the past decade and the project is about empowering young people to have aspirations and dreams for their futures and the skills and confidence to achieve them, while at the same time addressing the rising teenage pregnancy rates and allowing the young people to have their own voice on the matter. It does not damn teen parents as wrong but instead encourages young people to see other options and really consider the reality of being a parent before they make such a life changing decision. The reality is that most teen parents do not plan to have children at such a young age, this project does not demonise young parents but aims to encourage young people to take precautions.

    The project is an interactive media and drama workshop run over the course of a week, which young people (both boys and girls) voluntarily attend free of charge. During the week, they are educated about sexual health, respectful relationships, contraception and choice. The young people then work in groups to come up with ideas for campaigns (such as the one you reference above) which they feel would have the most impact on other young people like themselves. Through our research it became clear that other methods of educating young people about the realities of being a teenage parent weren’t working, the young people themselves stated they felt they were not hard hitting enough and didn’t directly tackle the reasons they felt their peers were getting pregnant. So we felt it was time that the young people themselves came up with ideas for both a poster and an accompanying advert campaign that they felt would work.

    A community consultation took place on the Thursday of each week in which the groups pitched their ideas to an open audience of local residents, workers and friends and family. Following a Q & A session and then a vote, the winning ideas were chosen and each week culminated in the realisation of that idea, whereby all the young participants formed both the performance and production crew and worked with industry professionals to film and photograph the campaign.

    As such, the girl in the poster that you felt was demonising working class girls, was the very young girl who felt that this was the best way to speak to her peers within her local area. She lives in Heath ward, which has the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the Borough, and she wanted to make a campaign which might make an impact.

    Far from hiding from the problem of poverty and the status of women, this project seeks to address it directly through the voices of the young people. Spread The Word attempts to bridge the gap between those in charge of making decisions within the borough and those whom the decisions truly impact. It was shortlisted as one of the 6 finalists for the Young Peoples Sexual Health project of the year at this years Brook UK Sexual Health Awards which has really put Barking and Dagenham on the map for championing innovative sexual health education for their young people.

    We are incredibly proud of the work that these young people have produced and, more importantly, they are proud of themselves, having a tangible product which represents their hard work for a great cause, has had a hugely positive impact on their confidence and aspirations. Please do have a look at the YouTube channel with the links to all the 6 adverts which the young people made last year http://www.youtube.com/user/ChainReactiontheatre?ob=0
    I hope that within the context of the project you can see their worth and credibility for the young people of Barking and Dagenham, not only those that participated in the project but also those whom the campaign is trying to reach.

    • izzykoksal June 22, 2012 at 11:01 am #

      Hi Chain Reaction,

      Thanks for your message and for providing context to the poster (although it is worth pointing out that when people see the posters on the street this too will be without the context I would imagine and therefore it is the content of the image there and then that is important). Someone on twitter had pointed out to me that it was a theatre group that had made the posters with young people and I had been meaning to update the post to include this information, but your message does this nicely.

      Whilst I think it is fantastic to involve young people using drama to discuss and debate issues like sex education, I still hold my reservations on the nature of the posters that were produced and also how the programme was run so as to produce these posters. To me, the overriding messages of the posters promote fear, shame, and judgement as well as placing full responsibility for pregnancy on women (there are no young men to be seen in the posters completely absolving them from taking any responsibility in safe sex – at least in the flamingo posters it shows that there are often two parties involved). Surely this is not a constructive way to deliver messages about safe sex. Instead of using scare tactics which involve stigmatising young mothers, why not have posters that empower young women? You say that the aim of the project is to encourage young people ‘to have aspirations and dreams for their futures and the skills and confidence to achieve them’ but this message is sadly missing from the poster campaigns.

      I do not mean to attack the hard work that the young people put into creating this campaign, I am just concerned at the way in which Chain Reaction has facilitated these workshops with the end products being so offensive. Rather than two posters showing sad pregnant young women surely a facilitator from Chain Reaction could have encouraged different perspectives on how to promote safe sex and the realities of being a young mother. The posters play on prejudices and stereotypes (that young motherhood is a ‘problem’ solely for the young woman), why did Chain Reaction not challenge these and present alternatives? I find it hard to believe that all the young people involved thought that the posters’ portrayal of young motherhood was an effective way to promote safe sex and so I wonder why alternative perspectives, views and ideas were not picked up on, explored, and encouraged. Furthermore, I wonder whether you actually involved any young mothers in the workshop? You claim to be giving a voice to young people, but by depicting young mothers without actually consulting any young mothers, you are in fact denying them a voice.

      If you look at campaigns produced by young mothers – the results are startling different from the posters which you produced. Young mothers have worked incredibly hard and produced great work which challenges negative stereotypes. See the posters produced by the ‘You Tell Me’ campaign and this radio show (thanks to @prymface for directing me to these). In my local doctors surgery in Lambeth, which also has a high level of teenage pregnancy, there was a beautiful poster showing a portrait of a young mother and her newborn child. I admired the poster as I had found it so refreshing to see this portrayal of young motherhood (I will try and take a photo of it to post up). Sadly, the posters produced by Chain Reaction undermines these attempts at challenging prejudice that young mothers face.

      I do think that the aims of your project and the way in which it is engaging young people are very positive. However, I am not convinced that the posters are a good way to promote safe sex and the realities of young motherhood to young people in Barking and Dagenham. You say that Barking and Dagenham has a very high rate of teenage pregnancy. How must young mums feel in their borough when they come across these posters which portray them so negatively?

  2. Chain Reaction June 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Hi Izzy

    Thank you for your response. I agree that the ‘You Tell Me’ campaign is fantastic and does a great job at trying to change people’s opinions of teen parents. However our project has a very different goal and unfortunately as with every project, you cannot solve all the problems at once, we cannot tackle every issue or engage every vulnerable young person. I wish this was possible but its not. Our project is a preventative tool, free to access and open to all young people aged 15-19 (teen parents as well) looking for answers, guidance or advice and keen to be involved in a project which gives them a voice on sexual health, a topic which is prevalent to all young people. As well as ours there are some fantastic projects in the Borough which support teen parents directly ‘Straight Talking’ and ‘Babies To Briefcase’- to mention a couple. It is also important to mention that during our planning and research for this project we met with several teenage parents to find out their views and although we are aware of the stigma they face, they also told us themselves of the harsh realities of teenage parenting and were fully supportive of preventative work such as this. Had our project been a youth led project for teen parents directly to build their public image then of course the work would have differed.

    We have been working with the young people of Barking and Dagenham for the past 18 years and invested a great amount of time and energy into creating work which inspires and encourages these young people to strive for the best possible lives they can achieve. Regarding your suggestion that our facilitators should have shaped the young peoples campaigns, this would go against the entire credibility of the project and certainly is not something we would advocate. To give young people a voice and then pigeon hole them into our own opinions is exactly the reason why so many young people have disengaged from education and learning and have such negative thoughts about authority. Instead we tried to create a platform for discussion between authority figures and the young people; each community consultation we held was well attended by youth workers, parents, friends, local residents, council workers, the Terrence Higgins Trust and other organisations that work with young people on a daily basis, and whom all played a part in choosing which campaigns should be created in a fair and democratic manner.

    One last point I would like to raise is that despite the teenage pregnancy rates being very high, the termination rates are even higher. Somewhere along the lines young people have been encouraged to see termination as a way to fix a problem (or at least they end up in situations where they feel it is the only option left). Through promoting the accessibility of local services and an open forum to speak about sexual health and contraception we are hoping to save many women the traumatic experience of dealing with a termination at such a young age. Spread The Word is about promoting contraception, hence the tag line ‘Contraception-Spread The Word’ and although women feature in the two posters you saw, boys do feature in the other posters, further to this we have had one of the highest levels of male engagement in this project compared to many other local youth projects.

    I am sorry that these posters offended you and that you feel they are demonising teen mothers but when the project has positively engaged so many young people who have all gained a wealth of experience from the project and have left feeling more confident when speaking about sexual health, are happier to access local services and have a greater knowledge of contraception I think the work speaks for its self.

    • Prym face (@prymface) June 22, 2012 at 7:41 pm #

      Hi, I think it’s really important to have these discussions so its great that Chain Reaction are able to give some context to these posters. I am a big fan of peer led projects and I think they are an effective way of engaging and empowering young people, particularly when it is something young people feel strongly about, so I can totally see where you’re coming from and why you want to defend the work.

      However, I have to admit that when I saw these posters I did feel that they were encouraging the judgement and stigma that young parents already face. I was pregnant at 16, and I speak with lots of other young mums, and this stigma is by far the biggest issue that young mothers have to deal with. The implications of this are huge: young parents drop out of school because of bullying, they hide their pregnancies, don’t engage with services or parenting groups, don’t ask for or accept help, stay in abusive relations etc, as well as what it can do to a young person’s self esteem and confidence.

      Using shame to prevent teenage pregnancies is not uncommon by any means. In my own city this lovely video was produced with the aim of shocking people into not getting pregnant! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRGgWBROuW Leaving aside the evidence of how effective such scare tactics actually are in changing behaviour, I think what’s important is to have that discussion about what you are aiming to do….

      Most young parents will tell you that it was having their child that gave them the motivation and aspiration to do something positive with their life, because they finally had a reason to. So do we just want to stop young people getting pregnant or do we want to give them those reasons to aim high, without having to have a child?! There are ways of encouraging safe sex without portraying young parents as losers (most young people actually think this already) by promoting autonomy, healthy relationships, confidence, self esteem etc that empower ALL young people. I don’t think it would have gone against the credibility of the project to just ask the young people whether they thought some young parents may be offended by the posters, and whether that was something they wished to consider. I’m sure it would have been raised if any other stereotype was used and by questioning their own assumptions the young people would have probably got a lot out of this!

      I know you clearly state that the project’s aim was not about addressing stigma of young parents but if people don’t even want to consider the harm they may be doing to a whole group of society simply because it isn’t stated in their ‘aims and objectives’ then it’s a pretty sad world we live in!

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