The Scouts’ sex and relationships programme: what about the gay scouts?

It was announced on Tuesday that the Scout Association are launching a ‘sexual health and relationships programme designed to encourage young people to learn about relationships and sexual health’.  That whirring sound you can hear is the founder of the scouting movement, Robert Baden-Powell (a man so deeply repressed he spent much of his married life sleeping on the balcony outside his bedroom so as to avoid the tiniest risk of inadvertent sexual contact), spinning in his grave.*  Rotating founders notwithstanding, the ‘My Body, My Choice’ programme is, I think, A Good Thing.

I will admit to being a little surprised that it’s a new initiative.  I know there was no hint of anything like it back in my scouting days, but I assumed the recent modernisations – they let girls join, you know – might have included a recognition that teenagers have urges that can’t be fully expressed by toasting marshmallows and having a jolly good sing-song.  After all, scouts are supposed to act as mentors to their non-scout friends, and I would have thought being well-informed about sexual matters would be an important part of being able to offer advice and guidance.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at the leaders’ notes to see if the programme has anything to say to gay teenagers about their bodies and choices.  The Scout Association was known, historically, for being rather uncomfortable with homosexuality, and some of their sister organisations, like the Boy Scouts of America, remain institutionally homophobic.

The notes start well; their general guidance to leaders advises that they shouldn’t:

  • Make assumptions about young people’s sexuality and experiences

This is important, I think, because it should help avoid the default assumption that all the young people taking part in the programme will be straight.  Lots of very well-meaning people who wouldn’t dream of being actively homophobic nonetheless come unstuck because they assume that gay people are vaguely ‘over there’ somewhere, and that all the people in front of them are straight.  So, this is a good thing, but, as far as I’m aware, it also represents the only time that sexuality in the sense of sexual orientation is mentioned.  Aside from this, gay scouts will be left with little more than ambiguous scenarios into which they may be able to project themselves.

The most obvious example of this comes in the context of the sixth activity, ‘In Their Shoes’.  In this activity, the participants are split into pairs, and each pair is given details of a situation involving sexual health/ relationship issues.  The pairs are asked to think about the issues, and  then discuss what they’ve thought of with the rest of the group; leaders are provided with a list of talking points to make sure the discussion of each situation is guided in the appropriate direction.

There are eight scenarios in total.  Of these, six are explicitly heterosexual, either because of the names used for the participants, or because they involve worries about pregnancy.  Of the remaining two, one (scenario three) deals with a 15 year old who feels left out because he’s a virgin and all his mates are boasting about sex.  While this is not explicitly straight, it’s also not specifically gay, which leaves only one remaining scenario which might be specifically relevant to gay people – scenario seven:

Alex is at a house party and has just met John – they’re both quite drunk and end up kissing in a bedroom.  John tells Alex he wants to have sex.  What could happen next?

The only thing that saves this scenario from being explicitly straight is one of the names, Alex.  Alex is best known these days as a male name – Alex Ferguson is probably the most famous Alex around at the moment (except in this corner of the blogosphere, where Bescheurt is the most famous Alex, and infinitely preferable to that Ferguson chap) – but, of course, it can also be a female name.  My guess is that most of the young people presented with this scenario would automatically assume that Alex is a girl, especially since ‘she’ is shown as the one being persuaded into sex (the programme as a whole does rather tend to reinforce the idea that boys are keener on sex than girls).

The people creating this could have avoided the potential confusion by giving Alex an unambiguously male name – but then it’s by no means clear that they were actually thinking of Alex as male.  In the talking points, they suggest that leaders should attempt to make sure the group draws two conclusions from the discussion of this scenario:

  • It’s best to make decisions about sex when you’re sober – alcohol affects your ability to make the right decisions.
  • If they do decide to have sex they should use contraception, and remember that a condom is the only way to protect against STIs.

Clearly, if Alex and John are a same-sex couple then condoms are the only method of ‘contraception’ available to them, and, perhaps more to the point, calling condoms contraception makes no sense in the context of gay sex.  (In fact, it strikes me as a little odd that they’ve stuck with the term contraception throughout, even if they were thinking exclusively in terms of straight sex; the word protection would seem to have the twin advantages of being more easily understood and a better description.)

It’s really quite disappointing that, in a sexual health and relationships programme launched in 2011, there should be no explicit mention of gay people and the specific health and relationship issues they face.  Gay men are at significantly higher risk of contracting STIs than their straight counterparts, and many do so at a young age.  There’s clearly a need for more effective sex education targeted at young gay men, and it’s a shame that the Scout Association appear unwilling to play their part in delivering that.

It’s not as though, after all, it would require lots of special extra work, since the basic principles of sex and relationship education – it’s ok to say ‘no’ if you don’t want sex; don’t make decisions about sex if you’re badly incapacitated through drink/drugs; if you have penetrative sex always use a condom – are the same for everyone, bi, straight or gay.  It’s just a question of including a couple of example scenarios that make it plain all of this applies to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.  As it stands, a gay man going through this programme, with its near-exclusive focus on heterosexual sex, and its insistence on talking about contraception instead of protection, might come away not understanding how the information is relevant to him.

That said, at least a gay male would discover information that’s relevant to him if he paid enough attention and thought about things closely.  The same can’t be said for lesbians.  Apparently, the Scout Association hasn’t even considered the possibility that any of the girls who join the organisation might be gay; there’s not even an ambiguous hint that one of the hypothetical couples might be girl-girl, let alone any information that might be specifically relevant to lesbians.

To be fair to the Scout Association, they have included a means of correcting these omissions in the form of activity two, ‘Postbox’.  In this activity, Scouts are encouraged to leave anonymous questions which leaders research and answer at the next session.  Clearly, if care is taken to ensure that this really is anonymous, then there is the scope for gay and bisexual scouts to ask questions about issues relating specifically to them.  There are still problems with this, however.

One obvious problem is that you have to know what you don’t know in order to ask a question about it, and someone who knows nothing about gay sex may have literally no idea what to ask about.  Another obvious problem is that the quality of answers to questions left in the postbox will depend on the leaders who answer them.  Leaders are guided towards reputable sources of information in researching the answers, and they’re warned not to project their beliefs onto the young people in their troop, but a leader who is hostile towards homosexuality – or just embarrassed by having to talk about it – may still not give good answers.  A third problem is that it puts all the onus of asking and finding about things onto the scouts themselves, and they may not do this: may, in fact, feel completely incapable of asking questions about gay-specific issues, depending on whether they’re closeted, and how deeply they’re closeted.

Obviously, I support the principle of the Scout Association offering guidance on sex and relationship issues, and this is a whole lot better than it could be (if the American scouts had a sex education programme, it would presumably consist of just one word: Don’t).  My overriding feeling, though, is that this is a bit of a missed opportunity, not only in terms of the scant attention paid to gay people, but also in the way the whole thing is approached.  There are some points where a mistaken desire to be less than forthcoming about actual sexual acts seems to open up the possibility of fairly profound confusion.

Take the ‘Fluid Exchange Game’, for example (is it just me, or is there something really icky about that name?)  It seems to suggest that the risk of contracting an STI from ‘kissing with tongues’, as they rather sweetly call it, is the same as having sex without a condom.  Clearly, this could prove fairly catastrophically misleading if someone ends up believing that, because they’ve already kissed, they’re putting themselves at no more risk of getting an STI if they have sex without protection.  That same game relies on the idea of ‘exchanging fluid’, but also introduces the rather bizarre concepts of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving’ fluid without exchanging it.  This seems to suggest that, provided you only ‘give fluid’, it’s possible to have unprotected sex without putting yourself at risk of contracting an STI which, again, runs the risk of being pretty seriously misleading.

While I can think of a few activities that involve ‘giving’ fluid without ‘receiving’ it (masturbating into someone’s open mouth, for example), the vanilla activities mentioned on the game cards (basically, looking at porn, kissing, oral sex and ‘sex’, by which they seem to mean penile penetration of the vagina) don’t include such possibilities.  In this context, suggesting that there’s a possibility of having unsafe sex without exposing yourself to the risk of infection seems positively dangerous to me.  I’d be very concerned straight men, in particular, may come away with the idea that they can have unprotected sex without putting themselves at risk of infection, since they are more likely to think of the fluid they expel than the fluid that enters their body when they have sex.  As with the lack of clarity about the relative risks of open-mouth kissing, this seems likely to increase rather than decrease the likelihood of risky behaviour – surely the exact opposite of what the programme is intended to achieve.

* – Baden-Powell may have been gay, despite being a married father of three.  He is known to have had a very close friendship with a man, and is also known to have found the male physique aesthetically pleasing, but there is little evidence he ever had a sexual relationship with a man.  As I recall from an Ian Hislop documentary a while back, Baden-Powell’s grandson believes he was gay but deeply closeted.  No-one seems to have considered the possibility he was attracted to both men and women – but isn’t that the way it always goes?

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2 Responses to The Scouts’ sex and relationships programme: what about the gay scouts?

  1. Neuroskeptic says:

    Good post.

    This bit brings back memories:

    “In this activity, Scouts are encouraged to leave anonymous questions which leaders research and answer at the next session.”

    I remember we did this at primary school during one of the sex ed classes. We were about 10, so the anonymous questions were largely jokes. Actually they were all jokes. I seem to remember that mine was along the lines of “If you’re making a testtube baby, what happens if they drop the testtube?” It did not go down very well…

  2. No-one seems to have considered the possibility he was attracted to both men and women – but isn’t that the way it always goes?

    Aye, always the way. Bisexuality is always forgotten. The assumption is always gay or straight and no one ever considers both. Even when I point out that I or someone else may be bisexual people don’t seem to get it. It’s usually the “oh but aren’t you really just gay and pretending to be straight?”

    The rest of your post was interesting too. I think sex-ed in school always failed on an inclusive front too. It was always heterosexual focussed. I think you’re right about the reference to contraception rather than protection – the latter is a much more useful way of describing condoms.


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