Sexual Health Awareness Week

September 13th to 19th was Sexual Health Awareness Week – and there are events across the UK promoting both sexual and relationship health education throughout September, some of which you can find here https://www.brook.org.uk/shw/ – and I’d particularly like to guide readers towards the webinar for young men which focusses on consent.

This is an area I work in, which you can learn more about by clicking this link, and which can be very difficult and delicate – supporting those who have been accused of, or are under investigation for, sexual assault or abuse.

I’ve been challenged on occasion for working with this particular client group.  I agree that there is no excusing the acts of sexual offending, on or off line. However, if a person has performed those acts there is, more often than not, significant trauma and/or or abuse in their own history, which impacted upon their personality, their development and their behaviours, and which led to the creation of cognitive distortions and, often times, dissociation, all of which needs to be processed and understood in order to prevent further offending in future.

There are also a number of men I work with – particularly young men – who have been accused of sexual assault when they are innocent. The difficulties of intoxication, blurred boundaries, consent and shame mean that sometimes people can’t clearly remember what happened, or that both parties cross lines they later regret, and sometimes people panic and make an accusation which is unfounded. Many of the clients I work with in this specific area of need have been accused of brutal, devastating things – but the truth of the situation is far more complex, and they are innocent of any crime.

The accusation itself is deeply traumatic, and the process of investigation can have lasting and significant impact not only on the alleged victim, but on the alleged perpetrator – especially when they are innocent, but become tarred with the accusation, and carry that shame.

This is why proper sex and relationship education, especially around consent and the impact of drugs and alcohol on inhibitions and our grasp of reality, memory and morality under their influence, is absolutely vital.

It’s at this time of year when hundreds of thousands of young adults, barely out of childhood, move out into the world as students. Away from home for the first time, free from the constraints of home life and keen to explore every new experience, expand their boundaries and embrace everything student culture brings, combined with meeting new people, in a new place, and bombarded with Fresher’s week party culture, many of these young adults come apart at the seams.

A lot of these young adults find themselves out of control, with free drinks and experimenting with drugs, with blank spaces in their memories of the night before. Many find themselves making decisions they otherwise wouldn’t have made, making enormous mistakes, making fools of themselves or – worse – making victims of themselves or of others.

Some think that universities need to take more responsibility for protecting these new students, limiting the activities in Fresher’s week which focus on party culture – but others say that the students are adults now, and free to make their own choices. Legally they may be adults, but research has evidenced that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain which controls impulsive and risk-taking behaviours) hasn’t yet developed as people reach early adulthood. This means that these young people quite literally don’t have the area of brain we need to make these decisions and form reasoned behaviours – putting them at far greater risk of endangering themselves or putting themselves and others at risk impulsively.

When you combine a tendency towards risk taking with excessive alcohol or drug consumption, young people are at the most danger of finding themselves in situations in which they can be accused of – or be guilty of – inappropriate or criminal sexual behaviours.

Education is the only way to challenge this – and to help your own young people to avoid those dangers when they are coming into adulthood and stepping out into the world to test their boundaries and explore their independence. Consent and safe sexual intimacy are vitally important messages for young people to understand, and which people still find difficult to discuss as openly as we need to.

When we have campaigns like sexual health awareness week it opens conversations in these vital topics – the signs of sexually transmitted infections (find out more about the most common STIs here https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sexually-transmitted-infections-stis/) enthusiastic consent (find out more about consent here https://www.rainn.org/articles/what-is-consent) and protecting yourself against spiked drinks (find out more here https://theconversation.com/what-is-drink-spiking-how-can-you-know-if-its-happened-to-you-and-how-can-it-be-prevented-160538#:~:text=%E2%80%9CDrink%20spiking%E2%80%9D%20is%20when%20someone,alcohol%20to%20an%20alcoholic%20drink) are some of the most important conversations you should be able to have with and as young adults.

One of the best educational videos I’ve seen around consent is this:

The impact of a sexual assault can be life long, and deeply traumatic, and it can impact every aspect of a person’s life and future relationships. But being accused of sexual assault is also very damaging – and those who have been accused need support as well as the alleged victims – especially when the accusation is unfounded or the truth of the situation is that both parties have been harmed by a mutual mistake.

If you find yourself in that situation I am registered with both ATSAC www.atasc.org.uk (The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity) and StopSo www.stopso.org.uk ) (Specialist Treatment Organisation for Perpetrators and Survivors of Sexual Offending) I provide specialised counselling services for those who have committed – or who might commit – sexual offences, as well as those who have been falsely accused.

I can help, no matter what the truth of the situation, to process the trauma of both your past and this difficult present.

You can contact me through this website, through FacebookLinkedIn or email on amandaburbidge-counselling@outlook.com, or call me on 07849 037095 – you can also message or call via WhatsApp on the same number, and I offer video sessions for those who are still unable to meet in person. I can help – you don’t have to struggle alone, and our work together is completely confidential.