What is aGender?

aGender is committed to challenging gender stereotypes through creative media. We are planning a series of peer-led, creative sex and relationship education (SRE) workshops in schools with a focus on performance arts, writing and film to boost young people’s self-esteem and to enable them to build healthy relationships. Tackling issues surrounding gender stereotypes and sexuality, pornography, sexting and body image, our focus group of teachers, youth workers, sexual health specialists and artists are planning the workshops with guidance from an advisor from Tender, whose drama workshops focus on healthy relationships and preventing domestic violence. Our local MP, who has taken the issue of insufficient SRE in schools to Parliament, is also supporting and advising us. The workshops are aimed at young people aged 11-18 in local secondary schools and other settings, such as youth centres and galleries. We are currently collaborating with Claremont Studios to run our pilot project in conjunction with an exhibition exploring themes around sexting and texting. Any profits of the workshops will be fed back into producing training materials and creative media internships in order to train interns in the workshops method and work in schools and youth centres, expanding the reach of the workshops across the country. We would like to ultimately franchise the workshops method in order to create a recognisable brand to challenge and end gender stereotyping through creative media.

How did it start?

aGender, was formed by Xaverine Bates after riart Grrrls, the feminist arts collective she initiated in 2012, and Hastings Women’s Voice teamed up to organise a flashmob for One Billion Rising as part of Eve Ensler’s global campaign to highlight the growing problem of violence against women. Over 100 local women and children came to Hastings Women Rising and the discussions that arose on the rG facebook page afterwards showed a desire to do something concrete in the local community, which would educate young people about the fundamentals of healthy relationships, sex and sexuality. So far we have been inspired by the work of Tender, which addresses issues surrounding domestic violence with a focus on healthy relationships through drama workshops with secondary age pupils. Their youth project coordinator, Marie Horner, is advising our project and came to our last focus group meeting to share her expertise.

There is an urgent need for these workshops in Hastings & St Leonards. In 2008, East Sussex had the 6th highest teenage pregnancy rate in the SE and Hastings had the highest number of teenage pregnancies in East Sussex, at a rate of 59/1000 women aged 15-17. Furthermore, one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute nationally and costs East Sussex over £6m every year. 90% of children today are internet-savvy and approximately 87% of male children aged 10-17, seeking sexual knowledge through pornography do so online, so there is a clear social need to approach SRE via an emotional and relationship building stance. Our focus group includes a range of professionals working in sexual health, PSHE and drama and one member recently conducted a research project, finding that SRE, a non-statutory subject, is often sidelined in favour of core subjects and when delivered, is done so by non-specialists covering principally biological rather than emotional subject matter. The latest Ofsted report covering SRE in the science curriculum in May 2013 showed that it was insufficiently covered and, as SRE is a non-statutory part of the non-statutory subject of PSHE, sex ed is frequently pushed to the sides in favour of ‘more important’ topics. You can read more about the Sex Education Forum’s response to this here.

Who else is involved?

We are currently forging links with other groups in the local community. One group that has been invited to be involved is Girlz What! a spin-off project for young women from Respond Academy, who “were fed up watching vulnerable young girls from 11-23 get increasing involved in and accepting abuse , humiliation, drugs, drinking, domestic violence as something they just have to put up with.” We are also in discussion with Claremont Studios in Kings Road, St Leonards, in setting up a series of workshops to complement an upcoming exhibition, which will be exploring the phenomenon of sexting amongst local teenagers and its damaging effects. We will be engaging in our first training session in May, led by one of our focus group members, an actor with extensive experience of leading workshops around the themes of sexual health. We are also in discussion with the PSHE coordinator at Helenswood, the local secondary girls’ school, to run a project there, and we will be approaching William Parker, the secondary boys’ comprehensive school and Hastings & St Leonards academies as well.

Our local MP Amber Rudd is very much on board and I met her recently to discuss the project. She was part of a cross-party focus group led by Labour MP Stella Creasy to bring the lack of insufficient SRE provision in schools to Parliament to coincide with One Billion Rising on 14 February 2013. The motion passed without a vote, which has mobilised them to continue to fight to bring SRE back onto the agenda. She was all for the project and offered her support once funding has been secured to link us with secondary headteachers to get the project off the ground.

How is aGender funded?

We are currently in discussion with UnLtd, a charity dedicated to helping social entrepreneurs, who are advising us how best to set the project up as a social enterprise and who may be able to award us some funding for basic start-up costs. Once it is established as a legal entity, we will research the best ways to fund the project e.g. from Big Lottery, Arts Council, Hastings Borough Council, East Sussex County Council, Global Fund for Women, NHS, Children in Need etc.

Xaverine Bates