Romantic Revolution

Teaching teenagers to have a healthy attitude to sex and relationships

In 2005, two youth workers were invited to take part in a televised experiment with British teens: could the teenagers go for three months without any sexual activity whilst learning the value of committed relationships?

That project became the Romance Academy and five years on since the programme aired as No Sex Please We’re Teenagers on BBC2, the Academy is still going strong. Rachel Gardner, one of the original youth workers – and now the director of Romance Academy – and her husband Jason Gardner, explain its ongoing impact.

We love sex. We love it. You only have to go through the newspapers, skip through the internet and hop channels on your TV to realise that. And we can go further; it’s on the radio, it’s on adverts on billboards, it’s in magazines – and there are rumours that it even happens in people’s homes. Remarkable. So we love it – or at least we’re obsessed with it. You only have to be alive to know that. And that’s why there’s no such thing as only sex, as in ‘it’s only sex, don’t get worked up about it’. And it’s why phrases like ‘casual sex’ are a contradiction in terms – sex matters to us so it can never be just casual.

Being human means that being sexual is part of who you are: if we want a healthy approach to life that has to include a healthy approach to sex. After all, sex is one of the things that drives us. It’s a chief appetite, but like most appetites we can feed it in a right way or a wrong way. We know the consequences of responding to our urge for food with a diet of doughnuts and chocolate. So we know that eating our five a day makes sense but, unfortunately, exchanging treats for broccoli and kiwi fruit, isn’t...well, isn’t fun.

A healthy attitude

How do we, then, teach teenagers to have a healthy attitude to sex that also celebrates it? Welcome to a fresh approach. Our teams train up people all over Britain to run Romance Academies. Two people take up to 12 teenagers and teach a course on sex and relationships for 14 weeks. Our approach isn’t just classroom instruction: we focus on formative experiences because we have discovered that significant learning happens in significant relationships. We visit clinics and maternity units, go on transformational weekends away, put on whole group romantic evenings and salsa dancing. All this makes up the syllabus of a typical Romance Academy – along with open and frank discussions. And yes, we teach about the consequences of having lots of sexual partners; about the growing epidemic of STI’s (sexually transmitted infections), increased rates of cervical cancer and the challenges of becoming sexually active before you’re mature enough to deal with the consequences – all knock on effects of too much sex too soon.

Part of the success of the project is also its biggest challenge:  at the start we ask them to sign the ‘pledge’ – a promise to stop any sexual activity for the duration of the course (they get to define the wide range of what ‘sexual activity’ covers). This isn’t an attempt to teach abstinence from sex – although we do want to encourage sexual delay – rather, it gives the participants time out: time out to reflect on their approach to sex and time out to realise that 14 weeks without sex won’t actually kill them. The pledge is the hardest part of Romance Academy for the teenagers but when we ask them for feedback they always says it’s definitely the one thing they wouldn’t change as it’s had such a big impact on them.

Would you Adam and Eve it?

Asking teenagers to stop having sex might seem a little like asking the Top Gear team to stop driving fast cars but that’s more or less the challenge that the BBC gave us as Christian youth workers back in 2005. As if that wasn’t enough, they wanted something that would work with teenagers from all sorts of different backgrounds, whether sexually active or not, whether they did or didn’t have a religious belief, ‘privileged’ or otherwise.

I (Rachel) and another youth worker, Dan Burke, along with Jason, came up with the idea of the Romance Academy. In a society that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, we wanted to make self-worth our starting point. This would in turn affect how they valued and treated each other and the kinds of behaviour they felt were healthy or unhealthy in those relationships.

At the end of that first Romance Academy, only one of the 12 took a vow of chastity until marriage but we realised that something amazingly special had happened to all of them – because this group of young people now began to challenge their peers about their approach to sex. They went against conventional wisdom that said as everyone is doing it, so should you. And they recognised that, in dedicating themselves to reflecting deeply on something so important, they’d grown in maturity and self confidence.

Our obsession

One young woman put it best: when she used to go to house parties, like most of the girls her age, she’d flirt with the boys and then, more likely than not, head upstairs to take things further. But during Romance Academy she stopped behaving that way and the guys noticed. They asked her why, and she told them about the pledge and the Academy. They didn’t taunt her for being boring, but in fact showed her respect for taking a stance. She summed it up by saying at the end of the Romance Academy that it felt like the project had given her her ‘dignity’ back. We’ve seen stories like this multiply right across Britain, from a lad in Cardiff now committed to using a condom so that his girlfriend knows he cares for her health, to a whole Academy in Leeds saying that their attitudes to drugs and alcohol have been radically changed by the course.

If we want to see more of that kind of serious transformation then we have to give our teenagers a chance to really get to grips with the issues. Society doesn’t love sex, society doesn’t cherish sex – it has an obsession with it. Our revolution (and you could call it our obsession) calls for a healthier appetite when it comes to sex and also for faithful friendships and relationships. We want young people to find the confidence to reach their potential and to be agents of change in their world.

 If you would like more information on Jason and Rachel's work, visit  www.romanceacademy.org.  

 This article first appeared in Families First in 2010.