Interview with sexual health champion, Lucy Dunkerley!
Today we’re joined by the University of Lincoln’s Lead Sexual Health Champion, Lucy Dunkerley, who’s sharing some great insight into the current state of sex education across the UK and detailing some of the measures she’s taking to help move things in the right direction!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Lucy! You’re currently in your third year at the University of Lincoln, and back in September you became the SU’s Lead Sexual Health Champion for 20/21 – meaning you’re now part of an important wellbeing network that helps students take better care of their sexual health. Could you tell us a little more about the role and what’s involved, along with the ways you offer support? Also, what prompted you to take this important position?
Lucy: Hello! So my role is actually a new addition to the SU’s structure this year. Three new volunteer officer roles were introduced covering physical, mental and sexual health. I work under Lucy Krogdahl who is the Union’s wonderful VP Wellbeing and Community.
My role is essentially to create and promote educational and sex-positive resources to the students at Lincoln. I’m available as a point of contact between students and the Union, and the services offered by them, the University, and local sexual healthcare services. The student volunteering network at Lincoln is unbelievable – I’ve been able to collaborate on discussions, speak to society members on dates such as World Aids Day, and address student concerns through a recent Queer Sexual Health Panel (with the incredible LGBT+ Officer, Nat).
As to what made me want to go for the role: I’ll be completely honest. In my second year I ran in the SU elections to become the Union’s Sports Officer, after being on the Pole Fitness committee for two years. I wasn’t successful but at the time (admittedly after being pretty gutted for a little bit), I decided that maybe my third year would be easier without the extra commitment of volunteering, and thought nothing more of it.
BUT, in September, the Wellbeing Network announced these new roles were available and applications were open to be interviewed for one of the positions, and something in my head just told me that if I wasn’t going to squeeze every last opportunity out of my uni years, then what was the point?? I’ve never really been one to shy away from the ‘taboo’ around sex (although I really hate that word) and the pandemic was making my final year look pretty bleak, so I decided that I’d apply for an interview.
Long story short, now here I am – six months in and honestly loving it.
Britain Uncovered: The advice provided by the network covers a lot of ground, from sexting, to consent, to contraceptions, to queer sexual health, STIs and a lot more besides. What would you consider some of the hot topics or emerging trends to be, and are there recurring themes or questions that students are coming to you with time and time again?
Lucy: That’s a very tricky question. I think it’s safe to say that in general, sexual health really is one of the sparsest topics of conversation we’ve got left. We have made the most incredible leaps to dismantle barriers that prevent people from talking about their mental health, but I’ve always felt that sex has been held firmly in the ‘inappropriate’ camp. I think that the word ‘trend’ is really something to focus on. Within the communities that discuss sexual health, a lot of these topics are being talked about all the time, but it can take a scandal or a well-known face speaking out about something for it to become a more public debate. This can be SO frustrating, but if that’s what it takes to put these issues on everyone’s radar, my only hope is that they stay there!
A real recurrence I see when sexual health gets brought to public debate, is that the second somebody explains why, for example, it’s ridiculous to only teach children about cisgender, heterosexual relationships, those who oppose anything else deem it ‘inappropriate’ and the conversation ends there. If we don’t give children appropriate foundations to talk about sex and relationships, and the range of different ways those things can look, they simply become the new generation of prejudiced adults.
Britain Uncovered: Are there any particular areas or elements of sex ed that you want to focus on, or that you feel people are perhaps misinformed about? Are there any topics or issues you’d personally like to know more about, or that could help you in your role?
Lucy: The complete lack of intersectionality in sexual education AND very worryingly even in professional sexual health is definitely one of the biggest frustrations I’ve come across. The assumption that ‘sexually active’ automatically means someone is having heterosexual, penetrative sex, or the seemingly accepted fact that disabled people don’t have sex or get into relationships? We don’t talk about straight sex as much as we should, so anything remotely on the fringe of that definitely doesn’t get enough airtime.
Naturally, with the continuous growth of dating apps, sexting, OnlyFans and the general ‘digitisation’ of sex, the world of sexual and relationship education is really changing. Not only do you have all the foundations (STIs, consent, communication etc), there’s now this whole new side to sex that we’re learning about all the time. These kinds of things are massively on the rise, and they, like everything, have amazing perks as well as some really dark pitfalls that the law often doesn’t cover until they happen to someone.
For students, getting practical information and advice out is my main goal. I want to equip people with the tools and mindset to lead empowered, safe and happy sex lives, whatever that looks like to them. I don’t want to just thrust statistics about STIs in the student population in their faces, remind them that ‘no means no’, or tell them how a condom works – that doesn’t solve anything. Getting people to think to themselves and talk to one another is the only way to stop this perpetual hushed-up mentality we’ve created around sex and relationships.
I want anyone to come to my page, hear me give a talk or see me on a panel and understand that it doesn’t matter if you want to have casual sex or get into a monogamous relationship, or any of the other options in between – your personal boundaries, happiness and wellbeing is all that matters, and that you can TALK about that.
Britain Uncovered: As part of your work, you recently published a new Sexual Health Resource Bank – which includes an extensive list of Lincolnshire-based resources such as social media accounts, books, podcasts and charities that all promote sexual health. This list was some four months in the making, so how did you decide what made the cut, and how useful will this be for students in your area in the months and years to come?
Lucy: Deciding what made it into the bank was SO DIFFICULT. A natural effect of the love I have for my work means that I come across new resources almost every day. I decided that the resource bank would be made up of people and their work that had originally got me invested in mine.
The mentions in the booklet include people I’ve kept up with for years, charities that are doing incredible things and generally just things I think are bloody inspiring. There’s a range in there and I think that’s what will (hopefully) mean there’s something in there for everyone. You’ve got dedicated medical services bundled in with messy, brutally honest podcasts about fucking – whatever you need, I think it’s there!
My honourable mentions are definitely Hannah Witton, Brook and the wonderful Florence and Reed from Come Curious <3.
Britain Uncovered: We see many posts on our timeline that can be critical of sex education in schools – with many feeling as though the education is geared primarily towards male pleasure and experiences, at the expense of females. Is this an area of concern, and what else do you think could or should be done to improve the overall level of sex ed in schools?
Lucy: I think it’s a consensus amongst the online sex-ed community that UK sex-ed is really the bare bones of what there is to know. RSE is a tiny part of the school curriculum; we can’t expect kids and teenagers to be taught the ins and outs of how to navigate sex and adult relationships in an afternoon, but the point is that it should be weaved in as soon as their education begins. The general resistance against this seems to be that small children are too young to be taught about sex, and that older adolescents shouldn’t know too much because “it only encourages them”.
Teaching three and four year olds about consent can be as simple as letting them know that they don’t have to hug a relative if they don’t want to – stuff like that will stick and has absolutely nothing to do with sex. Giving children body autonomy can set the foundation for them to feel that their body is their own, grown-ups aren’t allowed to overpower that autonomy, and invasion of their boundaries isn’t something that they should keep quiet about.
I think the main thing I’d love to see is the concept of sex being less fearmongering. My sex education was basically non-existent – the long and short of it seemed to be “you shouldn’t have sex, and if you do, don’t you dare get pregnant”.
I’m very lucky in that my mum always told me that she would support me if I did experience an unwanted pregnancy when I was a teen (although chance would’ve been a fine thing at that age), but lots of friends weren’t so fortunate. Sex was always heterosexual – something that boys did to gain prowess, and something girls with no self-respect had happen to them.
Even if sex ed isn’t ready to teach our young people about vibrators yet (sigh), we at the very least need to stop tying morality and heteronormativity to sex. Teach kids how to feel safe and respect one another (PLEASE!!)
Britain Uncovered: We were pleased to see that Ruby Rare was included in your resource bank, as she’s done so much great work for the Brook sexual health organisation (where she’s currently an ambassador) – and Ruby is also author of the recent Sex Ed: A Guide for Adults book that so many of our readers have enjoyed. What is it about Ruby’s work that particularly speaks to people, and have you found her advice beneficial on a personal level too?
Lucy: I am also a lover of Ruby’s book! (Your readers must have good taste). I can’t remember exactly when I came across Ruby but I do remember being particularly interested in how completely joyful she is. She gives off this amazing energy that life is to be played with and it’s not something I’d really seen before.
More personally, I think it’s safe to say she has personally contributed to my more accepting and appreciative outlook on my own body. Through my teens I really had a horrible relationship with food, exercise and my body. It got better when I really actively decided that I didn’t want to listen to my brain criticise me every day for the rest of my life, and people like Ruby not only told me to ‘accept’ or ‘love’ myself, but gave me a completely new perspective on simply existing unapologetically.
Britain Uncovered: In addition to the aforementioned sex education work, Ruby also runs the Body Love Sketch Club events with her friend Rosy, and these celebratory sessions are an excellent way of helping people feel more confident and body positive. How much do you enjoy these sessions, and how did it feel to pose during a recent session held online?
Lucy: That was actually the first ever sketch club session I’d been to! I’d followed the workshops for a while but never thought I’d make it to one, but when they moved online I decided why not? When I try something new, I tend to throw myself straight in at the deep end to try to get the worst out of the way ASAP, so when the opportunity came up to pose I thought I should just go for it – the environment Ruby, Rosy and all the attendees made even over a Zoom call immediately made me feel safe and comfortable (plus by the end my face hurt from just grinning the whole way through).
Britain Uncovered: Aside from your sexual health work, you’re also the co-founder of your university’s Pole Fitness Society – which can also prove empowering in its own way. What do you most enjoy about taking part in this, and does participation lead to a greater sense of self-love and/or body confidence, perhaps?
Lucy: Pole has honestly completely changed everything in my life – that might sound like an exaggeration but I can’t even begin to explain how much the sport and my role as a co-founder has made me into the person I am now. The more organisational side of it has given me so many skills, but the physical and emotional benefits of the sport and the society are unbelievable. Pole allowed me to accept my body for what it can do over what it looks like. There’s a whole lot more to my growth out of a host of issues around eating, exercise and my body, and out of the shy teenager I used to be, but the version of myself I am now would absolutely not exist if it weren’t for that sport and its members.
Britain Uncovered: Finally, once you’ve graduated with your degree in Forensic Psychology, what are some of your goals or aspirations for the future? Would you like to stay involved with sex education to some extent, and if so, what kind of role do you see yourself having?
Lucy: Once I graduate I will be taking a break from traditional academia for a while that’s for sure! I want to take some time to really work out my priorities for going full-time into the workplace.
I really do love sex education and have thought really hard about keeping up that work when I leave uni and leave my volunteering position. Whatever I end up doing, I know that I need to find it meaningful and fulfilling – I’d love to work in the charity, healthcare or education industry. This role has made me realise that as much as I love learning, I really love teaching, especially through discussion. If I can make that my career, I know I’d be able to get up in the morning and feel like I was doing something important, and I don’t think you can really want more from your work.