Making love from the Mesolithic Age to the Greeks: learning about sex and relationships at the British Museum

  • September 22nd, 2017
  • Blog

In June 2017, the newly formed think tank GenPol brought together activists, academics and educators in a one day conference, to discuss how education can be used to tackle gendered violence. Among the many engaging topics and sessions, participants explored creative strategies for teaching sex and relationships education (SRE) to young people. We also heard from Alix Fox, a writer and sex educator who uses a range of media from podcasts to Youtube to reach out to her audiences, many of whom are young teenagers.

One of the more unlikely institutions developing its own creative approaches to SRE is the British Museum. Steeped in history, the museum is more strongly associated with Egyptian mummies than discussions around gender and sexuality. But while we may focus more on how the internet and smartphones are changing the way young people today experience sex and relationships, many of the questions and concerns we harbour have historical precedents. It was with this in mind that a team of committed educators at the museum took it upon themselves to incorporate SRE into the programme for secondary school visits. Last month, I sat down with Melany Rose, an education manager at the museum, and the brains behind the SRE workshops, to find out more.

The starting point for the project is a strong belief that museums ought to support schools in areas where the curriculum was found to be lacking. My main question to Melany centered primarily around that lack. What was absent, notably in countries in which SRE is still not compulsory?

Melany explained that the workshops – which are now a permanent offer at the museum – were developed in partnership with her friend Chloe Cooper, an artist educator. The first workshop, which was piloted during LGBT history month earlier this year, focused on issues such as same-sex relationships and queer identities. Following the success of the pilot, other thematic workshops exploring topics such as pornography and body image emerged.

The hands-on nature of the workshops, which not only involve handling historical objects from the museum’s collection, but also creating personal pieces of art in response, closely mirrors the format of the existing art and design workshops that Melany oversees. The content of the workshops was instead drawn from a book by a former British Museum curator, Richard B. Parkinson, titled A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the world (2013). In his book, Parkinson pulls out a number of objects from the collection to discuss how they portray things like same-sex desire and gender fluidity. The book has also provided inspiration for a current exhibit at the British Museum on Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories (ends October 15), marking fifty years since homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

Like many of the GenPol conference participants, Melany described her own experiences of sex education at school as being “laughable at best.” At worst, for many young people in the UK, sex education is an uncomfortable hour or two, delivered by a reluctant and often unqualified teacher, if it is delivered at all. Melany suggested that taking sex education out of the classroom and into a different kind of formal learning environment, such as the museum, brings clear benefits not only to students but to teachers as well; both are reported to be more open to discussing and sharing personal experiences within the workshop setting, detached from the classroom environment.

What makes the workshops a success? “The objects and discussions are what lead the session”, Melany told me, “but it’s about good facilitation”. In order to prepare the artists delivering the workshops, Melany also worked closely with Brook, a sexual health charity who provide specialist training to teachers and educators. Having a team of trained professionals has been key to being able to deliver the programme in a way that is engaging while still being sensitive and age-appropriate.

One of the key themes of the GenPol conference was inter-disciplinary cooperation, and the importance of incorporating SRE into more areas of the curriculum than just biology. By addressing issues of gender and sexuality through history, culture and the arts, the workshops would appear to be doing a far better job of getting through to young people on these topics, by making them both accessible and relevant. The combination of teaching methods from the arts and humanities felt particularly refreshing, and no doubt more stimulating than a simply academic or ‘facts-based’ approach.

In addition to teaching young people about the meaning of gender, or the history of homosexuality, the workshops are also aimed at helping young people develop the critical thinking skills which are increasingly needed to navigate a media-saturated world.

Although it may have earned her some dubious press coverage, Melany described a sense of achievement in establishing the programme, despite the initial difficulties of getting schools interested. Once past the initial stumbling blocks, however, it attracted almost 300 students in its first year, and over 250 students have already been booked in for the autumn 2017 term alone.

Melany stressed that the workshops are designed to supplement an existing SRE programme, rather than provide it.  It is more a “window into a topic” which teachers are encouraged to follow up on once back in the classroom. Looking ahead to 2019, when SRE is due to become compulsory in the UK, there is perhaps hope that teachers will find they are already being supported to deliver impactful SRE by other educational institutions.

While learning about sex surrounded by objects from another millennium might feel a bit like getting tips on how to ‘do it’ from your grandmother, there’s a surprising amount to be learned about sex, sexuality and gender from these historical objects – not least that our societies are far, far less open and accepting than we might have thought possible.

Giulia Nicolini
Guest Writer and Researcher


An invisible problem: the data vacuum on gender-based violence in Europe

  • September 11th, 2017
  • Blog

cn: sexual assault, intimate partner violence, harassment, violence against women.

Over 61 million European women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Violence against women (VAW) presents a serious violation of human rights that is horribly widespread across the EU. Article 3a of the Istanbul Convention defines VAW as “all acts of gender-based violence that result in or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women.” VAW takes many overlapping forms; sexual assault, female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, intimate partner violence, and sexual harassment just some examples, and such forms of violence are primarily (re)inflicted on women by men in order to (re)establish male social, economic, and political power.

Recognising that VAW is a widespread and direct violation of the EU Charter of fundamental rights with respect to dignity and equality, the EU is starting to pursue more substantial research in this field. Understanding the nature and scope of VAW in Europe is essential to tackling it, and to reinforcing and supporting the life-changing work that women’s organisations have been undertaking for many years through governmental work. The true extent of male violence against women across Europe, however, remains foggy.

Current data paints a picture of extensive abuse in Europe: over a third of adult women experience some form of sexual and/or physical violence at least once in their lifetimes. Over one in five experience violence at the hands of their intimate partner, over one in twenty is raped at least once, and over one in ten girls experience sexual violence before the age of 15. Very sadly, however, these numbers remain conservative estimates; the reality of the scale of VAW in Europe is likely to be much broader than current data suggests. A recent study conducted by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) found that only “one in three victims of partner violence and one in four victims of non-partner violence report their most serious incident to the police or some other service.” Data collection problems prohibit detailed comprehension of VAW in the EU.

One of the most serious obstacles to the gathering of accurate data is systematic under-reporting of male violence. Fear of reporting, often compounded by a lack of trust in the police and judicial systems, contributes to this. The FRA recently found that one in four victims of sexual assault does not contact the police or any other organisation because of feelings of shame, embarrassment, or self-blame, and complementary to these findings, a recent report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) linked low confidence in the police to low levels of reporting of gender-based violence. As an example, studies in Finland indicate a higher than average trust in the police (94% of the population trust the police in Finland compared to 70% across the EU), and higher than average reporting of sexual harassment (71% of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment, compared to 55% across the EU). Evidently, a large proportion of women who experience VAW do not speak of their experiences, and do not come into contact with national justice systems or social services; the crimes committed against them go unrecorded and ignored.

Perhaps most importantly though, recognising physical or sexual violence as violence remains a barrier to reporting. Legal definitions of violence contribute to what is societally categorised as violence, as is the case with marital rape, which is not criminalised in all EU Member States(1), or sexual harassment, which is not always legislated on. Consequently, instances of such violence often go unreported and overlooked. Even where violence is legislatively understood as such, though, cultural, religious, and societal norms can still prevent it from being recognised as criminal, and therefore in need of reporting. Patriarchal ideas in the individual and societal consciousness about the place of men and women, and their respective rights and freedoms, can influence what is considered normal behaviour, particularly in domestic relationships; these attitudes can have a vital impact on recognising, and thus reporting, violence.  

Socio-cultural factors can also influence whether reporting violence is considered appropriate, or even possible. Cultural taboos can prohibit speaking about experiences of violence with authority figures, or even friends and family, especially in the case of intimate-partner violence. For a variety of reasons, women may not feel comfortable or safe disclosing violence. As noted by the non-profit network Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), “the unequal power relationship between men and women, which is the root cause of violence, is also a barrier for reporting.”

So what are the implications of these obstacles to the collection of data on VAW? The above-mentioned interlinked factors that contribute to systematic under-reporting lead many studies into VAW to fall short of capturing the true extent of the problem. A nuanced top-down approach is needed to complement and reinforce the ground work that is being done by organisations and individuals across the EU, and policy is informed by data. Knowing the scope of violence against women therefore appears an obvious, though complex, element in tackling such violence; if we do not understand the nature of women’s realities then how can national and international organisations work for long-lasting and significant change?

NGOs working to provide services for victims of VAW offer hope for more accurate and comprehensive data collection, but their scope is often regional in focus and the information they provide varies as a result. Filling the informational void on the extent of VAW is an urgent task, and is a necessary part of a wider push in Europe to combat gender inequality at all echelons of society. Continuing efforts to address the range of economic, political and social power inequities felt by women (including rendering national systems fit for purpose) through both top-down and bottom-up approaches, are thus vital in encouraging women’s voices to be heard on their experiences of violence. Only then can we truly understand and address violence against women in Europe.


Nathalie Greenfield

Research Associate


(1) Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia are all yet to criminalise marital rape.

‘Can education stop abuse?’ Conference Programme

  • June 15th, 2017
  • Blog

GenPol and the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation are excited to share the final programme of the forthcoming conference ‘Can education stop abuse?’

Conference Programme

Saturday 24th June from 9:00

Location: Judge Business School. Please follow signage to the lecture room.


9:30 – 9:00 Registration
9:00 – 9:15 Welcome and introduction: Dr Lilia Giugni (GenPol & Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation) and Dr Neil Stott (Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation).
9:15 – 10:15 Group presentations “Sex and relationship education and gender-based violence: the state of the field”, chaired by Prof. Paul Tracey (Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation).
10:15 – 11:15 Group presentations “Sex and relationship education across institutions: good practices and innovative tools”, chaired by Mark Goodson (Cambridge Social Ventures).
11:15 – 11:45 Tea/coffee break
11:45 – 12:45 Key note panel: Norah Al-Ani (Cambridge Crisis Rape Centre), Dr Kerrie Thornhill (University of Oxford), Dolly Ogunrinde (Into University).

12:45 – 13:45 A complimentary sandwich lunch is served on site.

13:45 – 14:45 Group presentations “An intersectional approach to the study of SRE and gender-based violence”, chaired by Kate MacLeod (Estelle Levin Ltd).
14:45 – 15:45 Group presentations “Preventing violence: insights from the study of masculinities and online abuse”, chaired by Stefan Theil (University of Cambridge)
15:45 – 16:15 Presentations’ wrap up
16:15 – 17:15 Round table: Ky Hoyle (Sh! Women Erotic Emporium), Alix Fox (Guardian), Pavan Amara (My Body Back Project), moderated by Dr Lilia Giugni.

17:15 – 17:30 Concluding remarks: Dr Lilia Giugni, Dr Neil Stott & GenPol team.

Conference Dinner

After the conference, from 6:30pm, participants are invited to join us for dinner at Westcott College, one of central Cambridge’s hidden gems.

International Conference – 24th June: “Can Education Stop Abuse? Approaches To Tackle Gender-based Violence”

  • June 13th, 2017
  • Blog

“Can Education Stop Abuse? Approaches To Tackle Gender-based Violence”

International Conference

Saturday June 24th, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge


Comprehensive sex and relationship education is increasingly regarded as crucial to counteracting gender-based violence. Recent research conducted across the globe shows that young people who participate in good quality SRE programmes are more likely to make autonomous, informed and healthy decisions about their sexual lives (Advocates For Youth, 2009; Sex Education Forum UK, 2015). However, successfully delivering educational tools, especially when incorporating a specific focus on the themes of gender, informed consent and every form of violence and discrimination, often eludes policy-makers and other stake-holders.

Furthermore, it is also a challenge to develop high quality guidelines and training programmes specifically tailored to the personnel of organisations whose work intersects matters of gender and gender-based violence. For example, in recent years there has been a concerted effort within law enforcement agencies to develop effective educational programmes to help their staff to deal with gender-based violence and, more broadly, the ways in which matters of gender influence their activities (NATO 2015; UN Women 2015).

GenPol and the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation invite you to an exciting day of debates, panel discussions, networking, and key notes. This conference will bring together a wide range of participants from different nationalities and backgrounds, including researchers, educators, therapists, legal experts, social and media entrepreneurs, civil servants and representatives from a variety of institutions. Topics of discussion include consent, successful sex ed programmes, disability and gender-based violence, online abuse, and a conversation on masculinity. By fostering a fruitful dialogue between experts and practitioners in the field, we aim to identify both a clear theoretical framework and effective practical resources for different institutional audiences.


RSVP on Eventbrite, also find us on Facebook


The academy and everyday sexism: can we ‘undo’ gendered biases?

  • June 13th, 2017
  • Blog

To female students and faculty members alike, sexism in academia is often a big, uncomfortable elephant in the room. The problem is a complex and multifaceted one, but two aspects are particularly worthy of attention.

A more inclusive academy?The first concerns inclusivity and the actual access of women, as well as other historically discriminated against categories, to high education and high profile academic positions. The other refers to the multiple, subtle forms of everyday sexism that permeate most academic settings.

Despite the undeniable progress of the last few decades, there is evidence that numerous professional and personal challenges still affect the lives of women, and especially those from minority or disadvantaged backgrounds, within academic communities. These include very tangible issues such as the gender-based pay gap, the way in which the current publication culture [1] makes it hard to reconcile professional and family life, as well as the gendered biases influencing the evaluation of female faculty’s performances [2]  documented by many recent studies [3].

However, issues of confidence, impostor syndrome [4], and above all the lack of adequate role models [5] that may act as mentors or sponsors for young female students and researchers, also play a key role. This is particularly evident in systems like Oxbridge, where, with the only exception of women’s only colleges, a young female undergrad, let alone a non-white or disable one, walks every day into a dining hall packed with portraits of old, white, upper-class men, none of whom remotely looks like her.

Furthermore, sexual assault and other forms of gender-based abuse are sadly still too common in university life. In the UK, for example, a nation-wide study recently published on the Guardian [6] shows how poorly assault on campus is dealt with by the competent British authorities, making universities an unsafe, hardly welcoming place for young women.

Constructing and performing gender in academic life

Yet there is a second, perhaps less obvious dimension of the problem, which lies in the manifold ways in which, through our own daily interactions, we ‘do’ and ‘perform’ gender in academic life. These also encompass forms of latent, perhaps ‘benevolent’ [7], but still deeply harmful, sexist behaviour.

Patterns of gendered and sexist practices emerge very clearly from the hundreds of stories that colleagues, friends and students of mine shared with me throughout my years as a student first, and a researcher and member of staff later. Women’s personal experiences may vary slightly from country to country, from university to university, but it is impossible not to notice the common traits.

In my native Italy, for instance, I often found that everyday ‘academic’ sexism has more to do with the pervasive patriarchal dynamics that pervade the society in which Italian universities are enmeshed, rather than with specific institutional features. However, once I moved to Cambridge – where feminism is a powerful, strong presence on campus and so many female undergrads are extraordinarily, almost painfully aware of the barriers they face – I was struck by a consideration. What Cantabrigian women, of every age and position, seem to fight against is the very structure they are a part of. One which, centuries ago, was specifically designed for the benefit of white, privileged men.

Again, there are the portraits in Oxbridge colleges’ dining halls [8]. There is, too, a certain traditional ‘Oxbridge’ writing and debating style, based on assertiveness [9] and the capacity to stick to a central argument, which numerous women feel uneasy with. On the other hand, uncountable female students openly admit preferring a more nuanced way of writing, one able to do justice to the complexity of a topic and juxtapose different view-points. Unsurprisingly, they report feeling forced not to be true to themselves during tutorials, examinations or lectures, and struggling to find their identity as writers and researchers.

Everyday ‘academic’ sexism, when it comes to faculty staff, can also come in the form of our current understanding of leadership [10], and the dominant narratives on what high profile academics should be and do. For example, regarding rational decision-making, assertiveness, risk-taking and other elements normally associated with masculinity as essential to achieve leading academic positions, is no doubt a gendered and discriminatory tendency. And let us not forget that women academics who, for a reason or another, chose to showcase traits identified as masculine, are often blamed for being bossy, irascible, and difficult to be managed. In a context shaped by gendered stereotypes, there is often little space for building positive, and genuine, ‘feminine’ models.

Our power to ‘undo’ stereotypes

There is, however, something empowering in coming to see gender as a set of practices and conventions that are ‘done’ and ‘performed’ daily, through the very way we interact with each other. This means, in fact, that we can make a pledge to ‘undo’ gender, or at least damaging gendered stereotypes, in our personal everyday lives.

Quotas and other forms of positive discrimination in high education, as well as programmes encouraging young women’s access to STEMs or prestigious educational programmes [11], are all policy choices I wholeheartedly agree with. My point, though, is that this is a battle we can only win by bringing concerns related to gender (and its intersections with race, disability, sexual orientation and class) into our mainstream conversations. In other words, honest talks recognising the specific challenges faced by women and other discriminated against groups need to regularly take place at every stage of academic life. Between supervisors and their supervisees, college tutors and their students, and of course among peers and female members of staff. Mental health, as well as issues of visibility and harassment, must be at the very centre of this dialogue. Similarly, young women need to be provided with safe spaces to address these concerns. They need to be put in touch with adequate role models, inspirational figures who actually look like them and are able to empathise with their difficulties, and who can act for them as sponsors outside the room.

Rome was not built in a day, and this is a long-term fight, but openly recognising conflicts based on gender and other causes of inequality, rather than trying to silence them, is most certainly a way to start.

-Dr Lilia Giugni, Teaching Associate at CJBS and CEO and co-founder of GenPol


[1] “The gender bias in peer reviewing reveals the sexism in academia“, Quartz, 25 January 2017
[2] “Female academics face huge sexist bias – no wonder there are so few of them“, Guardian, 13 February 2015
[3] “Gender bias in academe: an annotated bibliography of important recent studies“, LSE Impact Blog, 8 March 2017
[4]  The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), Fall 1978
[5] “Young women need female role models to inspire success“, Guardian, 22 October 2014
[6]Universities ‘actively covering up’ sexual assault and harassment, report says“, Guardian, 27 February 2017
[7] “The academics tackling everyday sexism in university life“, Guardian, 24 February 2015
[8]Oxford University replaces portraits of male alumni as part of diversity project“, Independent, 4 July 2016
[9] “The impact of conversational style on girls’ learning“, Dangerous Women Project Blog, 10 July 2016
[10] “Gender bias in leader selection“, Strategy+Business, 23 December 2010
[11] Stem Women network:

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