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What is sexual well-being?

And why we should care about it!

Sexual well-being, or ‘sexual self-care’ is a phrase that has recently made its way into everyday vocabulary. Simply put, it promotes healthy relationships with sex and our bodies, and encourages positive physical, mental and social well-being. The idea is that educating others about their own bodies, and how to respect the boundaries of others will enable more informed and positive choices, and has a positive effect on mental health. What’s more, being open and honest about sex will promote consent and safe sex more widely.

Two start-ups on our east London incubator programme are working to help improve sexual well-being through education and empowerment; Ferly have created an audio guide to sexual self-care while Split Banana are delivering progressive relationship and sex education in schools.

We spoke to both companies about how they are helping to open up more honest, inclusive and relevant conversations around sex and relationships, and are improving mental health and well-being along the way.

 

Learn the art of sexual self-care

Sex is complicated, but it shouldn’t be. Ferly’s app takes you through audio guided sexual self-care. This includes the likes of podcast-style soundbites on the ‘science of sex’, guided practices like body mapping, and sensual stories to help relax and unwind. Billie Quinlan, co-founder and CEO of Ferly explains:

Firstly, could you describe what Ferly does?

We are the world’s first digital sexual well-being studio. Our app is your audio guide to mindful sex, built to help womxn* lead healthy, confident, and pleasurable lives.

* Womxn is a more progressive term denoting gender fluidity and inclusivity

We want to redefine what it means to be ‘well’. Like exercise, diet, and sleep – sex, and our sexualities, are integral parts of our overall well-being

What is sexual self-care, and why do you think it’s so important?

Self-care is a bit of a buzzword, and so often we think it just means green juices, yoga, face masks and candlelit baths. Sure it can mean those things, but it also means a whole lot more. We want to redefine what it means to be ‘well’. Like exercise, diet, and sleep – sex, and our sexualities, are integral parts of our overall wellbeing. Sexual self-care is all about tuning into your body, exploring how you feel about sex, and taking time to slow down so you can discover what you really want. It’s about holding space for our sexualities to flourish: physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.

What sparked the inspiration for Ferly?

Anna and I created Ferly after being accepted onto a 6 month programme led by the social impact business builder, Zinc VC. We were set the challenge to build a business that would transform the mental and emotional health of women and girls in the developed world. During the first few weeks we heard about every area of health and well-being from burnout to schizophrenia. No area was off topic, except for one…female sexuality. Anna and I grew increasingly frustrated at the fear and shame that stops us talking openly about female sexuality, especially as it’s such an integral part of our physical, mental, emotional and social well-being.

What do you think are the benefits of people being more open about sex?

The longer we keep sex a shameful topic to discuss, the more we perpetuate the myth that sex is wrong, shameful and even dangerous. Getting communities to open up about sex will help improve sexual health and will allow people to be more vocal about consent and sex that isn’t just safe, but also pleasurable. Ultimately, it’s going to help unlock pleasure for everyone, because the more comfortable we are with communicating, the better and more healthy our sex lives will be.

The app is about empowering womxn. How do you make sure your content is inclusive?

Inclusivity is so integral to any conversation about sexual equality. We are really lucky to have advisors in the LGBTQ+ space, who are working with us to ensure our content can reach a diverse and varied audience. We also know that we cannot be everything for everybody at the beginning, and that we cannot (and should not) be representing folks whose experiences may be totally different. All we can do is keep educating ourselves, talk to more womxn, continue to be allies and make sure we’re creating a space where we can amplify – instead of speak for – the voices of others.

What changes would you like to see in society to encourage positive sex education?

To see female pleasure be taught as something not to be feared or be ashamed of, but as a necessary, healthy and integral part of what it means to have sex. More conversations need to be had, more people need to learn about their own bodies and feel comfortable and safe in them. And finally: communication is key. We need to learn how to communicate with ourselves, our partners, our loved ones and those around us who are looking to us as role models when it comes to sex and sexuality.

Do you plan to expand Ferly beyond the app?

In its current form, Ferly is a product, but our wider brand mission extends way beyond the app. We exist to create a real cultural and social shift in how sex, sexuality and female pleasure is addressed, cultivated, and owned by womxn. We’ve also launched Ferly’s Pleasure Pioneers on Slack, which is a community space for womxn to connect, support and be supported, and share everything related to all things sex. The app is just phase I of how we aim to empower every person to have healthy, confident and pleasurable lives.

You can find out more about Ferly at weareferly.com or download the app on iOS.

 

Championing young voices

Next, we spoke to Co-founders of Split Banana, Anna Alexander and Matilda Lawrence-Jubb, who are delivering interactive sex and relationship education programmes in UK schools that are inclusive, fun and relevant.

 In a nutshell, could you describe what Split Banana do?

Split Banana delivers inclusive and relevant sex and relationship education programmes in schools. We develop students’ empathy, self-awareness and communication skills to enable them to have healthy relationships with their minds, their bodies and each other.

You use an art based approach – why is that?

As well as encouraging reflection, expression and communication, we know that students find it less embarrassing to learn while making. Less embarrassment equals better engagement. As an example, we asked students from a recent programme to make postcards to be delivered to school leadership representing topics that they think should be taught in sex and relationship education.

Sex is pretty much inseparable from relationships; you need trust, open communication, empathy and respect. People aren’t born with these skills – they must be nurtured and developed.

Why is good quality and comprehensive sex education so important?

In the UK, for an incredibly long time sex education was confined to biology classes on reproduction, and if you were lucky, guidance on how to avoid disease and pregnancy. Sadly, this is still the level of sex-ed that many young people receive.

Done well, sex education can help us to be more self-aware and socially aware. It can enable us to reflect on what intimacy means and how it can be different things to different people. It can validate relationships and identities that we might not see in our own social circles. It can allow us to understand our own bodies better. It can teach us how to communicate our thoughts and feelings, and the importance of listening to others. It can build empathy.

You don’t just focus on sex education, but also on relationships. Why are relationship skills so important?

Sex is pretty much inseparable from relationships; you need trust, open communication, empathy and respect. People aren’t born with these skills – they must be nurtured and developed.

Lots of students we teach don’t practise sex outside of marriage, so it’s important to not make sex the be all and end all, but instead to focus on the value of emotional intimacy, which is relevant to everyone.

You also focus on mental health. Could you explain a bit about the link between sexual wellbeing and mental health?

A lack of sex and relationship education can massively affect your mental health. Lack of education about sexuality, LGBTQ+, body image, unhealthy behaviours, respect, and consent has left most people vulnerable to negative and harmful experiences of sex and relationships.

When teaching the social and emotional learning needed within relationships, we are reinforcing skills such as communication, self-awareness, self-expression and the importance of self-care. Sex and relationship education, when done well, is also a space which de-stigmatises people and their experiences, inclusive of mental health.

What sparked your inspiration to start Split Banana?

Although conversations around sex and relationships appear to be becoming more open and nuanced within our society, we were shocked to realise how little these conversations had moved on in schools.

We decided to found Split Banana to explore what truly excellent sex and relationship education could look like.

 Sex education is only being made compulsory as of 2020 in secondary schools, but under these new regulations, primary schools do not have to teach it. What are your thoughts about that?

We think that the earlier you have conversations about sex and relationships, the better. Relationship education will become mandatory for primary schools from 2020, but I think there is an anxiety about ‘too much, too soon’.

In a time where children are being given smartphones at age 11, (and typically the age where exposure to explicit images occurs), the sooner a child can get to grips with what’s healthy vs. unhealthy, the safer and better equipped for healthy relationships they’ll be.

How do you make sure your sex education sessions are inclusive?

We run “What I Wish I’d Known” co-creation workshops with young adults, to identify existing knowledge gaps. We also experiment with which approaches work best, and reflect on how and where problematic narratives begin to take root.

We run these groups with people and communities whose voices have been missing from traditional sex and relationship education, such as LGBTQI+ groups and people of colour. This helps us to place our workshops within a wider social context, and informs how we can use our work to promote larger systemic change. We are also working with interfaith organisations to understand how we can serve their communities with respect and sensitivity.

What has the response from your sessions been like?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. 93% of students think our workshops should be delivered, and some of their personal highlights have been: ‘listening to how others feel’, ‘learning about what makes relationships unhealthy’, ‘finding out about consent’,knowing it’s ok to cry’ and ‘the arty bits’.

You can find out more about Split Banana at splitbanana.co.uk

 

Sexual self-care means communication

One thing is clear; sexual self-care starts with creating more open and inclusive dialogues, and Ferly and Split Banana have found a way to do just that. By breaking down topics that are considered ‘taboo’, and providing a basis for healthy and safe ideologies, people are encouraged to make positive choices and feel empowered around sex and relationships.

Find out more about Ferly

Find out more about Split Banana