Content Warning: Rape, sexual assault, spiking, and nudity.

Kicking Off...

Arts education company Changing Relations launched the Let’s Talk About Sex project in Autumn 2021 to work with students from Bishop Auckland College, Durham University and The Northern School of Art.

The project supported students aged 17-24 to co-create and commission new artworks working with a range of creative practitioners and academics to address and challenge harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours. Participants have facilitated open conversations, resulting in increased knowledge, and healthy intimate relationships.

A Student Social Action Group was formed from the above institutions. Together with the artists, they created a zine packed with content to raise awareness; opening up a dialogue and encouraging social action to make positive change.

For information on how to get your own copy of the zine, contact

Content Warning: Rape, sexual assault, spiking, and nudity.

What's All the Fuss About?

The issue of harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours is widespread. In June 2021 Ofsted published a report about sexual harassment in school after thousands of anonymous testimonials were posted on Everyone’s Invited. According to the report, around 9 in 10 girls have experienced sexist name-calling or been sent unwanted explicit pictures or videos.

Most children and young people feel sex education does not give them the information and advice they need to navigate healthy relationships. These attitudes and behaviours themselves have been disturbingly normalised.

What is Rape Culture?

Definition: When attitudes, behaviours and beliefs in society have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence.

This culture includes misogyny, rape jokes, sexual harassment, online sexual abuse (upskirting, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos or messages, cyberflashing, etc.) and coercion. When behaviours such as these are normalised, this can act as a gateway to more extreme acts such as sexual assault and rape.

How to challenge it:

Talk to the person about their behaviour and what you or others expect.

Let them know if their behaviour is not appropriate - if they don't know, they cannot change it.

Encourage empathy. Let them know how the behaviour makes you feel.

Let other people know what strategies they can use.

Not All Relationships "Have" to be Sexual

People use the word “relationship” so much that it is often assumed to have one universal definition. Typically, when people talk about “being in a relationship,” the term is referencing a specific type of romantic relationship involving both emotional and physical intimacy, some level of ongoing commitment, and monogamy (i.e. romantic and sexual exclusivity).

The word ‘relationship’ encompasses a large variety of human connections both romantic and non-romantic. Different relationship types include: family relationships, friendships, acquaintanceships, and romantic relationships.

Other, more nuanced, types of relationships might include work relationships, teacher/student relationships, and community or group relationships.

Some of these relationships can overlap and coincide with one another—for example, two people can be both work colleagues and close friends. Students and young people have told us the education they receive from schools and parents is still often weighted on talking about romantic relationships and sexual or reproductive health. This can feel intimidating (and irrelevant) a lot of the time. Our students wanted less heteronormativity and called for more positive examples of relationships of all kinds being discussed, shared, and explored.

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Positive Relationship Stories

By GoodStrangeVibes


"Once, when I was going through a really difficult time, my relationship started to suffer. My boyfriend at the time struggled to understand why I was feeling the way I did because I wasn’t sure how to open up – it’s a problem I’ve always had because I was raised in the working-class mindset of ‘masculine body: masculine presentation’. My boyfriend sat me down one day and told me how he honestly felt, and how he felt I was pushing him away.

Nobody had ever been so calmly honest with me before, there was no anger or blame being apportioned, I could tell he was just worried about me and wanted to help. Talking with him really helped me open up and actually talk about my problems in a constructive way that I’d never even thought about. I wouldn’t have been able to accept or change the way I was feeling without his honesty, and it helped me be honest in return."


"It was just before the first Covid lockdown. I had travelled, spur of the moment, five hours by train to visit my best friend for the weekend. I hadn’t seen her in months, university having torn us apart, and I knew it would be a long time until I would be able to see her in person again. I was going through a tough time as it was, in addition to my crippling anxiety over public transportation, and seeing her on that platform, waiting with that charming smile of hers, and open arms... The first thing you need to know is that my best friend, she’s tall. I always feel dwarfed by her, even more than I normally do. Like a kitten beside a giraffe, in the best way.

The second thing you need to know is that I adore her. She’s been there for me since we first met, as I have been there for her. She was the first person I came out to. And I was hers. Every short trans masc needs a towering queen of a trans femme, and she is mine. As soon as I got off the train, she held me in her arms. It was a good few minutes before we parted. Her height always makes her embraces entirely consuming. Like a blanket. Warm and soft."

Personal Boundaries

"I am an asexual person. Unfortunately I’ve never had a positive relationship, even though there were probably good moments... most of the time it was pretty horrifically painful. But now I’ve been single for two and a half years, and very happily. I know who I am, and that does not include romantic relationships. In the spectrum of LGBTQIA people, the Asexual and Aromantic people often get left out. We don’t want or need a partner, and my relationship with myself is the best it’s ever been. I love who I am. I have friends, and I respect myself. I know exactly what my worth is now, and that’s the best relationship experience I could ever want or need. I know my boundaries, and no one will break them because I’m upfront about my identity. I am safe, I am happy, I am myself. I left my past and have been living my truth by the water with a sense of harmony."


"When I first had sex with my current partner we had a miscommunication and I ended up needing emergency contraception. I told them I’d pick some up the next day whilst they were at uni but they didnt want me go on my own (especially since I was new to the town) so they bunked off. They walked me to the pharmacy and bought me coffee after. We ran into some friends who asked why they weren't in their lecture and I panicked thinking they’d tell them what had happened or else be really awkward and make it super obvious but without missing a beat they made up an excuse so I wouldn’t get embarassed.

That probably seems like the obvious thing to do but we weren't dating at the time and I was genuinely touched that a virtual stranger would go out of their way to make me comfortable through an incredibly stressful morning. I was smitten from then on."


"I had a one night stand on Halloween very recently after getting my heartbroken by my long term boyfriend. At first, I felt I was doing something wrong throughout the night but he reassured me I’m free and single and deserve to be happy. This man made me the happiest I had been in years, more then my own boyfriend!

When we had sex it was strange as I’d only ever slept with my past boyfriend so it was different. But this man read my body and face knowing something was wrong. To which he sat back sweetly and asked me what I like. How I like to be kissed, touched and just loved in general. I’ve never felt so safe with someone I’d just met. It was magical."

Artwork by Beka Haytch commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Beka Haytch commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Having Autonomy is a Powerful Tool

In the data we collected from studies within this project, the observation of witnessing harmful attitudes and behaviours in other people or being aware it was happening (but not being directly affected), was common. Participants said the biggest changes needed to happen in other people and society. But can we only rely on other people to make positive change happen?

Autonomy, in its simplest sense, is about a person’s ability to act on his or her own values and interests. Relevant skills include the ability to reason, to appreciate different points of view, and to debate with others. To do these things, an autonomous person must have a sense of self-worth and self-respect. Self-knowledge is also important, including a well-developed understanding of what matters to them.

Some social circumstances can help us be more autonomous, and others can undermine our autonomy. To develop these abilities and attitudes, a person needs the opportunity to consider meaningful alternatives, both opportunities for action and ways of thinking about what matters.

This depends on dialogue between people: we often learn about ourselves through others’ responses, and it is easier to reconsider our values when we hear other people’s reasons and encounter other ways of looking at the world. By contrast, oppressive social attitudes, rigid social hierarchies, and lack of meaningful choices make it harder to develop autonomy and to act on our own interests and values.

To achieve positive healthy relationships of all kinds and make positive change, being open to improving yourself is important. Having a clear sense of who you are and what you are about can help you determine when other people are not meeting your needs and identify when relationships might not be healthy or positive.

Avoid becoming part of the crowd and take positive action instead of going along with what you see others doing to avoid conflict. An example might be witnessing someone being catcalled. If you use the power you have to make things better or worse for those involved, this is called ‘bystander intervention’.

How could you take action to challenge harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours?


"Switching the Narrative"

by Slutmouth A.K.A Bettie Hope

‘Switching The Narrative’ is an illustration created by artist Bettie Hope A.K.A Slutmouth. She is one of 5 artists commissioned by the project’s Student Social Action Group to create artworks in response to the theme of challenging harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours.

After widespread media coverage in Autumn 2021, the Home Affairs Committee issued a report on students and spiking. The report argued that there is a lack of awareness of both the definition and impact of spiking. They have since been urged to consider making spiking a criminal offence in and of itself, rather than leaving prosecutions to rely on tangential crimes such as an assault that may follow the spiking incident.

In a since deleted tweet, Durham University Student Wellbeing was criticised for tweeting #dontgetspiked, exposing a culture of victim blaming.

Using a pro-social model, students asked Slutmouth to switch the narrative from advising potential victims ‘how not to get spiked’ to instead, asking perpetrators’ ‘not to spike’ and calling out their harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours.

Reflecting on this artwork, Slutmouth said, ”I was absolutely thrilled to have been selected as one of the Artists for commission. The initial theme of the work was ‘spiking’. The main aim of the illustration I created was to change the narrative and the weight barred on women, people of colour and the 'LGBTQIA+' community on the actions they take to stay safe on a daily basis."

Smash the Patriarchy!

Sadly, being treated unfairly still often goes hand in hand with cultural and societal norms that impose expectations on how individuals should behave, based on their sex and gender roles. Better education and representation are needed to break down the gender norms, stereotypes and behaviours that impose outdated hierarchical attitudes that suggest men (or those who identify as male) are more powerful.

In a positive relationship you should feel like you are being treated fairly - what you are each ‘giving’ and ‘taking’ balances out. You may have heard people saying they wanted to be treated like equals. However, equity promotes for the individual and calls for fairness and respect.

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Whereas, equity recognises that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

Artworks by Eva Ludlow (2022)

Gender is a Spectrum

Gender is more about spectrum than categories. Gender critics including ‘essentialists’ and TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) believe that most gender differences are biologically driven.

But nature is less rigid and more nuanced. As women learn to assert, compete, excel, and confront, they are structurally challenging gender essentialism. And they are validating the gender constructionist argument that - despite inherent biological differences in the sexes - when it comes to gender performance, cultural and societal expectations play a significant role in our strengths and weaknesses.

This shift will also contribute to the dismantling of patriarchy and challenge the ideas of what it takes to thrive in today’s world. In the same way the women’s movement helped women break free from the limitations of their socialisation, men need support and guidance to break out of their gender box.

Artwork by Merny Wernz (2022)

Artwork by Merny Wernz (2022)

Today’s tools for success are different than in the past. The healthiest and strongest humans are not those who suppress their humanity to fit into one side of a gender binary. Instead, they are the individuals who burst out of idealised gender boxes and work to achieve their full humanity. By doing this, they deconstruct the old gender binary and patriarchal belief that feminine energy is weak (therefore women are inferior to men), and men exhibiting feminine energy—sensitivity, gentleness, and empathy—are weak as well. They embrace flexibility and fluidity, appropriately adapting to context in an interdependent world. To succeed and thrive, they strive to fully develop their physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual fitness.

James Mernagh A.K.A Merny Wernz

Informed by ideas and feedback from the Student Social Action Group, artist James ‘Merny’ Wernz created a series of illustrations which approach the topic of harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours in a tongue in cheek way which subverts traditional sex education material. Like most children and young people, our students felt their sex education did not give them the information and advice they need to navigate healthy relationships, telling us the education they receive from schools and parents is still often weighted on talking about romantic relationships and sexual or reproductive health. This can feel intimidating (and irrelevant) some of the time.

The resulting illustrations are intended to creative a more recognisable and inclusive portrait of young people navigating puberty and early sexual encounters, providing a starting point for open conversation and discussion around important matters that are often overlooked - particularly highlighting LGBTQIA+ visibility and challenging heteronormativity.

The three images in the ’Self Love’ series include: ‘Girl in The Mirror’, ‘Personal Reflection’ and ‘Me Time’. These are intended to invite discussion about body confidence and positivity, learning to accept and appreciate your body and all that it enables you to do.  This might be looking at, or exploring, your own body physically or sexually, or working on your mental health and emotional wellbeing to be able to accept yourself fully.

Safe Sex, Merny Wernz, (2022)

"If you can't talk about it, you shouldn't be doing it"

This artwork ‘Safe Sex’ pictures two girls playing out the confusion and comedy often shared in early sexual encounters, particularly when sex education is weighted on the heteronormativity with young people told being told to ‘use condoms’, 'wear protection’ and ‘practice safe sex’ to avoid unwanted pregnancy.

The penis and vulva diagrams are a reminder to use anatomical words to describe your genitals. As a young person once said, “if you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be doing it."

“I want to use my painty powers for forces of good and bring about more conversation and
understanding about the topic of sex and relationships. Hopefully, I can help people to have nicer experiences and take care of each other.” - Merny

Safe Sex, Merny Wernz, (2022)

Safe Sex, Merny Wernz, (2022)

"Boys Will Be Boys"

Toxic Masculinity teaches men and masculine folks that aggression and violence are key to solving problems, unless you want to appear weak, feminine or ‘like a girl’. It negatively impacts on men's mental health and wellbeing creating pressures and unrealistic expectations.

Toxic masculinity ideology also tends to treat both cisgender and trans women as sexual conquests, contributing to ongoing issues like rape culture. This refers to the tendency to remove blame from sexual assailants and place it on the victim.

The resulting violence can have far-reaching effects even on those who are not directly involved. In addition to creating more violence, this line of thinking also robs men of learning other, more effective, coping skills and communication techniques.

Boys will be boys might sound harmless when it comes to children in the playground, but it can evolve into excuses for violent behaviour or not respecting boundaries and microaggressions that can develop into violent behaviour.

This video by Changing Relations explores how perceived attitudes and personal experiences of gendered behaviour negatively impacts young people:

Social Exclusion

There are plenty of men folk who don’t display traits of toxic masculinity but still, these people might be impacted by those who do display those traits in the form of social exclusion, especially among children and teens. Those who don’t fit inside the masculine stereotype might find themselves ostracised because of it.

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Addressing Toxic Masculinity

There’s no single answer to addressing the problem of toxic masculinity. Doing so requires societal shifts around several things, including gender stereotypes and the stigma  surrounding mental health. 

There are a few things you can do to reduce the impact of toxic masculinity in both your own life and the lives of those around you: 

Be okay with acknowledging where you are in your journey. Everyone has a starting point. There’s no way to change or move forward if you can’t be honest about the things you want to alter. Don’t beat yourself up about past actions. Focus instead on where you currently stand and how you can move forward.  

Have tough conversations. Ask your friends (especially  those with gender identities and expressions that are different from yours) about their perspective on how you handle tough situations or your biases in relation to masculinity. Do your best not to get defensive, and really listen to how your actions have impacted others. You might be surprised that certain things you did or said came across differently from how you intended.  

Do the work. Above all, undoing toxic masculinity as a man or male-identifying person involves being true to yourself, not some false idea of the person you should be. Finding your true self is a process that takes time. A therapist can guide you through this process and help you alter unhelpful thinking patterns.  

Being comfortable with who you are, regardless of your gender identity and expression (or anyone else’s), is a step in the right direction. 

How to Define a Relationship

When it comes to dating, romantic relationships and sex, it's important for partners to be transparent about what type of relationship they want and to make sure they're on the same page.

Here are a few questions to ask each other, to define the relationship:

What do you want from this relationship? Something casual? Not sure yet?

Are you looking for a long term relationship?

Are there romantic feelings here? How often do you want to talk to, and see, each other?

While these questions may feel intimidating or too serious, choosing to avoid these questions means you are not communicating effectively. This could cause issues later in the relationship.

"Not talking about the terms of your relationship does not mean you don't have one". - Shadeen Francis (Sex Therapist)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)

Artwork by Sofia Barton commissioned by the Student Social Action Group. (2022)


Autonomy - The ability to make our own decisions, about our bodies or lives.
Assault - Any harm or threat of harm made to a person.
Bystander - A person who is present at an incident but does not take part or intervene.
Catcalling - Publicly harassing somebody in a sexually suggestive, threatening, or demeaning way.
Consent - Permission for something to happen - particularly regarding sexual or romantic contact.
Equity - Fairness and inclusiveness across society.
Equality - Treating everybody the same, regardless of need or circumstance.
Feminist - Someone who advocates for women's rights on the grounds of equality for the sexes.
Gender - A socially constructed interpretation of the characteristics of people, often (but not always) separated by a masculine-feminine binary.
Gender Roles - The role or behaviour learned by a person as appropriate to their gender, determined by the prevailing cultural conceptions.
Gender Norms - Ideas about how people of different genders should act.
Gender Essentialist - The belief that people are inherently different based on biological sex.
Harassment - Aggressive pressure or intimidation. Heteronormative - The idea that being heterosexual is the ‘normal’ way of being, and that other sexualities are deviations from that. Hierarchy - How members of society are ranked, according to social class and status.

Microaggressions - Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group.
Misogyny - Ingrained prejudice against women.
Monogamy - Having a relationship with only one person.
Pro-social - Behaviour which is positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.
Patriarchy - A system of society in which men hold the power and women are excluded from it.
Relationship - The way in which two or more people are connected, or the state of being connected.
Sex - The two main categories (male and female) into which living things are divided based on their reproductive functions.
Sex (ual Intercourse) - Sexual contact between individuals.
Sexuality - A person's identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are typically attracted.
TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) - A feminist who excludes the rights of transgender women from their advocacy of women's rights.
Upskirting - Taking a photo beneath somebody’s clothing without their permission.

Thank you!

We are grateful to everyone who has participated in and contributed to the Let's Talk About Sex project. The contents of the zine and digital exhibition are an incredible legacy to be proud of and a wonderful example of using creative participatory methods and co-creation to support social action and make positive change. 

A big thank you to our brilliant Student Social Action Group: Grace, Hannah, Josie, Josh, Leah, Katie, Niall and Sophie. Working together, they have used their passion and courage to help create exciting and challenging content. We hope this will create a new and behaviours calling to action and much needed change.  

We also want to thank our commissioned artists and everyone who has shared with us their experiences, both positive and negative, and acknowledge your bravery and honesty. This includes throughout our initial research phase and artist in residency programme, and in a public campaign asking people to submit stories and artworks sharing their positive experiences of relationships. 

Below is a sample of some of the work created by the Student Social Action Group in their own time. 

Paintings by Joshua Aaron

Paintings by Joshua Aaron

Photo of SSAG members at a meeting.

Photo of SSAG members at a meeting.

'Sex Toy Typeface' by Sophie Whitworth

'Sex Toy Typeface' by Sophie Whitworth

Love Your Vulva watercolour painting by Grace Nicholson.

Love Your Vulva watercolour painting by Grace Nicholson.

Item 1 of 7

Paintings by Joshua Aaron

Paintings by Joshua Aaron

Photo of SSAG members at a meeting.

Photo of SSAG members at a meeting.

'Sex Toy Typeface' by Sophie Whitworth

'Sex Toy Typeface' by Sophie Whitworth

Love Your Vulva watercolour painting by Grace Nicholson.

Love Your Vulva watercolour painting by Grace Nicholson.