InFocus: Miriam Chappel, wellbeing officer, and Hannah Risser, SHAG Week convenor


How do you masturbate, how big is a clitoris, what is consent? Haven’t got a clue? Then SHAG Week is a must for you. Next week SHAG returns to St Andrews for a round of events dedicated to sexual health awareness and guidance. Even if you consider yourself a sexpert, there is always more you can know – there is probably more you should know as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise among students and a third of female undergrads across the UK report some form of sexual harassment.

But SHAG week is not all about what can go wrong in terms of sex. In fact, it’s pretty much all about what is fun and enriching, while seeking to cultivate mature and respectful behaviour.

The Saint met up with Miriam Chappell, the Students’ Association’s wellbeing officer, and Hannah Risser, the week’s convener. Their enthusiasm and dedication to the issue is obvious from the start as Ms Chappell offers an overview of the week’s aims and themes: “It’s basically about getting people to talk about and think about issues surrounding healthy relationships, sexual health like STIs, consent, gender, sexuality, a variation of all of these.” The goal is to “enable people to make their own decisions surrounding sex in an informed capacity, and hopefully to have fun as well.”

“It’s not just about sex,” Ms Risser adds, “it’s a sort of all-encompassing view; we’re trying to branch out with topics. There is a panel discussion on religion, culture and sex, with different religious advisers. We also have an event looking at what’s called a relationship: what are we looking for in a relationship that’s good, what are some warning signals, how do you work through a relationship, that kind of thing. Another one of our events is going to be focused on BDSM and how those relationships work, so it’s a wide variety of things and each one is its own little bubble, so you can have a taster of whatever you want.”

Events are manifold, ranging from myth-busting pub quizzes to contextual discussions, games, and “hands-on” workshops. “Each one is encapsulating an idea,” Ms Chappell explains.

Ms Risser describes the launch event, an open mike night which was held on Monday and aptly named after Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry and particularly, naturally, of the titillating kind. Students honoured Erato by performing their writings and songs on the themes of sex and love.

Other events are for the more adventurous kind, games such as blowing up a condom like a balloon and passing it between your elbows. Ms Chappell emphasises that “it’s important that [SHAG] is not seen as a really serious thing, that [sex] is something that you’re able to laugh about, something that you’re able to explore more comfortably.” Ms Risser explained that the main goal of the week is to “get people comfortable and if you are more comfortable with [sex], you’re going to make better decisions, you’re going to be more comfortable asking questions and getting information and the more information you have, the better off you’re going to be.”

The week will finish off with the rainbow bop, run by the LGBT Society.

The events, it seems, are thought through with care and wit, yet marked by the organisers’ awareness of having a responsibility to educate in the most relaxed but equally most sensitive way.

The main goal, Ms Chappell and Ms Risser reiterate, is to raise awareness and increase confidence by breaking taboos around received opinions on sex. “It’s sort of a weird dichotomy,” Ms Risser muses, “because here in university everybody wants to have sex, but is also afraid to talk about it. Especially with the sex, religion, and culture event we’re going to bring people a lot of different ideas. I feel sometimes people sort of get stuck in their own little bubble and think: ‘This is how I view sex, this is how everyone views sex.’”

SHAG week is careful not to advocate any specific behaviour other than a safe and responsible one, as Ms Risser says: “Hopefully we can open and broaden our horizons and.

We’re not telling people ‘Go out, have more sex!’ or ‘Don’t have sex.’ – it’s just that if you are going to do x, y, or z, here’s the information so that you can do it, so that you’re happy and your partner is happy.”

Ms Chappell brings the conversation back to sex at university: “I think there’s a lot of pressure in both directions at university, particularly for women, to either have a lot of sex, or in other contexts to not have any at all. […] The key thing about it is saying ‘it’s your decision’.”

“Maybe in high school [people] were really unable to speak about these topics,” Ms Chappell proposes, followed by Ms Risser: “People aren’t as picky here, people aren’t as judgy, there aren’t as many cliques as in high school. People have got that out of their system by the time they come here. I feel like it’s a lot more of an inclusive environment where you can be a little bit more anonymous.” We laugh as she corrects herself: “I mean, St Andrews isn’t massive, but…” Gender issues also figure during SHAG in cooperation with the LBGT community: the What’s your Name workshop will, according to Ms Chappell, think about “different labels, whether these labels are something which is restraining or something which is fluid”.

SHAG week, it becomes clear, is addressing a wide-spread lack of sex education, stemming from causes such as a failure of school systems to provide information and teaching. “A lot of people who come to university have never had sex education and it’s surprising,” Ms Chappell wonders.

Ms Risser, who is also a committee member of the initiative Sexpression which delivers student-led teaching to secondary schools, remembers a pub quiz during Freshers’ Week: “We asked ‘what do you guys know?’ and they said ‘oh, I didn’t have sex education at school’ and that’s really troublesome because you have to get it from some other sources and those other sources aren’t necessarily going to be reliable. Getting information from your friends is just hearsay, or you’re getting it from the internet which is worse, or you’re watching porn and getting very weird ideas about what sex is.”

“Hopefully, SHAG week can [fill] gaps in people’s knowledge because, you know, even if you’re 21, 22 years old, and you’ve had sex before, there is still a lot of things that you probably don’t know. I mean, I’m always learning new things: I remember when I found out the clitoris is the size of an aubergine, but because it goes inside, there’s only a little bit that sticks out.  So we’re always learning, and more important things than that.’

These “more important things” are, for instance, the Union’s on-going initiative Got Consent which has inserted itself into the SHAG week programme, offering workshops on the legal and ethical implications of the under-estimated complexity of consensual sex. Ms Risser explains: “It’s one of those things that people take for granted. People sort of think ‘oh, I understand what it means’ but there are more things to it: the workshop is really focussed on teaching people what consent is. [A] lot of the time people are assaulted from someone who doesn’t even know that they’re doing it, because they don’t understand what consent looks like.”

Ms Chappell reflects on relationships of some of her friends at high school which lie in a grey zone of consent. They seemed the order of the day then, but shock her now: “A lot of people will be coming from having experiences like that from high school, and may go on to have them at university, and it’s much harder to teach someone something if they’ve already learnt the opposite. There’s a lot to undo,” she summarises. Ms Risser closes in a combative spirit “What you’re used to doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. You can deserve better than what you have.”

Got Consent is part of a University wide initiative called StAnd Together which attempts to promote an attitude of support throughout the St Andrews community. Ms Risser illustrates: “If you’re on a night out and you see someone off the side, and you don’t know them, and it seems like a bad situation, [StAnd Together is about] having the gumption to go through and help that person out.”

SHAG week hopes to educate, but also to improve behaviour in terms of sexual health and making people aware of the contact points for confidential advice such as the sexual health clinic in Eden Court which is run by the NHS Fife and Student Services.

“We have a lot of different partnerships,” Ms Chappell says. “Sexpression are putting on an event about menstrual health. It’s on the ruby cup, the menstrual cup they’re trying to advertise.”

Ms Risser gives a spicy glimpse into further speakers: “One of the speakers we have is a dominatrix. She came last year and did a talk that was sort of ‘kink 101’ where she dispelled a lot of myths. This year, she is going to give some more information if anyone is interested in getting more into this BDSM stuff. And she’s going to teach us how to tie knots!”

More laughter follows this.

Laughter has punctuated most of our enjoyable and free talk, an environment of ease which the week wants to establish. The pair’s enthusiasm and conviction in the programme are contagious.

Ms Chappell continues: “People are getting hyped about it, and it’s riding off the wave of last year’s success. I think this year is probably bigger. We’ve got a lot more events and hopefully next year we can make that even bigger.”

The warm and welcoming atmosphere created during our chat hopefully sets the tone for the event as a whole.

Ms Risser ended our conversation with a passionate comparison between sex and food: “We want everybody having the best sex life you can possibly have! Say you live in some remote place and your only knowledge of what sex is, is that men and women have one type of sex, and just for kids.

“But what if they have a kink and they don’t know what it is, and they miss having an incredible sex life? It’s like being at a buffet except you can only see one kind of food,and you’re like, ‘well, I guess I have to eat this’ but there’s all these other types of food!”

What a delicious metaphor. SHAG week invites you to nibble on all these other kinds of food. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new favourite dish.


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