Ben Tooke is a Clinical Education and Wellbeing Specialist for Brook in London. He shares how he went from wanting to be a photographer to working in the field of sexual health, and why he’s grateful for all his experiences.
Working in sexual health wasn’t on my radar until my mid-twenties, prior to that I was intending to work in media photography and take photographs in the style of my heroes at the time (people like Dorothea Lange and Nan Goldin – do look them up). I got as far as completing a media and photography degree and picking up work with newspapers and photographers around London, but ultimately it fizzled out and I needed to pay the rent, so worked for the next few years mostly in university and charity admin roles.
The last university I worked at offered free courses to staff and I snapped up the opportunity to enrol on a MSc programme titled ‘Gender, Sexuality and Society’. It was a fantastic course and I was able to take modules from the school of law and study subjects such a human rights and consent. I met people in fascinating roles working for international NGOs, as dominatrix, and in domestic violence prevention.
Around this time I hit the classic postgraduate mid-twenties ‘what do I want to do with my life!?’ crisis. The one thing I was certain of was wanting to work in a job which wasn’t only staring at a computer all day. I was really excited by the MSc I was studying, however it was very academic and didn’t provide any practical skills.
Still with nothing certain in mind, I completed a Counselling Skills certificate and volunteered on a sexual assault helpline. I wanted a job that was dynamic, involved people and although it sounds clichéd, felt worthwhile. I applied and was offered a support job working for a homelessness organisation which I turned down, it didn’t seem quite the right fit, it was a bit too big and overwhelming for where I was at the time.
I’d accessed sexual health services myself over the years and felt a real sense of gratitude and admiration towards the people I’d seen who had listened and been kind when I was feeling vulnerable.
Something clicked and I decided that this was the field I wanted to work in.
I did some short courses in Health Promotion and volunteering work with the Chlamydia screening programme via Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), who I then went on to work for. THT is a large HIV and sexual health charity and my first paid role with them was in Brighton working in the Health Promotion team, mainly in community HIV testing.
It was around this time that the chem sex scene escalated and it seemed like overnight many of our clients were suddenly battling addiction. It was a somewhat of a baptism by fire, but also felt like the right place for me to be at that time.
My role became more about one-to-one interventions and behaviour change work, and I found that my counselling course and helpline work were invaluable!
A few years later I moved back to London – partly due to burn out from working such a challenging job – and over the next several years worked in various roles at THT, including working in training, HIV support groups, sexual health campaigns and clinical work.
My final role was managing a project called Positive Voices, which involved providing HIV awareness sessions to young people in schools, universities and youth clubs. It was an amazing project to work on but I was facilitating less of the face-to-face sessions myself and felt like my working life had become very desk heavy again. I was keen to get back to working directly with people. That’s when I spotted the role of Clinical Education and Wellbeing Specialist at Brook.
I had heard of Brook and knew the organisation had a very good reputation, I did more research when applying and was so impressed with the ethos, approach and combination of services offered. The interview was probably the nicest, least-scary interview I’ve ever had and I started in October 2019.
My role at Brook involves providing support with contraception, STI screening, termination referrals and wellbeing; which can mean everything from smoking cessation information to a counselling referral. In normal times it can be a very busy job. But during a client consultation I have to give that person the full focus of my attention and be totally present, which means I don’t get too caught up in the busyness.
There are so many things I enjoy about working in sexual health. There’s always something new to learn, medical advances are being made and our understanding of how to best support people with their wellbeing and mental health is getting better.
Fundamentally, I get to make what may be a difficult or worrying experience a bit easier for someone.
My route into sexual health wasn’t traditional, for instance via a clinical or nursing background, and I certainly treaded water for a long time while I figured it out. However, I’m thankful for all the experiences along the way. Academic study opened my eyes to inequalities and privilege; and the counselling course helped me to remember to listen more than I talk.
Colleagues at Brook come from so many different backgrounds with a huge range of experience and we all bring something different and special to our work.