New Clause 20: pros and cons of sex and relationships education

While I was getting the sex work debate posts together. this happened:

On 11 June, New Clause 20 – which would have made personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, including sex and relationships education (SRE), statutory in state schools – was defeated by 303 votes to 209

That’s from the Brook Charity’s website. Brook and the FPA  made submissions to the PSHE review, staring that sex and relationships education isn’t compulsory for all schools. Schools classed as academies don’t have to provide anything beyond teaching the biology of human reproduction and parents of children in all schools can opt to not allow their children to receive sex education.

 I don’t think it’s a bad idea for parents to remove kids from sex ed classes and teach them themselves, as long as the parents give a balanced education. (The problem of course is that some parents remove their children but provide no sex education). The sex education currently provided is (in my experience) heterosexist and inadequate with little to no teaching about rape, consent, victim blaming, BDSM, bisexuality/homosexuality, transgender issues and slut shaming. If parents can provide a more balanced sex education then I say go for it. I would certainly have benefited from being taught about these issues instead of having to piece it all together from my friends’ experiences and TV.

Back when I was at school the clause against promoting homosexuality was still in force. Sex was seen as something bad that, if you must do it, at least do it wearing a condom. I was never taught that pleasure was good or masturbation was empowering and we weren’t given tools to challenge stereotypes or the double standard or deal with sexual assault or transphobia.  Being taught about BDSM would have avoided the months of research in my university library to answer the question of why I am the way I am. Teaching about these issues can help to combat rape, domestic violence and homophobia.

This isn’t just about health – it’s about crime and keeping everyone safe. It makes sense to teach kids about respect instead of spending public money on prosecuting and jailing them for wife beating in years to come. And how does a teen know she’s committing a sexual assault if she forces a boy to do something she doesn’t even realise is sexual (such as a BDSM act?)

So we can all agree that better sex education is needed. Parents, teachers, pupils and the government all feel the same way. But Brook’s stance is notable because they don’t just want sex education – they’re for compulsory Sex and Relationships Education. SRE would teach about relationships and the emotional side of sex as well as consent, religious and secular views of sex, reasons to have or delay sex and pregnancy options.

I think this is great! It could contribute to less violence against women (and increased reporting of sexual assault), less homophobia, less coercive sex, etc. And given that (judging by the plots of books, TV and films our society produces) a lot of our problems stem from relationships and sexuality issues, teaching about relationships and the emotional side of sex seems like a good idea. But what if teachers glorify long-term relationships over casual sex and experimentation? Personally I support encouraging teens to experiment but even if you don’t agree with me, would you want your child to be subjected to repressive views?

Similarly, with teaching about religious attitudes to sex, there is scope for educators to force their own beliefs onto children in a way that the Brook Charity, FPA, government, parents and pupils wouldn’t expect. I would question whether it is necessary to teach children about religious (or secular) views of sex, as these views are widely known. It might be more helpful to teens to encourage them to develop their own ideas about sex.

When teaching about reasons to delay sex, there might also be chances for teachers to indoctrinate pupils with abstinence (In 2011 Nadine Dorries MP put forward to Bill to teach 13-16 year old girls abstinence in schools. The Bill was withdrawn after protests.) There’s no reason why abstinence shouldn’t be mentioned as part of SRE. But it shouldn’t be promoted over other lifestyles.

The solution to these concerns would be to include a clause which prohibits educators from promoting one sexuality or lifestyle over another. Another safeguard would be to ensure that teachers are heavily dependent on course materials with little scope for personal views and teaching methods. (In the USA sex “education” teaching methods include using a strip of sellotape to represent how a girl becomes dirty sand unlovable through having sex). This would also make SRE streamlined and uniform across Britain.

The submission doesn’t contain any mention of teaching about polyamory, whorephobia, slut shaming or transgender issues, which is a flaw.

SRE seems to be, in part, a reaction to teens learning about sex from online porn. Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has said that honest sex scenes in books will stop teens learning about sex from porn. What she appears to be saying is essentially that teens should learn SRE or sex education partly from teen fiction.

I don’t think that teens learning from porn is such a bad thing – it can be pleasurable, fun and aid in discovering one’s sexuality. Neither do I think that anything will stop teens viewing porn. The problem with porn is that it doesn’t teach teens about consent but I’m not sure that books always do that, either. I’ve seen some gender-stereotypical portrayals of sex in books – including Judy Blume’s Forever, which was banned because of its sex scenes. (I read it aged 16 and considered the portrayal of sex to be stereotypical, slightly negative and too mild to be interesting). Nor do I believe that (especially considering the violence and misogyny available through TV and the internet) any subject should be taboo for teen books. I agree with author Melvin Burgess, who is quoted in The Telegraph as saying that there should be “no actual limits” to the subjects covered in teenage fiction. And it’s difficult to see why sex should necessarily be presented as part of a “loving relationship” as Malorie Blackman is quoted as saying in the same article.

Which is why I disagree with this article in which Dr Brooke Magnanti claims her books (I’m assuming she means the Belle de Jour series and not The Sex Myth) are “certainly not for teens”. Sex work is a part of our society and has been for thousands of years. You can’t hide it from teens. What better way for teens to learn about the sex industry than firsthand from an actual sex worker? If more teens read the Belle books (and many probably have), it might improve our country’s whorephobia problem.

Another point that needs to be addressed with regard to SRE is what we actually mean when we start using concepts like the “emotional” side of sex. Does sex even have an emotional side? If so, does it have an emotional side for everybody? Is the emotional side – assuming that it even exists – important? Is sex inherently emotional or are sex and emotions two separate things? In a loving committed relationship, perhaps the emotions of love and the sex are unrelated to each other. It’s far from clear how sex and love operate and whether sex leads to love or love leads to sex; companionship and spending time together might be more instrumental in building relationships than the sex.

I think it would be good to teach girls how to pick up men and avoid getting dragged into relationships when they just want sex. But that’s outwith the scope of  education and besides, we don’t want a generation of brilliant PUAs competing with us for men in a few years, do we?

So the Brook Charity and FPA’s submission looks like the best way forward – though some focus on transgender issues, polyamory and BDSM is needed. In general, I believe that SRE should be compulsory in all schools. This SRE briefing by the Brook Charity and the FPA shows how inadequate current provision is. Many pupils leave school without having had any SRE at all which might put them at risk of STIs, coercion, exploitation and unplanned pregnancy. The next stage for New Clause 20 is the House of Lords. Hopefully it’ll go through and SRE will become compulsory in all schools.

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2 thoughts on “New Clause 20: pros and cons of sex and relationships education

  1. korhomme June 22, 2013 at 7:52 pm Reply

    What about the difference between “love” and “lust”?

    And a historical perspective on marriage: from breeding, wealth, property and (valid) male inheritance, through “dynastic and political alliances”, to “business contract” between partners, to the Victorian “ideal” and on to today’s “ideal” of romantic love.

    • Slutocrat June 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm Reply

      I’d agree that all that should be taught. Kids should know that definitions of marriage, love and relationships are fluid, culturally dependent and ever-changing. Our ideal of love and the Victorian ideal (and its controversial ideal of “higher relationships” which might not be sanctified by wedlock) would probably not exist without the Medieval idea of “courtly love”.

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