One of my most vivid primary school memories is of sitting shamefacedly in a shocked Year 4 class, wondering whether I dared correct my fuming teacher.
She had just sent a boy to the headteacher's office for saying the word 'sex'. In a noisy classroom she assumed he was talking about the adult kind. In fact, he'd been referring to gender - a distinction we were too young to make at the time.
It would never have occurred to us to question the teacher's judgement in punishing a child for talking about sex. It was taken for granted that sex was inherently dirty; not something to talk about in polite company – or at all.
It’s perhaps not all that surprising that some might harbour a desire to prevent pupils from talking about sex when the pupils in question are eight years old, but this attitude remains pervasive throughout many young people’s education. A 2011 survey by Brook showed that 26 per cent of secondary school pupils receive no Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) at all.
This may be about to change; tomorrow MPs will vote on the Children and Families Bill. If it passes, Clause 20 will make SRE a statutory part of the National Curriculum. The Coalition for Consent, made up of groups such as the NUS, NSPCC, Everyday Sexism and Brook, is calling upon people to contact their MPs and urge them to vote in favour of Clause 20. Speaking about the bill, shadow home affairs minister and one of the proponents of the bill Stella Creasy said that “Sexual harassment, violence, and abuse affect millions of young people in Britain – that’s why we have to teach them not only about the biology of sex but to respect each other and have healthy relationships... Hoping schools will do this isn't good enough – it’s time to put consent on the curriculum.”
And not before time. Over the last few months, a series of high-profile sexual assaults have led to rape culture and victim blaming being discussed in mainstream media as never before, and research reveals pervasive myths about rape. A survey by sexual assault referral centre The Havens indicates that 41% of respondents aged 15-18 have been pressured into "some form of sex that they did not want", and only 43% would assume their partner did not want to have sex if they said 'no'. More recently, research carried out by Women’s Aid, Refuge and Avon showed that one in five 16-18 year olds questioned “did not think/were unsure if pressure from a partner to have sex or do other sexual things constituted domestic violence”. A similar number were equally unsure whether or not slapping counted as domestic violence.
When such damaging misconceptions are so widespread, surely educating young people about healthy sexual relationships is a matter of urgency. Not only is SRE currently not compulsory, but the Sex and Relationship Guidance issued in 2000 leaves much to be desired, and offers sparse reference to consent. In order for Clause 20 to be effective, there must be much stricter guidance defining the curriculum.
It is only in the four years since leaving school that I have come to realise how sparse the sex education I received was. ‘Wait until you’re ready’ became a recurring theme. 'Ready' implied being in a stable, long-term, heterosexual relationship at some point in the vague future. The notion that it is possible to have healthy sexual relationships outside of this context was not even entertained. We were taught to refuse sex if we didn't feel ready, but given no indication of what to do if we did. There was little discussion of positive, explicit consent and virtually no mention of it outside the context of losing virginity.
This presents teens with two conflicting narratives: one which states that they must always be sexually available; another telling them they must never be. With no middle ground, young people are forced to choose between sex that is wholesome, healthy, romantic and far-off; and sex that is immediate, irresponsible and riddled with risk. If it is implied that risk is taken as par for the course, then how much consideration will be given to consent by those who choose not to wait?
There is a temptation to try and protect young people by preventing them from talking about sex openly – to revert to the kind of knee-jerk reaction that treats the very word as an expletive. But let’s not get dragged into the tired argument that educating young people about sex encourages irresponsible behaviour. This merely suggests that there is no healthy alternative to being constantly objectified and constantly available. It also makes it difficult to define healthy sexual relationships and, by extension, to identify harmful ones. Teaching teenagers how to say 'no' to sex but not 'yes' merely places the onus of responsibility for consent on one partner. The effects of this have been well-documented, and lead to the kind of internalised misogyny that causes women to believe they are responsible for being assaulted. According to figures released in January, 85% of victims don’t report their rape; some felt it was “too trivial” to be worth reporting.
Let’s hope that MPs listen to their constituents and vote in favour of Clause 20 tomorrow. Unless we start taking SRE seriously, these statistics aren’t likely to change any time soon. There’s nothing trivial about that.