Should we be teaching boys to be feminist? That was the question raised by the shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper this week. Her answer, naturally, is a resounding “Yes.” And really, who could argue with that? Rod Liddle, possibly, but nobody in their right mind.
Cooper wrote that Labour was committed to introducing compulsory education in sex and relationships. Presumably she’s not talking about maintained schools, where they’re compulsory already, though only the biological part.
Academies and free schools can do what they like, and Cooper is recommending making sex and relationships education compulsory across the board, which is sensible and logical. Why should any school be exempt? She also wants to make sure our children know that violence in relationships is unacceptable. How depressing that this kind of thing has to be taught.
If Cooper is right about the current state of things, we have much work to do. Girls, she wrote, are “heckled if they dare to speak in class, their shirts forcibly undone, their skirts lifted and held by groups of boys”.
I don’t doubt that this sort of stuff goes go on, but I showed Cooper’s piece to my 13-year-old son, and he simply didn’t recognise the picture she painted of classrooms as misogynistic hell-holes. That’s not to say there’s no nastiness, but it’s clearly not universal.
My son’s sex education so far, at primary and secondary level, has been strictly biological. I don’t actually feel he needs any education about how to treat women, but then I don’t feel he needs any education about how to treat human beings. When, according to Labour, 21 per cent of rapists and more than a quarter of perpetrators of domestic violence are under 24, however, some young people clearly do.
Ofsted believe there’s something lacking in how we teach our children about sex and relationships. Last year they reported on a survey of PHSE education in 24 primaries and 12 secondaries (PHSE stands for personal, social, health and economic education).
They concluded that sex and relationships education required improvement in over a third of schools. In the primaries there’s too much emphasis on friendships and relationships, leaving children unprepared for puberty, while in secondaries it’s the reverse, with too much about on the mechanics of reproduction and too little about the surrounding issues.
Last month the Sex Education Forum said the current legislation was confusing, and allowed schools to avoid anything more than the basics. In particular, they said, pupils needed to be taught about the notion of consent.
And if internet porn is at least partly to blame, which Cooper believes it is, that needs to be tackled, too. David Cameron spoke a while back about internet servers being persuaded to make pornography an opt-in rather than opt-out function on computers. Nothing seemed to happen with that one, like so many of the ideas the government spouts. But parental controls are freely available, and parents need to use them.
There are encouraging signs, like the decline of the lads mag, suggesting that not all young men are intent on the objectification of women. But we still have idiots like Liddle to contend with – he says he runs a competitions on his blog every year to name the most stupid woman to have appeared on Newsnight in the preceding 12 months.
We still have gender-specific toys (perhaps we could make a start by banning the colour pink from toyshops). We still have torrents of woman-hating internet filth.
But we have to make a start somewhere, and the classroom is the best place, along with the living room and the kitchen. If we catch them when they’re young there may be a chance of producing a generation which prizes equality and respect.