The Telegraph needs a non-sexist approach to promoting sex-ed

Clare Perry's campaign for a porn filter might undermine her support for better sex ed, writes Zoe Margolis.

The Daily Telegraph has today announced a campaign for better sex education in schools. Fronted by Conservative MP Claire Perry, the Prime Minister’s advisor on children, who argues that sex education needs to challenge the “negative impact of online pornography”, the campaign’s objectives are to push for an overhaul of sex education in schools.

As an advocate of mandatory sex education and an ambassador for Brook the young people’s sexual health charity, I support any demands for improvement of sex education.

However, the problem is not porn, it’s the lack of consistent, decent sex and relationships education (SRE) in all schools. Ms Perry states: “…the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s changes to the national curriculum that aim to teach children from primary school upwards how to behave safely and responsibly in a digital world are so sensible and welcome.” It’s utterly insincere of Ms Perry to focus on the supposed threat of online pornography, whilst ignoring that her own party, the Conservatives, in June of this year, actually voted against making personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, including sex and relationships education (SRE), statutory in state schools.

The Department for Education states: “Our recent PSHE review found that the existing guidance offers a sound framework for sex and relationship education in school.” But by voting against Clause 20, which included teaching young people about consent – arguably the most important aspect of SRE – the government has shown that it does not take seriously the need to support young people, or help them make informed choices about their lives.

Given this, David Cameron and the Conservatives pushing for an internet "porn filter" to protect children is totally disingenuous; undermining sex education on the one hand, and limiting young people’s online access to information on the other is not just illogical, but actually harmful.

Of course sex education should be updated to include digital content, and I agree with the NSPCC that it is currently “woefully inadequate”, but we can’t blame pornography for all the misinformation that young people receive: the damage has been done by the vacuum of inadequate, non-statutory SRE in schools and the blame lies squarely with the government.

Responsibility lies elsewhere too. It’s great that the Telegraph placed this story on the front page of the paper and website, where it could achieve maximum exposure, but positioning it in the "Women" section, and then in the sub-section "Sex" immediately ghettoises it and highlights a society-wide sexism and double-standard when it comes to issues of sex and also of children. It’s hard to imagine a "Men" section of the Telegraph (cue jokes that it’s everything bar the "Women" section) which has a sub-section titled "Sex" – and if it did, it would surely be tongue-in-cheek, given men and sex/sexuality are rarely taken seriously by the media; men often get painted as dirty, offensive or seedy when it comes to sex and are rarely seen to be interested in talking about it (as opposed to just doing it, which clearly women don’t partake in).

In addition, by consigning the campaign to the "Women" section (and not, say, "Education") it’s clear that when it comes to any issues involving children (sex education in schools), it’s always assumed that the default interest will be from "mothers" as opposed to "fathers", or even "parents". This is insulting to both men and women and shows just how accepted these sexist gender norms are. But, more importantly, it undermines this particular campaign as a "women’s" issue – because, hey, men don’t really care about sex, right? And if the issue involves kids? Crikey, let’s steer clear of men entirely – and reinforces the disparity between what young people learn (inconsistent information, combined with falsehoods) and what they need to know (consistent informed guidance to help them navigate sex and relationships). We need equality in both the sex education content and also in how we advocate providing it. These things are important.

So, overall I do support the Telegraph’s aims of improving sex education but I would like to see a consistent, non-sexist approach to ensuring this happens. And whilst the Conservatives are bending over backwards to pay lip service on sex education, we can help young people right now, by sending them to this fantastic website (if they’ve not seen it already).

A bucket'o'condoms. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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