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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.