Teenagers already know about sex. Let's teach them what a relationship looks like

Sex and relationship education for young people has to be more than writing the names of a few STDs on a blackboard and hoping for the best. Honest sex education should help young people navigate the sex-saturated culture they live in.

What was your first experience of sex education? One of us went to a primary school (yes, primary school) that cut straight to the chase with a graphic gross-out video of a woman in the final stages of labour, before writing the names of the five most common STDs on a blackboard and sending a cohort of confused ten year olds home with little more than a colourful new vocabulary. The other sat through a particularly tactile lesson which involved blowing up condoms and smothering them in baby oil in the presence of a creepily delighted teacher, ostensibly to prove that the substance should never be used as lubricant. Both lessons seem to have a vague objective in mind, but really they contributed less to our overall sex education than your average copy of Just-17. The problem was that, in the nineties, frank discussion of the ins and outs (no pun intended) of sex and relationships was the unicorn of the education world.

Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests to us that the situation remains very much the same in the classrooms of 2013. Teachers all too often shy away from discussing issues surrounding relationship dynamics and safe, mutually pleasurable sexuality; instead, the symptoms of chlamydia are wearily reiterated before everyone goes on their merry way at 4pm and logs back in to PornHub. For those of us who might not have had the privilege of witnessing functional relationships at home, this can be especially damaging. From the pressure to "sext" peers and confusion over consent to the possibility of being trapped into a cycle of domestic abuse, a lack of honest and comprehensive PSHE can dramatically affect the lives of huge numbers of children.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the case of the Philpott family, which was notoriously summarised last week by the Daily Mail as a "vile product of Welfare UK". Elsewhere, accumulated information about the family from the court case began to show that Mick Philpott’s calculated plot to frame former partner Lisa Willis for a house fire was the culmination of years of domestic abuse, ranging from financial control to physical violence. As Willis attempted to end her association with Philpott, the outcome took a depressingly predictable turn for the course of violent relationships at their end: people died.

In the UK, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, usually during or just after a breakup. This is a statistic that has remained bleakly stable since the nineties, prompting the recent Home Office campaign "Is This Abuse?" to be rolled out across the UK. It was aimed predominantly at young people, and it struck a chord. With its simply worded website categorising classic methods of abuse, and adverts that depict an abusive situation between teenage partners then speak directly to both participants - "If you could see yourself, would you stop yourself?" for the abuser, and, "If you could see yourself, would you see abuse?" for the victim - the campaign was positively received by a number of domestic violence charities. Unfortunately, Michael Gove decided to drop an initiative earlier this year that would have made such sex and relationships education compulsory in schools, where most teenagers would be guaranteed to see it. Gove’s decision means that "Is This Abuse?" remains mainly relegated to occasional TV appearances and advertising space at the sides of certain websites. An unsurprising move, perhaps, for a man who once announced that "risky" sexual behaviour could be prevented by getting better grades in traditionally academic subjects.

For anyone who has witnessed, experienced, or worked with abusive relationships, the connection between these and history A Level grades may seem, at best, tenuous. To suggest that those who can quote The Merchant of Venice from memory will somehow then be imbued with the ability to magically avoid violent relationships and sexual pressure is both insulting and disturbing. These teenagers are not out-of-control caricatures engaging in "risky" behaviour because they haven’t got a sufficiently challenging maths assignment to complete. Instead, they have grown up amongst a plethora of easily accessible sexualised violence on their laptops; media coverage where rapists are often seen as "boys being boys" a la Steubenville; films that glamourise "bitch-slapping your boyfriend"; and fraternity members at Yale University, no less, whose idea of discussing consent was manifested in a group of young men holding up placards stating: "No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!" To then deny these teenagers access to frank discussion about sex and relationships in school is to be nothing more than deeply, fatally irresponsible.

Incorporating discussion about relationship dynamics into sex education would have benefited children such as those in the Philpott family the most. And the extent of such education shouldn’t stop at a list in a pamphlet; it shouldn’t be presented in the same style as that of the teacher who wrote "herpes" on the whiteboard next to "gonorrhea" and hoped for the best. Real lessons, with the requisite scheduling and government backing, must be delivered that delve into the reasons behind abuse and the ways in which to confront it. This is why turning "Is This Abuse?" and its message into an easily ignored commercial is almost as bad as doing away with the message entirely.

Back in 2011, one researcher for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Teenage Kicks said memorably that she kept coming up against the assertion among teenagers that certain abusive behaviour - such as "slut-shaming" on the internet, "back-handing" a girl if she refuses your advances, or passing your girlfriend around your friends for sexual favours - is "technically wrong, but normal", so hardly worth complaining about. This means that we have to encourage open discussion about abuse, and hold lessons and lectures and seminars about abuse, rather than hoping that any checklist will do the work for us. Identifying abuse is the start - but building relationship education properly into the national curriculum is the only way to seriously target a culture of ‘normal’ violence, assault and mistreatment that starts in the playground and escalates over a lifetime.

Without committing to compulsory lessons in sex and relationship education throughout the UK, we risk making experiences of domestic violence subject to another postcode lottery. And with the coalition cuts reportedly leading to hundreds of women being turned away from domestic violence refuges every week, none of us can afford to ignore that possibility.

 

We can do better than just writing "herpes" on a blackboard. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.