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3 September 2013

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.

By 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.

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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.

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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).