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.