Sex and Relationships Education: What should it look like?

Feminist Fightback is working towards putting together some feminist Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) resources that can be used in secondary schools. We began a preliminary discussion considering our own experiences of SRE, and what we felt was missing. Our collective experience was mainly characterised by scientific and medical approaches. Anecdotes included human reproduction being learnt about alongside plant reproduction, and nurses coming in to run sessions about disease prevention. The emotional aspect tended to be dealt with in negative terms –the emphasis on waiting until the ‘right time’ and ‘saying no’, etc., made it all feel very scary, and left no avenue open for what to think, feel or do if someone wanted to say yes.

Overall, it was clear that provision was patchy – different people got different amounts of SRE at different levels, but all of us felt we were missing the same things: discussion of sexuality; relationships; non-reproductive, non-heterosexual sex; self-pleasure and, in some cases, any discussion of sex outside marriage. This chimes with the findings of the UK Youth Parliament’s survey of 20,000 young people (‘SRE: Are you getting it?’, 2007, London : UK Youth Parliament).

The neglect of pleasure in school-based SRE, or the ‘missing discourse of desire’ has particular consequences for young women. This is because they are already socially constructed as having lower levels of sexual desire and being able to experience sexual pleasure less easily than young men. The image of women as passive recipients of active male desires is reinforced through curricula that mean that girls are taken off to learn about periods and sanitary towels while boys are free to ask lots of questions about erections and wet dreams. Male orgasms are present in the curriculum, while female orgasms are not. In this way, SRE fails to convey a sense of empowerment and entitlement to sexual pleasure for young women. At the same time, for young men, although SRE is more likely to consider ideas around male sexual desire, it offers them limited ways of understanding their sexuality, as well as suggesting that male desire is almost uncontrollable. As dominant expressions of male sexuality require young men to exercise power over women, such discourses limit alternative expressions of male sexualities, including homosexuality. Nadine Dorries’ proposal will only compound these problems.

After all, SRE lessons are only one of the many sources that young people learn about sex and relationships with peers, TV/ films, the internet and social media playing a much more prominent role. Without addressing erotics, SRE cannot contest ideas of ‘erotica’ in mainstream pornography, which present women as objectsof male desire rather than subjects of their own. Surely schools should be supporting young people to think critically about these messages, challenging them, rather than imposing an agenda such as abstinence that would, in practice, work to reinforce them.

[callout title=What we would like to see, and what we are working towards…] A curriculum that: discusses sexuality and different kinds of relationships; considers the reasons why people choose to have sex; interrogates sex morality and taboos; confronts prejudices around female sexuality (e.g. the stud vs. slut dichotomy that motivated many young women to support the ‘slutwalk’ movement last year); provides opportunities for students to engage critically with societal myths and media messages about sexuality –including pornography. It should also allow space for young people to set the agenda, for example through the use of anonymous questions, responding to their concerns. Year 9 students in one teacher’s class asked the following questions in an anonymous ‘ask-it basket’:is pornographic sex the same as people when they’re in love?’; ‘is sex fun, cos my friend says its boring?’ [/callout]