Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) has long been a contentious area of the school curriculum. In March 2013 the government reaffirmed SRE will be a non-compulsory part of a non-compulsory subject (PSHE). Against a background of “academisation” of state schooling, giving schools free rein to decide whether and how SRE should be taught is sustenance to those who want to shut down discussion in the classroom. It will be harder for educators and students to discuss topics outside the norm — e.g. diverse sexuality, non-reproductive and non-heterosexual sex, self-pleasure or sex outside marriage.
What can feminist educators do to intervene into the current moral/political climate? This was one starting point for Feminist Fightback* when starting our Feminist Sex and Relationship project in 2012.
So far the project has created two resources packs (aimed at primary and secondary students) for use in schools and youth groups. And on 13 February 2013 around 100 people attended our conference, “The S Word: a conversation about sex and relationship education”. A diverse range of workshops covering topics relevant to both younger and older people, involved both people with a specialist interest (educators and health workers) and others with a general interest in this subject.
This work came after the collective had spent some months organising a number of detailed discussions about SRE (some as workshops at feminist events). Participants discussed the pitfalls and inadequacies of the experience of SRE, both in school and in our adult lives.
We found our collective experience was largely characterised by scientific and medical approaches, e.g. human reproduction being learnt about alongside plant reproduction. Emotional aspects tended to be dealt with in negative terms – the emphasis on waiting until the “right time” and “saying no”, etc. leaves little space for young people to think about what to feel or do if they want to say yes!
We asked ourselves what can a feminist perspective bring to a critical, sex-and-relationship-positive concept of SRE? Our concern was that the “missing discourse of desire” in school-based SRE has particular consequences for young people.
For young women, already socially constituted as having lower levels of sexual desire and being able to experience sexual pleasure less easily than young men, an SRE which consists of little more than a quick review of periods and sanitary towels, will fail to empower or instil a sense of entitlement to sexual pleasure.
For young men, although SRE is more likely to provide a discourse of sexual desire (e.g. discussions about “wet dreams”), it offers them limited ways of understanding their sexuality. Dominant expressions of male sexuality which require young men to exercise power over women cannot be questioned or challenged.
And both young women and men will have a very limited exposure to alternative expressions of sexualities, including homosexuality.
SRE can act as a “balance” to information from peers, tv/ films, the internet and social media. Yet it cannot do this unless it supports young people to think critically about standard messages about sex.
The SRE packs we have created aim to offer educators practical tools and exercises for teaching about sex and relationships in an honest and positive way. They deal with relationships from an emotional perspective as well as a physical one, acknowledge diversity and individuality and enable open discussion of gender and sexualities. They help students to consider respect and consent in a way that is relevant to their own experiences. They provide activities and resources for teaching about the language, social myths and media messages surrounding sexuality.
These resources are not the “finished product”. We want to improve, expand and update them. We welcome suggestions, feedback and critical evaluations of their use.
The S-Word conference has taken the project to the next stage. Arising out of discussions there, we now plan an autonomous blog and facebook group for the project. We hope both can be a site for discussion, feedback about the use of the pace, the sharing of resources and perhaps in the future a “community” which can organise further events.
Copies of the pack, further information or to join our SRE discussion email list (medium traffic) please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Feminist Fightback is an anti-capitalist feminist collective. We believe that no single oppression can be challenged in isolation from all other forms of oppression that intersect with it. We welcome new people to our planning meetings which are open to all self-defining women. We involve all genders in our wider activities. We work on a non-hierarchical and consensus basis.