We Need to Talk About Sex (Education)

By Amber Wilson and Kaammini Chanrai

Originally delivered as a speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Brent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

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We need to talk about sex. Well actually, we need to talk about relationships and sex.

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Consent workshops were recently introduced in universities around the country. However, one particular university student didn’t see their value. Holding up a sign stating ‘This is not what a rapist looks like’, George Lawlor publicly refused to attend. He found the invitation an insult, arguing that the seminars would be “a waste of time” and that no new information would be learnt. Yet, an astounding number of myths continue to surround the concept of consent, such as references to a grey area and references to victim blaming.

Clearly, we are not the only ones that need to talk about sex and relationships.

However, comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education is still not statutory across British schools. At most schools, some topics are compulsory from the age of eleven, such as reproduction and sexually transmitted infections. However, discussions on consent, healthy relationships and online safety are often missed out entirely. With nearly half a million cases of sexual assault every year, decreased funding to domestic violence services and an influx of online abuse, we must ask ourselves: are we really doing enough to teach young people about sex and relationships?

So, what is Sex and Relationships Education?

Sex and Relationships Education, or SRE, teaches the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up. Although SRE includes lessons on sex, sexuality and sexual health, it is not limited to this. SRE gives young people essential skills for building positive, respectful and non-exploitative relationships and staying safe both on- and offline.

So, why is SRE so important?

Although it’s not mandatory to teach SRE, we definitely have a legal obligation to protect children from harm. Ofsted found that SRE is inadequate in nearly half of schools and that this leaves children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. An estimated one in twenty secondary school children have been sexually assaulted and sadly, most of these cases go unreported. Children need to be taught how to recognise this abuse. Too many children don’t even know the official names of genitals let alone how to report when somebody is taking advantage of their body.

In the wake of several scandals, child sexual exploitation and grooming have become a national priority for social services. What we have learnt from high profile cases is that, too often, vulnerable young people have been groomed to expect that a Happy Meal deserves a “happy ending” for the person buying. Consent requires choice and the freedom and capacity to make that choice. This is not just about the grooming and abuse of children. The demand for university consent workshops arose because young adults feel they are leaving school without having properly addressed the issue of consent. Statements like “well, she seemed up for it” can no longer be tolerated.

Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. It’s widely reported that when pupils receive lessons on sex, consent and relationships, their first sexual activity is likely to occur later, and is more likely to be safe and consensual. Effective SRE can also lower rates of STIs, teenage pregnancy and abortion. Let’s take Finland for example. When SRE was made optional in 1994, Finland saw a fall in the use of contraception and a 50% increase in teenage pregnancy. SRE has since been reintroduced. It is careless that we continue to ignore these tangible benefits that SRE can bring.

Teenagers are frequently involved in online sexual activity, often below the legal age of consent. The UK’s largest group of internet pornography consumers is 12-17 year olds. Yet, the last government guidance on SRE dates back to the year 2000, well before the rise of Facebook, Snapchat and Tinder and Grindr hook-ups. Considering these changes that we have seen to social networking, it is crucial that we provide proper education on online relationships and cyber-safety. Online bullying towards the LGBTQ+ community has also increased dramatically in recent years. The fact is that virtual relationships are being virtually ignored by the outdated SRE guidance.

Unsurprisingly, the lack of comprehensive and consistent SRE in schools disproportionately affects women and girls. SRE would include teaching on healthy, equal relationships and violence against women and girls, including topics such as Female Genital Mutilation, domestic violence and sexual abuse. This surely lies at the heart of a society based on gender equality and human rights. As women, we are told how to keep ourselves out of danger. But shouldn’t we be teaching the next generation not to perpetrate violence rather than just how to avoid it? Prevent isn’t cure. The economic cost alone of violence against women and girls in the UK is over £40 billion a year. And what of the human cost? Two women are killed by domestic violence every week. This is frankly unacceptable.

We would like to see a compulsory, age-appropriate programme of SRE on curricula across all primary and secondary schools. If SRE were statutory, the material would gain legitimacy and consistency, and teachers would feel more confident and supported teaching the subject. This would also mean increased funding and resources, better teacher-training as well as specialist teachers. While there is of course a financial implication of implementing SRE nation-wide, future benefits would definitely outweigh any short-term costs.

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George Lawlor has not been alone in arguing that consent workshops are a waste of time. However, different reasons have been given for this. Introducing consent classes at university is too little, too late. These lessons need to be embedded from childhood. Otherwise, we are complicit in the exploitation of children, we fail to prevent violence against women and girls, and we undermine the opportunity for both women and men to have happy and healthy relationships. Enough is enough.

A call by MPs to make Sex and Relationships Education compulsory in all schools was rejected by Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, earlier this month. This decision has been widely criticised by students, teachers and parents.

Why We Need to Stop Condemning Cosmetic Surgery

By Malene Bratlie

The last couple of years has not been so bad for feminism. Yes, we do still experience sexism, we are still paid unequally based on our sexual differences, and our nipples are still heavily sexually loaded despite our will but, at least, we are heading in a direction of conversations and debates on how to create a society that is equal for all genders. But if we ever are to reach that point, we need to unpick all those aspects that underpin gender inequality, why they still exist and how they can cease to exist.

One of those aspects is that of putting women into fixed categories. I like to think that we have grown towards a more nuanced understanding of women’s personalities and that there is little need to put us into categories. And in many cases we have, but when it comes to female celebrities, categorisation does happen.

It is especially so in the case of female celebrities who fall into the category of ‘sex symbols’. Though not all of them, there seems to be a subcategory of female sex symbols which is relatively rigid, shaped by aspects such as silicon breasts, blonde hair and plump lips.

Often these women are presented as slightly less intellectual and a bit too obsessed with their own looks. A very recent example of this is Norway’s top blogger Sophie Elise, a 21-one- year-old woman who has had two cosmetic surgeries including breast implants and nose job as well as Restylane injections in her lips. Almost immediately, the media and her readers put her in this category: a sex doll, only to be judged by her appearance and her ‘dumb’ statements. The moment she expressed her concerns for environmental issues, the dreadful treatment of circus animals and the prejudices towards refugees, she was ridiculed by the tabloid press and by media experts. She also flashed at an awards show recently to demonstrate how tired she was of solely being evaluated by her looks. It seems to be that when a woman succumbs to the pressure of ideal beauty, she is deprived of the right to discuss issues besides beauty and boobs, only to be seen through the lens of sexuality.  

In the latest issue of The Gentlewoman, Pamela Anderson follows in a similar vein of frustration. “People have a very fixed image of who I am and what I can do,” she said. One of the leading newspapers in Norway pointed out the irony of first having breast implants and then complaining about the immense body pressure women experience. However, what they did not point out is that the choice to undertake cosmetic surgery, at a very young and insecure age, is a choice very likely to be influenced by a patriarchal society that primarily focuses on women in terms of appearance.

What these concerned media experts fail to take into account is that a woman — cosmetic surgery or not — can actually be so nuanced and complex as to care about different things at once. Like we all do, we care about issues that affect us as a society, about the TV shows we watch and the conditioner we use. That doesn’t mean that the right to speak up about serious as well as shallow matters should be robbed from us. So why is it okay to do so in the case of these women? Is it because they chose to put themselves in the light of the media? Because they chose to go to more extreme lengths to meet a beauty ideal that we are being fed on a daily basis?

In the case of women who carry out operations to meet society’s ideal of beauty, we are quick to condemn. Is it because it is too uncomfortable to realise that it is not these women who create the pressure of ideal beauty, but rather, the patriarchal structures of society who so repeatedly tells us that we are evaluated first on how we look, and then for our intellect? Is it really so strange that in the midst of this pressure, some succumb to it, and let the wonders of cosmetic surgery revile the burden of never being pretty enough, or thin enough? What we need to condemn instead are these patriarchal structures that prevent a more diverse representation of women.

This issue is not a new one in feminist conversations. One way to tackle gender discrimination is to end objectification — an obvious goal on the feminist agenda. But we need to repeat this conversation again and again until we don’t have to fight for the choice of when we can be empowered by our sexuality and when we can be empowered by our intellect. Even though feminists (and everyone else for that matter) have a responsibility to dismantle and challenge the idealistic conception of beauty, we must also keep in mind that when women choose to have cosmetic surgery it is not them we should try to change, but the decisions of a media industry who consistently feeds us with a homogenous picture of ideal beauty.

Do Civil Partnerships Have a Future?

By Hannah Bacon

December marked the 10th anniversary of the introduction of civil partnerships in England and Wales. But do they have a future? Can we even tell after such a short time?

Current legal recognition for relationships in the UK is a bit of a muddle. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was created separately to existing marriage legislation, rather than simply amending existing marriage law to make it gender neutral. Certain grounds for divorce in marriage law, such as ‘suffering from a venereal disease in a communicable form’ and adultery, are not present in civil partnership law. Plus, changes to new marriage certificates are being proposed in an effort to include mothers’ names in addition to fathers’, something that civil partnerships included right from the outset.

Despite campaigns led by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation, there remains strong opposition to giving couples more choice. The Prime Minister opposes opening up civil partnerships to different-gender couples because of concerns about ‘undermining the sanctity of marriage’, an uncomfortably familiar phrase that does not promise equal treatment and respect for choice. Equality is precisely the reason why many couples wish to have the option of committing to each other without being married. Holly Baxter is put off by a ‘long history of women-as-chattel’ and considers that the ‘Labour [government]…accidentally made something genuinely worth having.’

A not very widely publicised consultation was undertaken by the coalition government in 2014, the results of which were inconclusive: ‘Given the lack of consensus on the way forward for civil partnership, the Government will not be making any changes.’ While it makes sense not to charge ahead with changes until they have been thought through properly, the reluctance to get around the table again to try to find a solution sends a glaring message.

This message seems to be that civil partnerships were never intended to be a proper equivalent to marriage in the first place. The report shows that 76% of respondents were against opening up the option of civil partnerships to different-gender couples, many of whom stated that their reason was tied to civil partnerships being inferior to marriage. As part of the consultation, Christian Concern expressed a worry about ‘greater instability within families’ if fewer different-gender couples opt for marriage. Perhaps it is worth questioning whether it is realistic or desirable to expect one size to fit all.

Encouragement to convert civil partnerships into marriage was relatively forthcoming, at the end of 2014, with some even (tellingly) referring to it as an “upgrade”. If we consider the language used when this is discussed, mention of ‘full marriage’ crops up quite a lot, both in the media and in everyday conversation, suggesting that even after a number of years of trying, a civil partnership just does not carry the same weight. Friends of mine were excited to learn in 2014 that I could now be ‘fully married’ if I wanted to, not because they would show a difference in respect for my relationship, but because it is very deeply ingrained idea that it is best to be married.

It is essential to remember, however, that many couples rejoiced at the opportunity to “convert”, particularly for those who grew up during a time where homosexuality was illegal. For Percy Steven and Roger Lockyer, being declared “husband and husband” was an emotional moment that they never expected to come, describing it as ‘really rather lovely’ to be ‘married at last’. Despite little change in practical legal status, emotional status is perhaps even more important, ‘To me, it feels like reaching the top.’ Like it or not, marriage does still seem to be the “gold standard”, and the power of social approval cannot be underestimated.

As a gay 15 year old, hearing that the UK considered my future potential relationships to mean something, lessened a fear of being misunderstood or treated badly. I remember listening to the radio on the way to school in winter 2005, and hearing the announcement that same-gender relationships were soon to be legally recognised. It gave me confidence. It gave me a starting point for beginning to be honest about who I was. The white dress did not matter, but the possibility that society thought I was okay definitely did. The idea that maybe, just maybe, I would be treated the same as everyone else, lifted a significant weight from me.

Now 10 years later, I am not as fussed about being like everyone else. I now strongly believe in not needing to be the same in order to be equal, and have learned to go my own way, even if it does not comply with what is expected of me. But it can take a long time to get to that point, and I do not believe that anyone truly does not care what others think of them.

Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Making fewer judgements about how others’ relationships should be conducted is the way to go, and perhaps civil partnerships have the ability to offer us this in a way that traditional marriage does not. Last year, a Conservative peer argued for siblings to be able to ‘ease the burden of inheritance tax’ by entering into civil partnerships. Opposition to his beliefs included the statement that ‘civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union.’ One can see where this idea came from. The initial attempt to sell the idea of civil partnerships to same-gender couples was based on making it as similar to marriage as possible without having to call it marriage.

But what if we decided to apply the term ‘loving union’ more widely? Catherine and Ginda Utley are two sisters who have co-parented 22-year-old Livvy for her whole life, and simply wish for more security for their committed family. This is unobtainable for them because of the fact that siblings cannot form legal partnerships. Marriage is perhaps more difficult to change, given that it is much older and more tied with tradition in people’s minds. Opening up civil partnerships, however, could be a fabulous opportunity to recognise the many different ways in which people form loving and committed connections outside of romantic and sexual relationships.

Looking deeper into the nuances of human interaction can encourage us to question why we will formally recognise some relationships but not others. Queerplatonic relationships, for example, question why romantic and/or sexual relationships must always be prioritised over others, and attempt to create a space for individuals to determine their commitments and feelings for themselves. Some are prone to asking, “When will it stop?” but perhaps the question should be, “Should it stop?” Why not celebrate the wonderful diversity of human relationships in its entirety, and allow people to define their lives on their own terms?

This is also potentially an argument for getting rid of the need for state recognition of relationships altogether. Being legally bound to someone should not be needed for a human connection to be considered legitimate in the first place. Some are totally against entering into any legal partnership, due to beliefs about its outdatedness and irrelevance in today’s society. In an ideal world, perhaps, we would not need to prove the acceptability of our feelings for one another. Further, we would not require legal formalities for things like hospital visits and inheritance, but rather a culture of trust would be present, with no need to protect oneself. Further still, someone choosing to live a single life would not be penalised. In short, there would be respect afforded to a wider variety of people and lives.

Having said that, this is currently not the world we live in, and so it arguably remains very necessary for folks to be able to clearly state the nature of a relationship. An example of this is the fact that some couples wish to be in a secure position internationally. This could be due to factors such as: differing nationalities, deciding to relocate, or travelling together. So even if a couple feels that a civil partnership more closely matches their values concerning gender equality and modernity, they may still choose to enter into a marriage because of the universal recognition and respect afforded to that status.

Despite the fact that most countries in the world would not officially recognise two people of the same gender as married, the simplicity of phrases such as, “We are married,” or “She is my wife,” holds much power. The Irish campaign for marriage equality puts it as, ‘The word itself is a fundamental protection, conveying clearly that you and your life partner love each other…everyone understands that.’

Respecting individuals’ wishes in terms of relationships is vitally important, and arguably what this is all about. Formalising relationships remains significant for many, both in a legal and emotional sense. We just need to put some work into broadening our definition of what a “relationship” is, and perhaps we should keep civil partnerships around for another 10 years to see what else they can do for us.

A Thought on the Cologne Attacks

By Emily Morrison

The New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, which involved the sexual assault and robbery of women and girls, have become a game-changing factor in the European debate over asylum seekers and refugees.

Despite the fact that, five weeks after the event, many elements of the attacks remain unclear, the immediate aftermath saw almost instantaneous protests from far-right groups condemning the incidents and calling for a halt to all immigration.

In the UK, UKIP’s Nigel Farage spoke out saying that Germany’s welcoming of over 1 million refugees had been “the biggest post-war policy error of any European country.And in Cologne itself, the attacks were described by one police chief as, “a new dimension of crime.”

But are these attacks, however awful, really anything new?

Arguably, many dimensions of the assaults are far from novel. Reactions to the crimes, from the seemingly indifferent attitude of the police — both at the time and in the aftermath — to victim blaming on the part of politicians and the stereotyping and ‘othering’ of the perpetrators, make them typical of society’s response to sexual violence. Even the scale and possible coordination of these attacks are not without precedent.

Throughout the EU, and indeed around the world, both reporting and conviction rates for sexual violence remain some of the lowest for any crime, in part due to inadequate response and support from the justice system.

Media portrayal of sexual violence is often similarly unhelpful. Skewed reporting often features a high level of victim-blaming, and a disproportionate coverage of crimes which involve immigrants or ethnic minorities as perpetrators.

Moreover, the implication that these are ‘new’ events suggests that sexual violence and harassment are an uncommon occurrence in Western society, which is — sadly — far from true.

In Germany, sexual harassment and violence are by no means isolated to these New Year’s Eve incidents. Sexual assaults on women during Oktoberfest, for example, are common but have received scant media coverage. And, across the EU, more than one in 10 women experience some form of sexual violence by an adult before they are 15, rising to 1 in 3 experiencing some form of sexual or physical violence from a man in their lifetime.

What is atypical, however, about the events in Cologne, is the fact that they have been reported on and in the public debate which they have sparked.

However, rather than opening a dialogue to question either institutional responses (or lack thereof), or the broader causes of sexual violence, these attacks have prompted a wave of harsh anti-immigration measures — ranging from possible deportation of criminals in Germany, to the unprecedented closing of borders and even the banning of male immigrants from swimming pools.

The reason, of course, is the culture and ethnicity of the alleged perpetrators.

The rhetoric surrounding these crimes has largely claimed that they are an “inevitable” consequence of “uncontrolled” immigration into Europe from people with a culture and norms that are fundamentally different to ours.

This is unsurprising in the current climate of widespread Islamophobia, in which ‘extremism’ has virtually become a synonym for Islam, and religious leaders and believers in Europe are called on to condemn acts by people to whom they have no affiliation, in countries thousands of miles away.

Even more typical is the way in which this important issue and abhorrent crime has been hijacked for political aims.

The irony that the leader of a party who refused to vote for measures to end VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), is protesting on an apparently feminist agenda in the wake of these attacks would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.

Similar tactics have been used throughout history. Protecting women has been used to justify many policies, from bombing Afghanistan in 2001 (while of course ignoring the treatment of women in a nation in neighbouring Saudi Arabia), to lynching in America in the 1930s.

Such an approach is not only hugely damaging for immigrants and refugees — the vast majority of whom will be law-abiding members of society — who will suffer the consequences of an immigration crackdown; it is also unhelpful, to say the least, in preventing sexual violence.

Affirming that sexual assaults are carried out only by a certain section of society, or can be avoided if women carry pepper spray or stay away from certain areas, implies that women can avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. We can make sure we are not drunk. We can avoid flirting with men. We can avoid going out alone. We can ban immigrants.

Moreover, this increasing polarisation of the immigration debate between those who want to close borders and those who want to be more welcoming, has hindered debate on the details of immigration.

While the vast majority of refugees will not commit crimes, it would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that many do come from countries with different gender norms and this is an issue which must be addressed to ensure integration.

So how can we address this? Countries such as Finland and Norway, who rank in the top 5 for integration of immigrants, offer courses in which they discuss and clarify differences in gender norms in their host countries. This is something that could, relatively easily, be included in language lessons for new immigrants. Arguably, such classes would be useful for society as a whole and could even be included as part of the broader school curriculum. This would hopefully lead to the change in different societies’ views of such crimes that the elimination of sexual violence requires.

Going forward, we must ensure that anti-immigration groups are not able to further exploit these awful attacks for their own aims. Indeed, the unprecedented focus and condemnation of sexual violence could yet provide an opportunity to open dialogue and change attitudes and opinions on sexual assault. This opportunity needs to be seized.

While this is by no means an easy task and requires investment and work, we should be encouraged by the start of a backlash against the hijacking of this issue. While the anti-immigrant protests in the wake of the Cologne attacks did attract 1,700 people, a feminist-organised counter-protest actually attracted similar numbers. And both feminist and immigrant groups in Germany and across Europe are becoming increasingly vocal in their support of refugees and their condemnation of violence. It’s too early to be confident about this correction in public mood but it’s some progress.