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