I heaved a sigh of relief when it was announced that sex and relationship education was to be made compulsory in schools. But before we start, let’s take a look at what they’re learning.
I present to you two pamphlets: ‘4 Boys’ and ‘4 Girls’ – these were originally published in 2004, but are still distributed to schools and colleges today. They claim to be a ‘below the belt’ or ‘below the bra’ guide to male and female bodies and health, but also discuss sex and relationships.
The aim of these leaflets is to dispel any misconceptions children and teenagers have about their bodies and their sexual health, but they reflect a few of the more troubling aspects of sex and relationship education. Here are a few old fashioned ideas that kids are still learning in the classroom.
Men have penises, women have vaginas
There’s a big problem with how we gender our sex education lessons and materials; not only does it mean that you only get half the story, but it perpetuates the idea that sex determines gender. Lessons that reinforce this idea continue to stigmatise trans folk who receive little to no guidance about their gender identity, and justifies negative feelings towards them from cisgender children.
When you establish cisgender as ‘normal’, you label transgender as ‘abnormal’. Trans children and teenagers already feel marginalised in their classrooms, and unfortunately these leaflets continue to erase their existence entirely. This leads to transphobic bullying, assault and violence.
Most people are straight
On sexuality, the ‘4 Boys’ leaflet leads with, ‘Getting an erection when you’re around other boys doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gay.’ The ‘4 Girls’ leaflet starts with, ‘Having a crush on someone of the same sex is very common and doesn’t mean you’re gay.’ Unfortunately, this reflects the way that sexuality is discussed in the classroom.
These statements are obviously intended to be reassuring to someone who is questioning their sexuality. But by attempting to negate feelings of attraction and arousal towards the same sex, they inadvertently idealise heterosexuality and demonise everything else. The subtext being, ‘’Fancy someone other than the opposite gender? Don’t panic! You’re probably still straight!’’
Boys want sex, girls tolerate sex
The leaflets talk about sexual pleasure and masturbation very differently. One claims, ‘I want to have sex, but my partner doesn’t…’, the other, ‘My boyfriend says I’m frigid because I don’t want to have sex.’ No prizes for guessing which is which. Similarly, the ‘4 Boys’ leaflet has two pages dedicated to masturbation. The ‘4 Girls’ page has a third of a page.
The idea that boys constantly desire sex and that girls should ‘lie back and think of England’ is insulting. It downgrades the importance of female pleasure during sex, and reinforces the idea that men should be erect and ready at a moment’s notice.
Virginity. It’s definitely a thing
Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of virginity in the ‘4 Boys’ material. ‘4 Girls’ claims that, ‘You are a virgin until you have sex.’ Virginity is a heteronormative concept, which is used to shame and pressure people of any gender if they aren’t having sex and if they are having sex.
The problem with teaching children about virginity is that it doesn’t make any sense. The idea that you will lose a part of yourself once you penetrate a vagina with your penis, or your vagina is penetrated by a penis is completely absurd. And sex isn’t just penis in a vagina – just fyi.
Girls worry about how they look and feel. Boys don’t
The ‘4 Girls’ leaflet dedicates two pages to weight issues, body image and anxiety around how you look. ‘4 Boys’ has just one, and promises that during sexual development, ‘You get taller and more muscular. Your shoulders widen.’
There’s no doubt that society and the media critique cis female bodies more than cis male bodies. But body image, eating disorders and emotional changes affect men and women. The’4 Boys’ leaflet literally trails off when they start to talk about emotions, ‘But there are others, emotional as well as physical…’. I guess they’ll have to work through those emotional changes on their own.
We need to introduce sex-positive sex education. That means talking to children about how to have healthy sexual relationships, awkward and uncomfortable as it may be, before they start using pornography as a guide. We have got to stop viewing LGBT folk as other, stop assuming everyone in that classroom is straight and start talking about consent.
We have to provide sex education lessons and materials that reflect our society today, not reinforce the impression we had of sexuality and gender ten years ago. Transphobia, homophobia and sexism aren’t ingrained, they’re all learned behaviours. It’s about time we taught something different.
Rebecca Harrison studied English at the University of Leicester, and Media and Journalism at Newcastle University. She is an advocate for sex-positive SRE, LGBT rights and mental health awareness. In her spare time, she volunteers with the NSPCC, reads psychological thrillers and bakes inordinate amounts of peanut butter cookies. She takes her tea with the teabag left in.