Thursday, 9 February 2017

LGBTQIA+ Sex and Relationships Education is NOT a radical left idea. Time to implement it.

"Young people end up in toxic unhealthy relationships because they can't communicate about sex- #SRE at year 11 is just too late". Lara Thornton-Berry. WEP Leeds SRE Panel, 8th February 2017.

Sex and Relationships education (SRE) should be an incredibly important part of the National Curriculum. I believe that SRE should be taught in primary school, from Key Stage 1 in an age, appropriate way, talking about love, family relationships, which areas of the body which shouldn't be touched etc. It's therefore very depressing for me to read that SRE provision remains sketchy at best and almost non-existent at its worst, despite the fact that all schools must provide a comprehensive policy on sex education. SRE may currently be mandatory after the age of 11 in comprehensive, state run schools (40% of schools) but these schools can decide on an individual basis what to teach beyond reproduction, taught in Science lessons. The advice provided by the Department of Education with a focus on self-esteem is outdated and does not reflect the impact of the Internet and Social Media on sex and relationships, having last been updated in 2000. That means secondary school students are still receiving pretty much the same advice I got as a 12 year old. When it comes to academies, free schools, faith schools or private schools, it's not compulsory at all. At the moment parents can opt to take their children out of SRE, which means that some students are leaving school with very little knowledge of sexual intercourse or contraception. That's bad enough.

SRE should not just be about learning which biological body part supposedly belongs to which sex or how to put a slippery Durex condom on a ripe banana to simulate an erect penis or about the act of sexual intercourse being the primary way to make a baby. It's not enough to learn about the mechanics behind sexual acts so as to try and allay the fears of first-time teenage nerves. Yet at times it seems that even SRE basics are not being taught effectively.

Teachers often get nervous when it comes to putting on a video showing real-life genitals, let alone talking about the act of "love making" in any great depth. Biology teachers have to teach reproduction to their students but I remember just being shown a 1/2 hour video and expecting to learn the rest from a textbook, answering exam style questions as I went along with the teacher looking to see if we were taking in the information properly. PSHE teachers (usually form tutors) try and focus on repeating the information received from Science lessons so as to not offend any student who may be tempted to go and tell tales on them to the Head of Year for broaching "inappropriate subjects". According to joint research undertaken by Durex, NAHT, NCPTA and NGA in 2010, 4 out of every 5 teachers said they did not feel sufficiently trained and confident in delivering SRE. No wonder there is such variation of the quality of SRE across the UK. Some faith schools do not even talk about access to decent contraception; for example free condoms that may be available from (GUM) sexual health clinics or the pill from about the age of 13 (which I believe should be available without prescription).

Very few teachers will mention the proliferation of sex aids that are available on the market even though some of their LGBTQIA+ students may have had access to them, especially dildos and vibrators. What's even more embarrassing is that there is very little conversation about same sex contact, little acknowledgement that having feelings about the boy next door are perfectly normal if you happen to be a boy too. According to Stonewall, more than half of gay young people haven't been taught anything about LGB issues and 85% aren't taught about the biological or physical aspects of same-sex relationships. That leads to a tentative reluctance by some students to see same- sex relationships and acts as perfectly healthy provided the relevant precautions are taken; for example, emphasising the fact that guys should wear condoms to reduce the risk of contracting HIV through penetrative sex.

LGBTQIA+ specific SRE would have a positive impact in classrooms. It's not a "radical leftie" idea to want to tell students that the feelings they may be experiencing are perfectly normal. It should be acceptable to be able to feel safe and secure in coming out in a school environment to friends. Being gay or lesbian or bisexual or pansexual isn't shameful nor illegal, so why should teachers feel the need to shy away from discussing coming out experiences in the classroom, even if it involves putting on a video or inviting LGB people into the classroom to help facilitate this? By allowing students to ask the difficult questions regarding sexuality to those who have been through a similar experience, it may help build their self-confidence. LGBTQIA+ SRE would also go some way to reducing homophobic or biphobic bullying; Stonewall reported in 2014 that 1 in 4 gay young people had experienced some form of cyberbullying and if that bullying is being done by their peers due to ignorance, it wouldn't be inappropriate to argue that SRE discussions are needed to reduce this figure. Teachers have to play their part in counteracting negative gendered and sexual stereotypes and encouraging a compassionate, tolerant approach in the classroom.

In fact, students should know that experiencing little or no sexual desire or appetite is perfectly normal too; asexuality has been relegated to the back of the Sex Education discussion for decades and I feel it's time to discuss it openly and honestly with students. My lack of knowledge about asexuality was one reason why I went and researched it for a blogpost way back in July 2016 (you can read it here: but please read first-hand accounts from ace creatives and people that you know; the more we empower people to speak about their experiences (including in an intersectional way), the better!

SRE is more than just talking about the mechanics of sex....

Students need to be fully away of UK legislation regarding consent and how it affects LGBTQIA relationships or sexual experiences. The Dare 2 Care Action plan, created by Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion states that "40% of child sex abuse is carried out by other (usually older) children or young people" and 39,813 sexual offences were recorded between April 2015 and March 2016, with a proportion of those offences having been committed by children or young people. This shows there is a need for comprehensive lessons on consent. I believe there is no excuse for a teenage boy to rape another teenage boy if they know that lack of oral consent or attempts to block the body means they are committing rape, whether that boy happened to have consumed alcohol, drugs or was mainly asleep whilst the act took place. Unwanted groping of the testicles or breasts is sexual assault; it's not "funny" to grope spontaneously. Kissing someone forcibly on the lips could be construed as assault and unwanted excessive sexting or mobile phone calls could be construed as stalking.  Rape or sexual assault can happen whether you happen to be in a relationship with the person or not; just because you may have consented 10 times previously does not mean that a person has licence to force themselves on your body in an attempt to coerce you into performing a sexual act. Saying "No", blocking elements of your body should indicate to your bf or gf or partner that you do not want to have sexual contact at that time and every student should learn how to read such signs to prevent themselves from getting into trouble. "Respect your partner by respecting their personal space. Do not assume anything" should be a slogan drummed into every pupil.

Students deserve to know that they have legal protections against those who want to harass them, stalk them, assault them or rape them. Students should know the basics behind the Sexual Offences Act, 2003 which states this: "Someone consents to vaginal, anal or oral penetration only if s/he agrees by choice to that penetration and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. Consent to sexual activity may be given to one sort of sexual activity but not another, vaginal but not anal sex or penetration with conditions, such as wearing a condom. Consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual activity and each time activity occurs." You can learn more about consent in the UK from this Crown Prosecution Service factsheet:

Students should know who they can contact to get advice and support if they become a victim of a predator or stalker, whether it be by talking to their teacher, parent, the police, the NSPCC or Childline. Also, students must also learn that such activities are unacceptable regardless of gender identity, sexuality, disability or religious faith. Some parents may be unwilling to deliver such advice because of their cultural background, which is why SRE dealing with consent legislation must be available to all secondary school students.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for teenagers to understand the difference between love and abuse. The Dare 2 Care Action plan identifies a startling statistic: 53% of children in schools have not learned how to recognise grooming or sexual exploitation. If grooming has occurred, either through online social media engagement or through physical interaction as a result of joining a particular group to undertake a leisure activity, a young person can form a deep emotional attachment to a predatory adult or peer which could result in sexual acts which could lead to pregnancy, sexual infections or forced alienation from their peer group through sustained emotional or physical abuse. SRE can help give students some helpful advice to stop themselves falling victim to groomers. This includes telling students to report any suspicious social media activity to their parents, the social media provider and/or the police at first occurrence and to report unwarranted behaviour to parents/ school teachers /leisure activity directors if an adult or peer is trying to pressure them into sexual activity.

SRE isn't just about teaching consent. Healthy relationship models should be actively promoted, including as mentioned earlier, allowing students to ask difficult questions regarding LGBTQIA+ based relationships, including talking about cohabitation, civil partnerships and same sex marriage. Trans and non-binary issues can be approached sensitively at Key Stage 3, with discussions about gender identity, gender stereotyping and why gender identity and sexuality are separate constructs. Students should know that being transgender doesn't automatically make you homosexual and that non-binary people have the choice to live an authentic life their way. Exploring the sociological, philosophical and psychological elements of relationships can help students to empathise with those different from themselves which is an important skill to develop to be employable, since intolerant attitudes can lead young people falling foul of the Equality Act.

Make LGBTQIA+ SRE Fully Accessible:

SRE must be delivered in an accessible, impartial manner. That means understanding potential nuances (differentiation) that need to be factored in to individual lesson plans. As Sophie Running mentioned yesterday at the SRE discussion with the WEP Leeds Branch, SRE must be taught to disabled students if there is any indication of them becoming sexually active. Brainstorming, listing, using key images, reiterating key messages on a weekly basis can help get across basic messages such as "No Means No" or that two men or two women kissing is perfectly OK. What's more, SRE needs to seek to break down established stereotypes about disabled people: "Desexualisation of disabled people makes them more likely to be victims of abuse-don't ignore us", proclaimed an amazing contributor. Disabled students need to feel empowered to speak out if their assistants, parents, teachers, social workers etc. make inappropriate advances towards them and teachers need to show that students would be believed when they do disclose information to them. We need to get away from the engrained idea that disabled people aren't "sexy enough" to be raped or sexually assaulted; it's rather evident that disabled students can be seen as "easy targets" by groomers and paedophiles because they believe they are much less likely to speak out.

LGBTQIA+ SRE is NOT a Radical Left Concept:
There are some who are quick to dismiss the importance of making SRE a mandatory part of the curriculum for all schools. "Oh it'll indoctrinate our kids and make them consider having sex before they are 16", "it's just an attempt to push left-wing ideology onto boys to make them feel scared about asking girls out", "you'll confuse students into thinking they are transgender when they might just like to wear earrings" etc etc. These opinions come from usual lot who seem incredibly resistant to the idea of equipping students so they know how to protect themselves from being groomed, stalked or exploited by adults or their peers, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability or religious faith. From reading the Dare2Care figures, it's not an exaggeration to say that current SRE taught as part of PSHE is failing to equip students properly to combat cyberstalkers, groomers or abusers. Every student should know they shouldn't be pressured into sending explicit pictures to strangers or even to their peers in the hope of receiving an affirmative response about their body/genitals from them. Every student should know that it's OK to report offensive social media messages to the social media provider straight away. Every student should know that unwanted groping or sexual contact is unacceptable, whether they happen to be in a relationship or not. It's not a left or right wing concept to help students protect themselves wherever possible from harm. I also believe that SRE has to be LGBTQIA+ inclusive to help students to protect themselves because rape, sexual assault, unwanted sexual contact, stalking and abuse doesn't have a gender or a sexual orientation. It can happen to any child, at any time no matter what kind of school they are attending. SRE should also be positive, helping students to feel empowered to talk about their feelings, whether sexual or not. Being LGBTQIA+ is NOT against the law and having a different gender identity or sexuality from someone else isn't  "strange". By discussing differences openly and honestly with students, we can reduce instances of bullying, help students come out if they want to in a safe and secure environment and equip them for sexual experiences and loving relationships that are not born out of violent, abusive desires. There's nothing manipulative or seedy or particularly "left" about that. Some faith schools may not like talking about contraception or LGBTQIA+ issues but I say, tough. We live in 2017 and in a country which is tolerant and accepting of differences and I believe it is wholly irresponsible for any school to deny appropriate LGBTQIA+ SRE to students to equip them for life beyond the faith classrooms. It's time to back the SRE proposals and to make sure they are LGBT inclusive at the very least. I'll be battling hard to raise more awareness of asexuality and it's a battle I'm more than willing to take to those who dispute the veracity of asexual identity. A battle of compassion that even centre-left and left leaning people can engage in with pride.