No sex please we’re British

Panorama last night focused on the premature sexualisation of children. Sophie Raworth, newsreader, journalist and mother of three young children looked at how high street fashion encourages girls to become sexual objects at a young age and how youngsters use social networking sites to post up pictures of themselves in provocative poses. Sensibly, Raworth didn’t go for the panic option but emphasised that, as parents and educators, we need to be more aware.

There’s a strange dichotomy in this country about sex and it’s peculiarly British. We do like a bit of oo-er matron and saucy seaside postcard humour but when it comes to teaching children and young people about safe and responsible sexual behaviour we get all squeamish about it.

The government has promised support responsible advertising to children but there’s a lot of advertising to adults that children are exposed to via television and billboards. A couple of years ago a product aimed at men was promoting a competition on their website. On the sides of buses they advertised their website using three sets of leopard skin bikini-clad breasts for the www. Hilarious and oh-so-cheeky for the young men it was aimed at but not so much for the youngsters taking that bus to school.

Now I’m not being prudish about bodies in advertising but I’d feel much more comfortable about this if I knew that really good Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)- note the relationships bit- was being taught at school and at home. Good SRE teaches knowledge, skills and attitudes equally and gives children and young people a really solid base of understanding. Parents often worry that knowledge alone (the facts in isolation) is being taught in the classroom and that lessons are value-free. Skills (how to say no, being able to be a good friend, how to ask for help etc) and attitudes (how I feel about relationships, what my cultural/ religious/ familial values are etc) are also crucial but are often missed through poor teaching or lack of training and embarrassment by teachers and parents alike. Schools have no obligation to teach any elements of SRE that don’t fall under the Science National Curriculum.

And inflammatory headlines like this, ‘Ministers force through compulsory sex education for five-year-olds without asking parents,’ (Daily Mail November 2008) tend to throw everyone into a blind panic and have us envisaging small children making inapproriate models in play dough.

This puts the SRE agenda back and ensures that children aren’t taught the skills the need for the modern world until it’s often too late. The previous government was all set to make SRE compulsory in schools but years of prevaricating meant that the bill didn’t make it past wash-up at the beginning of the year and the current government have no plans to put SRE on the curriculum.

The perception of women and girls also seems to a problem. While the women of past generations fiought for the right to vote, the right to be educated and the right to be respected, we seem to be giving this generation mixed messages.

In the Panorma programme Sophie Raworth looked at sexualised clothing and fioud a cute pink t-shirt with the words ‘future footballer’s wife’ on the front. Since when has footballer’s wife been an ambition for a girl? What happened to standing on your own two feet and having aspirations of your own?

A colleague and I ran an activity with teachers on a training day last year. We bought some tweenage magazines aimed at the nine to fourteen market and asked the teachers to imagine they were from another planet and had no understanding of human culture. We then asked them to note down what the magazines alone told them about humans. Most of the answers were to do with pink and shiny and how to attract boys. Next time you’re in a newsagent, take a peek at what’s out there for pre-teens and what messages they’re getting. Hide your copy of Sugar in a copy of The Times or something.

There’s a dark side to the sexualisation and objectification of girls. There’s a real rise in sexual bullying among young people. It’s a fairly new phenomenon so there isn’t a huge amount of research about it and schools are having to learn on the hoof. The local authority in which I work is worried about this rise and is working hard to address it. Sexual bullying can be linked to gang initiation but it can also be as simple as boys seeing girls as simply sexual objects rather than human beings with feelings and having no undertanding of approriate behaviour. And it’s not just girls and boys. Same sex bullying is also out there.

Womankind Worldwide, who campaign against violence against women define sexual bullying as:

‘Any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person’s sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality is used as a weapon by boys or by girls. It can be carried out to a person’s face, behind their back or by use of technology. For example:

  • Using words that refer to someone’s sexuality as a general put down (like calling something ‘gay’ to mean that it is not very good)
  • Using sexual words to put someone down (like calling someone a ‘slut’)
  • Making threats or jokes about serious and frightening subjects like rape
  • Gossiping about someone’s sex life – including the use of graffiti
  • Touching someone in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • Touching parts of someone’s body that they don’t want to be touched
  • Forcing someone to act in a sexual way’

If we want to empower children and young people to make safe decisions and to have happy and fulfilling relationships, then as a society we need to work harder at teaching self respect and respect for others and it starts with every one of us.

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2 Responses to No sex please we’re British

  1. Pingback: The Sex Education Show is back: episode one « I was a public sector worker

  2. Pingback: Nadine Dorries: Sex and Relationship Education expert « I was a public sector worker

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