As the Conservative Party have once again blocked moves for schools to teach an inclusive approach to sex and relationships, Stephanie and Karen examine the issue and what can be done now.
So what do we do now the Tories have blocked compulsory sex and relationship education again?
Karen: I think it’s important to look at what this says in a wider context of LGBTQ+ rights, in a far less certain landscape than we anticipated even a year ago. Reactionary, “small c” conservative forces have been empowered by a number of events, and seem intent on rolling back gains which have been made over the years.
When organisations like LGBT History Month and Schools Out endorse transphobia, the BBC promotes conversion therapy, and hate crimes in general are rising, we need to consider how we ensure that rights are not lost. The need for compulsory SRE is not just about giving children facts, but saying that LGBTQ+ children are part of the community, welcomed, and included fully. Our energy needs to be constant, we need to watch for calls to ban books, or whip up hysteria around certain issues, particularly gender variance.
It is easy for the L and G components of LGBTQ+ to be complacent, but, when any gender, sexual or romantic minority group is targeted, we are all hurt. We are hurt because those who are prejudiced don’t actually discriminate between acceptable or unacceptable queers, no matter how much some people try to hide behind respectability. In fact the way those who are being targeted currently is a great example of how all LGBTQ+ people would be treated if those who are opposed to our rights were able to get away with it. Kenneth Zucker, who is currently in the news is a good example of this. In the 90s, Zucker said professionals should see their role as stopping children and young people from being gay, because society did not accept homosexuality – and now he argues the same about trans people. His views have not changed, just who is is considered acceptable to express them about.
Stephanie: What do we do? If we can’t count on Parliament and we can’t count on schools then we organise ourselves. LGBTQ+ charities and young absolutely must make it their priority to organise and get involved with the education of young people. It can be done several ways; challenge parents around you to educate their children, write to schools to demand they allow education groups and sexual health care professionals to give talks and don’t ever let politicians off the hook for once again failing LGBTQ+ youths. Around 25% of all homeless youths identify as LGBTQ+, perhaps if schools had supported them, perhaps if they had ever been given support instead of shame then we wouldn’t be facing a LGBTQ+ youth homeless crisis.
Should schools be delivering personal content? What about the role of the parents?
Karen: I always find this an odd argument, if parents should be doing SRE, why don’t we expect them to teach chemistry, the history of the Peloponnesian War, or how to spot an ox bow lake? Either we have schools which produce well rounded pupils, or we say, okay everyone homeschool your kids.
That might sound like a bit of an exaggeration but we need to look at the ideas and assumptions underpinning the idea SRE is somehow not a proper subject, or that parents have some mystical ability when it comes to SRE. Part of the problem is I think that too many people take a possessive attitude towards their children, and believe that because they have a certain value or moral belief it must also be their child’s belief and value system.
I am not saying that parents should not teach their children values, or share their beliefs. However, an odd set of assumptions seems to underlie how we approach SRE, including the fact parents can remove children. Imagine if a racist said they wanted to remove their child from class because they were covering the slave trade? Or what if a supporter of the National Front tried to remove their child from classes on WW2? We would quite rightly say that they were not allowed to do so. But, when it comes to sex and relationships we say that, for reasons more to do with our neuroses and taboos, parents can demand their children know nothing that they do not pre approve. In some ways this links to my piece on book bans, and the idea some ideas are like infections which children can catch. A homophobic, or monogamous, or strict religious parent is allowed to say “I don’t want my possession, my child, to be exposed to ideas I disagree with”
Children are not possessions, and ideas are not viruses. Not only should SRE be compulsory, but the beliefs of the parents should hold as little sway as the belief of a fascist parent objecting to a child learning about the holocaust. You do not own your children; From the moment of birth they are separate from you. Hopefully you guide them and with a congruence in your words, actions and beliefs, demonstrate the morals and values you hope they live by. However if your belief system is one so shallow, so superficial that even hearing of alternatives will cause your children to reject it, then perhaps consider its value, to you, and to them.
Stephanie: I agree. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all of this is that young people want to be educated on sexual and relationship issues but their autonomy and wishes have been completely overridden, because supposedly older people know better. We have a horrifically weight system against young people in the UK. We need to learn to respect their autonomy. They deserve a thorough education. The idea that kids need to be shielded from SRE suggests several things; one is that no child can be LGBTQ+ and that is obviously false and the second is that being LGBTQ+ is something people need protecting from or should avoid. There’s nothing wrong with being LGBTQ+ and there is absolutely nothing wrong with young people being LGBTQ+. Conservatives are worried that young people will embrace their identities, that kids will request different pronouns or little boys will hold hands but what is wrong with any of that? LGBTQ+ people have got so much against them already, don’t let schools be another barrier particularly when they’re designed to protect and educate children. Let them do their jobs. Stop with the over regulation and the limits on what teachers can and can’t teach. Let children benefit from a full education, not a hetero-centric, cis normative and white washed version of education.
Does this prove that we need to rethink how our education system is organised?
Stephanie: Yes. Governments politicise education all of the time. They base changes not on evidence but on the ideology of the day. Children and young people deserve support, consistency and a thorough education. Let teachers and trained professionals deliver this. Most politicians don’t have the experience or knowledge to be able to deliver this.
Karen: Agreed, the first step must to be to de-politicise education policy, and base it on reseach, and evidence around what works, and what is needed.
What can we do to support young LGBTQ+ people?
Karen: A lot of our focus currently is on helping LGBTQ+ young people after something has gone wrong, for example there are anti bullying policies which describe what should happen after an incident of bullying. Society seems to assume that LGBTQ+ are other, and will be othered, and that its role is to step in to provide comfort and support after this happens. I think we need to revolutionise how we approach this, yes, in the current climate this support is needed. However if LGBTQ+ people were presented as full members of society, in schools, and in a wider context, then I think huge strides would be made. LGBTQ+ young people need to feel included, need to see people like them in books, in history, on tv and in flims. Not as tokens, not as a tragic trope, but a part of the diversity which makes up humanity.
Stephanie: I agree. We need more intervention than when something goes wrong. Day one of school needs to teach that all LGBTQ+ identities are valid and worthy of respect and every lesson then on should reinforce that. Tackle bullying, hate language but also change the books that are on the curriculum so there’s a queer character somewhere. Study events such as the AIDS crisis, or people such as Sylvia Rivera.
What Should LGBTQ+ inclusive SRE look like?
Karen: Currently there seem to be two approaches to SRE. The physical nuts and bolts, if you will excuse the pun, and a more relationally based. Whilst aspects of both are needed it feels almost as if everything is based around how we interact with others, ignoring the importance of the self. It is very telling that SRE explains how hetrosexual sex works to young people, but does not cover masturbation.
I believe SRE needs to be completely refocused, starting in primary school with consent and boundaries. The “swimsuit” rule is taught across the world in kindergartens incredibly successfully. Before the angry mob starts sharpening pitchforks let me make 2 points. Firstly you cannot claim to care about the victims of CSA and then deny children the tools to understand that it is OK to say no, to tell some secrets, and to have bodily autonomy. Secondly, we already teach boundaries to small children every time we tell them not to point, touch the expensive vase in the shop and to share nicely.
We need to know our own boundaries, and bodies, what we are, and are not comfortable with, before we even think about going near other people’s bodies. Refocusing on self knowledge, self respect, and self awareness would be a radical step which helped all young people, including LGBTQ+ ones.
Stephanie: First and foremost that all genders, sexual and romantic orientations are deserving of respect. With that, the priority has to be on boundaries and respecting boundaries. There’s too many crap attitudes that get passed down and it’s got nothing to do with porn. Turn on any TV show and I bet there will be some tiny toxic trope that people overlook and Hollywood romanticises – like not respecting boundaries when someone asks for space etc. We have a culture that normalises selfishness and ignoring basic boundaries and then calls it ‘romance’. We need to drum in lessons of respect with regards to everything from sexual acts to accepting identities.
People think it’s difficult to talk to kids about issues, but really it’s the adults’ own discomfort that is getting in the way. Kids can accept things pretty much straight away because they haven’t had decades worth of lessons that LGBTQ+ people are worthless. Trust in young people. Engage in open dialogue, invite questions, say the word “vagina” without laughing, don’t associate body parts with gender and talk about the fun of sex but that some people never will desire it and that it’s okay.