The Handmaid's Tale moves a step closer? - my thoughts on Miriam Cate's report into school sex ed
This is a a lengthy and serious blog post. I will balance it with something light and humorous soon – about the time I took part in a sexual science experiment maybe, or about the most outrageous place I ever stripped… But for now I need to talk about the new threat to sex education in the UK.
A review into sex education in English schools has just been announced, after the release of a report by Tory MP Miriam Cates. The report claims ‘inappropriate materials’ are being taught, putting children at risk of a multitude of sexual harms.
The current curriculum came into place in 2019, after being updated (following a major consultation) for the first time in nearly 20 years. The 104-page report discrediting it is from the think tank New Social Covenant (which some commentators describe as Far-Right), led by Cates. Cates claims that explicit resources are being taught in schools by ‘sex education radicals from ideological groups’ which include education around extreme practices such as fisting. In numerous cases this is an outright lie.
How do I know? Because I’m on a Whatsapp group with some of those ‘sex education radicals’ (aka people like myself providing education to adults), which started to fill with panicky messages this week. Educators were getting requests from press outlets to speak about their inclusion in the report – the first they knew of it – and defending themselves for teaching their material in schools.
These individuals do NOT teach in schools, and make clear their content is for adults. I always describe myself as an ‘adult sex educator’ and so do they. We work clearing up the emotional, psychological, relational and sometimes physical (such as vaginismus) mess caused by the lack of adequate sex education when these adults were at school.
They are complaining about their inclusion and the misinformation in the report. But will those complaints get heard, or will they be like a one-sentence apology on page 50 of a newspaper for misquoting, which few people see?
[As an aside from the main theme of this newsletter – those educators may now find themselves in the firing line of people who want to shut them down, or worse.]
Aside from the lies (which I’m accustomed to from my days fighting against the closure of strip clubs), the report’s demand that we row back on the teaching of wide-ranging, pleasure-informed, inclusive sex ed is a damaging backwards step. This is returning sex ed to basically being reproductive biology lessons.
I’ll be honest, I haven’t read all 104 pages of the report yet. I have to keep taking breaks as I get so angry. But ‘highlights’ include the suggestion there should be zero mention of anal sex in the curriculum. An example lesson plan for 13 year olds covering non-penis-in-vagina activities such as oral, anal and masturbation, is included and demonised. The report authors' opinion is that none of that should be covered – only PIV intercourse.
But the majority of 13 year olds have seen mainstream porn, and anal features heavily. If they turn to this for their sex ed – in the absence of anything else beyond functional PIV – they can think it’s ‘normal’ and part of every sexual encounter. That normalisation means they feel less empowered to say no or to say stop if it’s hurting (let alone to know how to do it safely if they want to do it). So we end up with the rise in teens seeking medical help for issues related to this that we are currently seeing (and I am sure many more suffering in silence).
Choking and slapping are more examples of mainstream porn behaviour which teens have picked up, thinking it’s normal.
I believe once kids get to the teen years, this all needs to be acknowledged and discussed. I’m not suggesting age-inappropriate workshops on ‘How to…’. But raise the topic, create a safe space for it to be talked about, and present the facts, including around safety. Knowledge equals empowerment.
The overall inference of Cate’s report seems to be that the new curriculum is a conspiracy to groom our children into extreme sexual activity as early as possible.
Teaching unions have written the report off as politically motivated inflammatory rhetoric. But if in some isolated instances some teachers ARE turning to resources they find themselves – from adult educators – and using their judgement whether to teach that content to teach kids…? If the government had devoted the promised funds to training them in the new curriculum, rather than slashing this in half, maybe they wouldn’t need to.
I speak to people week-in week-out whose happiness and success in life has been limited through lack of empowering pleasure-inclusive education. A disempowered sexual life has an impact on physical health, mental health, relationship success, self-image and confidence. And that’s for the people with no abuse or trauma. Abuse often manages to hide behind a lack of education on the victim’s part, and a lack of safe spaces to talk. And that abuse can totally ruin a person’s life.
[Trigger warning for mention of assault in the next paragraph]
I had already planned to write this week’s newsletter around education, before this report came out, after a friend in Sweden brought to my attention to a public outcry there at the moment. A 50 year old man was found guilty of raping a ten year old girl, appealed, and had the conviction overturned. Why? Because the girl had use the very common childhood word ‘snippa’ (equivalent in the UK of ‘fanny’) to refer to her vagina, in her recorded statement about the attack. Because she had not used the anatomically correct dictionary word, the majority of the appeals court judges ruled they could not be sure beyond all doubt that she meant her vagina had been penetrated.
We need kids to be growing up with the correct anatomical words, with knowledge about their bodies and rights, with education around the realities of what they see online, and with a safe space to ask questions without judgement or shame. This is vital for their safety and their legal rights, as we see in the Sweden case; as well as enabling them to grow up into empowered, boundaried adults with a positive relationship to their bodies and pleasure.
Returning the curriculum to a reproduction-focused one is a step which I firmly believe will put children and teens more at risk, not less so… and that’s not even going into the multitude of problems around an exclusively hetero-normative, PIV message.
I’ve just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s terrifying to see how many societies including ours seem to be hurtling towards what Margaret Atwood presented in the 1980s as a dystopian horror fantasy.
I will stand by my fellow sex-positive adult educators, in defending our message.
For examples of researched age-appropriate education for children and teens, see https://sexpositivefamilies.co...
Reports and news mentioned in this blog post: