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“Compulsory sex education is a vital tool for the feminist movement; without it women will continue to suffer”

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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week writer and Women's Aid press officer, Alice Stride, discusses why the Conservative party's decision to end compulsory sex education is disastrous for women and men alike. 

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Feminist Alice Stride says...

Just a few weeks ago, David Cameron blocked calls for compulsory sex education, denying our girls and boys the chance to be empowered to recognise what is healthy in a relationship, and what is not.

This was despite it being backed by four key House of Commons committees, five teaching unions, the Children’s Commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, two royal societies and six medical royal colleges.

Violence against women is on the rise, and education about respect, and healthy relationships, and healthy sex, would help combat this. It could help reduce levels of sexual violence and domestic abuse; it could help reduce the chilling statistics we see in the news week in, week out. Another woman attacked; another woman killed. This is why the women in the Cabinet were apparently furious over this seriously shortsighted move: because they get it.

The sad, universal experiences of being a woman - walking home with your keys in your hands, just in case, unwanted touching, unwanted demands on your space, harassment, knowing at least three friends that have been sexually assaulted – they get it.

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Nick Clegg wrote in the Evening Standard that he feared that the reason compulsory sex education was blocked is because “the GOvernment simply doesn’t want to offend Conservative backbenchers and the right-wing media, many of whom believe that talking to children about sex encourages a permissive, amoral attitude towards it.”

This comes just as Cameron has been desperately trying to canvass support from backbenchers to help keep us in the EU. What timing.

But the blocking of sex-education is so much more concerning than the internal-divide of our government it apparently reveals. It means that, for many young people, they will, instead, turn to pornography for their information.

I went to see the wonderful Gloria Steinem at a talk recently. She said many brilliant, insightful things -but what really stuck with me was what she said about pornography.

Porn, said Gloria, is “enveloping the world”. She said that porn is “presenting as sex”. She’s absolutely right, and the impact of it is highly dangerous.

In the past few years, my friends have noticed that more and more guys expect them to engage in pretty extreme sex acts the first time they sleep together. From diving straight into the backdoor, to spanking, and choking - much like early Adam in Girls - the stories are ugly, and they're plentiful. 

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So if my smart, experienced and (mostly) very self-assured friends in their mid to late twenties are struggling with this pornified sexual landscape, my heart breaks at the thought of what it must be like for teenagers today.

Because my generation still remembers when the most sophisticated element of our mobile phones was Snake (or Snake 2 if you were really lucky). We remember the ‘Gnnnnnneeeeuuuurgeeee’ whine of the dial-up internet as we waited to get onto MSN Messenger. Of course, we had some of the same adolescent pressures too; there was not one girl I knew growing up who didn’t have body image issues, or worry about being called a slut if she slept with a boy (some things never change).

But we didn’t go through our vulnerable teenage years with hardcore porn being watched on smartphones in the classroom, or Instagram showing us the life we could be having if we just looked like that, or bullying via Twitter and Facebook. We grew up away from the glaring lens of social media, and I remain ever thankful for that.

The thought of those formative years – difficult enough already, with the spots and the hormones and the confusing crushes– being lived out online too makes me shudder.

It is a very different, bewildering world.

I am worried for young women and teenage girls. I am worried for young men and teenage boys. 

We cannot have teenagers believe that what they see in porn is normal – that women are, essentially, sex vessels. That sex involves a level of aggressiveness and coercion, and that the pleasure of a woman is absolutely secondary to the pleasure of a man.

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Image: Associated Press

In a 2010 Home Office report into the sexualisation of children, Dr Linda Papadopolous wrote that, "The evidence gathered in the review suggested a clear link between consumption of sexualized images, a tendency to view women as objects - and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm.”

Psychologies Magazine found that the single largest group of internet pornography consumers is children aged 12-17. A 2011 NSPCC report highlighted the pressing need to “understand the link between sexualised media, including pornography, and young people’s behaviour in their intimate peer relationships.” Two in three young women agree that popular culture tells boys that they are entitled to coerce or abuse their girlfriends. Another NSPCC study into ‘sexting’ - a topic that the Sunday Times recently investigated - which is beginning as young as 10 - found that it is usually coercive, and that girls are the most adversely affected. But of course.

There has never been a more pressing, urgent time for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools. We owe to the next generation to help them navigate this frightening, glossy, pornified world, to help them understand what a healthy relationship, and healthy sex really is.

By blocking sex education the government is sticking its head in the sand, like a big white Eton ostrich. It is a denial about the world we live in today – and it will inflict damage we cannot even imagine on our future generation.

And who will make up the majority of the victims? Women, and girls, and teenage girls. 

Alice co-editor & contributor to  Virago Press' I Call Myself A Feminist

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.  

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