"When it comes to the legislation currently being debated in the House of Lords – which if passed will make the discussion of relationships a compulsory part of sex education in schools – I feel rather like I did when it was proposed in the wake of the financial crisis that banks should keep their deposit activities (ie those involving our savings) separate from their investment activities (ie gambling). That feeling is best described as: ‘WTF? You mean we’re not doing that already? Could somebody get that started, like, yesterday?’
I had – foolishly, naively, I now see – assumed vaguely that things had moved on from my day. Twenty-five years ago, our sex ed went roughly thus:
Puce-faced teacher: ‘Girls, the boy puts his thing in your thing. Try not to let him. Pregnancy. HIV. Here’s a film of someone putting a condom on a banana. Good luck.’
Judging by the number of girls in my year who were pregnant by the time we took our GCSEs, they must indeed have wandered off to spend their Saturday nights rolling condoms on bananas, mostly while the boys put their things in the girls’ things in the corners of crowded nightclubs.
The new legislation would emphasise the need for boys to treat their potential partners with respect. Subtext: ‘And not just treat them as an annoying flesh-surround for a hole your entire being is consumed by the desire to fill.’
I find it hard to believe that the effort to constrain and reshape this attitude has taken so long to come about (if indeed it does – the amendment may yet fail to become law). It was endemic in my day, in the days I heard about from older friends, from aunts older still and from my mother and grandmother who spoke of even more ancient times. (Reading suggests it was probably also true of the eras from which I was unable to source a living representative.)
I can’t imagine that attitude is any less now. The bits I hear from teacher friends and friends with children old enough to be dipping their toes and other appendages in the murky waters of carnality do not suggest that we are gazing triumphantly at a new dawn of sexual enlightenment or egalitarianism. Rather, they suggest that whatever progress girls and young women have made – in academic achievement, in the workplace, in sport, in visibility, confidence and self-esteem – is being wiped out by the lack of progress being made when it comes to girls controlling their own bodies.
Porn is the most obvious and tempting candidate to blame. Some will argue that repeated exposure to extreme acts, and/or constant mindless banging, stretching and inserting, shorn of any notion of active consent, mutual enjoyment or any wider concern, has no effect on viewers. I presume the same people also argue that all advertising is pointless, that we move like icebergs through the stream of life, unshaped by anything we see, and arrive on our deathbeds unchanged since foetus-hood. Good luck to them – they’re going to need it.
But there are other, more amorphous but no less insidious, influences than porn out there. What are boys and girls to make, for example, of the ever more stringent requirements (and I speak in a week that saw the launch of under-boob deodorant, and if you don’t believe me you can google it, cautiously) regarding acceptable grooming standards? Or of the innumerable figures in the political, entertainment and sporting worlds who have apparently spent lifetimes groping, upsetting and abusing at will any young women they’ve met, with impunity? Or the vile trolling that takes place if a woman dares express an opinion (about a face on a banknote, perhaps) or publicly succeed at something (how dare you be an Olympic athlete Beth Tweddle or Rebecca Adlington without also looking like Cara Delevingne)? Or the continuing erosion of abortion and contraception provisions that jeopardise women’s own right to independent lives?
None of these things shows respect. If we’re not to raise yet another generation baffled by the concept, we need to start educating our (collective) children properly. We do it with maths, with science, with English, with geography. We can do it for women too.”