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Laura Bates on why we urgently need better sex education in schools

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“I went to one school where their biology textbook diagrams didn’t include the clitoris, because why would girls need to know about that…?”

Last year, the government announced that it would finally be making sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory in all schools across England. As early as September 2019, all children from the age of four will be taught everything they need to know about healthy relationships, with sex education being introduced from an appropriate age.

This brilliant - and necessary - announcement came after months of campaigning from Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, in partnership with members of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. A petition launched by the group to make SRE compulsory in schools garnered more than 46,000 signatures, while women such as Caitlin Moran, Bridget Christie and Helen Pankhurst, alongside charities including Brook, Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis, threw their support behind the campaign.

Here, a year after the announcement was made, Bates discusses why sex education is so important - and reveals what she hopes to see happen now her SREnow campaign has been so successful.

Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project

What triggered the SREnow campaign?

When I started the Everyday Sexism Project I initially expected to receive testimonies from adults, particularly adult women. But what really shocked me was the number of stories we started receiving from teenagers, young women, and girls who were just six or seven when they first experienced men cat-calling them in the street. Young women described it as normal to be groped – sexually assaulted – while wearing their school uniform on their way to school, on the bus or the tube. Girls described sexual harassment at school that often escalated into abuse. It opened my eyes to the reality of what very young people are putting up with in the UK – not just adults.

As a result, I started working in schools and universities up and down the country. I’ve visited hundreds of them now, all different types of schools with young people from all different backgrounds, and I’ve worked with them to hold open conversations about issues such as healthy relationships, sexual consent and gender stereotyping. I used the project entries we received as a way to start these conversations, to move the project offline and into the real world. The conversations I had with girls in schools were really shocking and showed me the level of misconception and myths that surround the ideas about sexual relationships amongst young people. 

That led me to discover that there was no compulsory education in UK schools about healthy relationships or sexual consent. I learnt that the government guidelines were outdated – there was no mention of technology, online porn or sexting. As a result, we launched a campaign called SREnow alongside the End Violence Against Women Coalition. We wanted to make the point that we prepare young people for every other element of their lives, from making change in a shop to following a map to get somewhere, but we leave them completely bereft of support and information to help guide them through relationships.

What is the biggest barrier you’ve faced in trying to get these changes made?

The biggest barrier was the idea that if we talk about these things we’ll give young people ‘ideas’ and therefore make them more likely to have sex. I think there is a huge lack of understanding amongst the current adult generation of the reality of teenagers’ lives. We are experiencing a unique moment in history – once in a lifetime –where a generation of non digital natives is parenting and educating a generation of digital natives. The complete gulf in experience and understanding that that has created is enormous. It means that adults honestly don’t think the young people in their lives are accessing porn or hearing about sex, and that if we have conversations in classrooms, we’ll be giving them ideas. For an example, when we were debating SRE there was an MP who stood up in parliament and said ‘we can’t accept sex and relationships education because the teen pregnancy rate will soar’.

Of course, the reality is very different. We know that 60% of young people have already seen online porn by the time they’re 14. We know that 25% have seen it before the age of 12. So the truth is that young people are already immersed in very confusing and misogynistic portrayals of sex. Our choice is not whether to protect them from it or not, it’s whether to give them the tools to deal with the content they are already confronted with in a healthy way.

And the legislation has now changed, is that correct?

Yes, very excitedly, after a culmination of many years of campaigning - not only by us, but many other organisations in the sector too - last year the government committed to making sex and relationships education compulsory in all schools. This is a really, really important victory because it needed to include academies and private schools, not just state schools. The government is currently in the process of drawing up what that curriculum will look like. I’ve been quite closely involved in that and have been consulting with the civil servants who are working on it. Of course, there are many other people involved so we are yet to see exactly what that looks like. I’m hopeful that this represents a big step forward.

“Young people are completely bereft of support and information to help guide them through relationships.”

Has this campaign been solely focused in the UK or are there plans to take it global?

This campaign was very much UK focussed, but this is a massive issue globally. If you look at statistics in the United States for example, the number of states where consent education is not mandated but abstinence education is, represents a massive problem. This is an issue where there are great practises in various countries where we can look to and learn from. The Netherlands is one example of a country where they have done sex education right – they’ve been much more proactive on this than we have.

I saw an amazing study comparing sex education and the outcomes in the UK and in the Netherlands. They found, unsurprisingly, that it didn’t have the impact that people fear, in The Netherlands. It didn’t raise teen pregnancy rates, or lower the ages of the first time of having sex. The biggest difference between the two countries was actually in the reason that young people gave for why they had sex for the first time. In the UK it was because they said they felt like they had to, because everyone else was doing it, or because they wanted to see what sex was. In The Netherlands, overwhelmingly, they said it was because they thought they were in love. For me, this is a perfect encapsulation of why sex education is so important. It’s just so much healthier.

In many schools I’ve worked in, there is education around the biology of menstruation, but no education on the management of menstruation. Is that something that you have found to be an issue here in the UK?

I think menstruation is another area that’s seen as taboo and stigmatised. I don’t think schools are doing a good job at all of opening up the subject and making girls feel able to discuss it. I think that’s a particular problem given the recent revelations about the scale of period poverty in the UK. We’re very quick to think of period poverty as a developing world problem, but in reality, we also have to face the fact that there are girls in the UK who are missing school because they don’t have access to sanitary supplies.

If we continue to stigmatise the discussion of menstruation in our schools then how are girls ever going to feel able to reach out for support or discuss what’s going on? It just compounds the problem and makes it even worse. For me, the issue sits alongside a wider stigmatisation of vaginas, vulvas and clitorises. I meet so many girls who have absolutely no idea about their own anatomy – young women, even at university, who don’t know the most basic facts, such as how many holes a girl has. You wouldn’t believe how many young people at university think that women have one hole through which they wee and menstruate, and another hole through which they poo! It just shows the extent to which schools are not comfortable addressing these issues, and a complete lack of understanding about the clitoris. I went to one school where their biology textbook diagrams didn’t include the clitoris, because why would girls need to know about that?

Obviously there are some schools doing brilliant work in this area, and that is important to say. But I also hear about schools where a girl is given a piece of cellotape and told to stick it on a boy’s jumper, and then peel it off and stick it on the next boy’s jumper. When they get to about the fourth boy, the cellotape loses its stick and falls on the floor. The lesson these young people are taught is that that represents women. If you sleep with too many guys you’re ruined and worthless. These are the kinds of stories that we are hearing today, in 2018. A real change is needed quite urgently.

Interview by Samantha Streibl. Samantha is on the board of directors for +256 Youth Platform, a youth empowerment and girls’ rights charity in Uganda that she worked with while volunteering on the UK government-funded international volunteering programme, ICS. To apply for a placement to support projects improving sex education abroad, click here.

Laura was interviewed during Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival.

Images: Getty, iStock