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Sex education: youth, respect and equality

A teenage pregnancy co-ordinator in London spoke to Siân Ruddick about young people, sex, respect and sexual violence education in schools

Issue No. 2182

There have been right wing attacks on plans to incorporate sexual violence education into sex and relationships education in schools. What do you think about this?

We need to be talking to young people about attitudes and values, good and bad relationships and so on. It’s really important that sexual violence becomes part of sex and relationships education.

There is a high level of sexual bullying that has a huge impact on both girls and boys from quite a young age. It starts in primary school with name-calling – like homophobic insults and words like “slut”. This can escalate if it’s not dealt with.

Without the right support in schools, it can become sexual harassment and sexual bullying. Coercive sex, and sex as an exchange for social status or money – known as transactional sex – are becoming more and more a feature for girls. It’s quite disturbing because it’s becoming normal, part of “that’s just what you do”.

This can lead to further sexual abuse as girls get older.

We need to go back to some of the women’s liberation agenda – that it’s your body and it’s your right to say no.

The young people who are most vulnerable to violence are sexually active, and maybe have already been pregnant. They often feel they have lost the right to say no.

This is particularly true of young women who are involved with gangs. Often, if they have had sex with a boy in the gang, they feel pressured to say yes to others. Some girls then see the situation as their fault because they have been sexually active.

Where does this pressure to be sexually active come from, apart from individual boys?

There is a right wing, moralistic, agenda that is very anti-sex and anti-young people. Yet that comes from a media where everything is sexualised, often in a negative way.

And, along with that, come images of women’s bodies used to sell products, the objectification of women in popular culture and the way strip clubs have become mainstream. That means that lots of conflicting messages are being sent to young people.

Boys are under huge pressure – if they’re not active they are taunted as gay and pressured into sexual activity to prove that they’re not. This is happening to 12, 13, 14 year olds.

So I don’t think we can solely blame young men when negative messages about women are everywhere. They add pressure to both girls and boys.

Does the media shape a view of sexual violence, especially for women?

Young people don’t get much education about sex and good relationships – there’s the right wing that says not to talk about it. For example, there’s a big fuss about the work sexual health educators do in primary schools, but what young people see in the media is often very explicit and negative.

If more positive work was done, with more acceptance of the reality of people’s lives, and less stress on “family values”, then young people would be better equipped to negotiate through those situations and make decisions in a more positive way.

Would more education cut down on the levels of sexual violence among young people?

I think it would. Some of the young men I work with do horrible things to girls, but we have to look at what has brought them here. When they’re 14 and 15 I don’t think we can see them as perpetrators in the same way as a 30 or 40 year old man.

They are young people who have grown up with a view shaped by what they see – the media, the roles of men at home. We have to educate and look at what’s going wrong, not simply blame them.

The Sexual Offences Act states that a young person under the age of 13 cannot consent to sexual activity.

In itself this is not such a bad thing, but for the men involved, if there is an age difference of more than two years, then they go on the sexual offenders register – and that’s for life.

We’re talking about 14 year olds. I think that is too heavy handed. People can change.

Young men often use pornography because they’re not getting the sex education they want and need. But this gap means that the portrayal of women there ends up shaping young men’s views and expectations.

So good education makes a very real difference?

Yes, research shows that the more good sex education there is – about bodies, feelings, emotions and relationships – the less likely 12 and 13 year olds are to become sexually active. They become more likely to put off having sex until later.

Britain has the worst sex education in Europe – though it is improving. On average, young people here start having sex earlier, and we have some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates.

We can’t separate how unequal Britain is from these facts. With higher inequality and less opportunities, young people are more likely to become pregnant. For some young women, being a mother represents one of the few ways in which they can be taken seriously as adult, with a clear role in society.

Special clinics for young people have improved things but haven’t gone far enough. We need to expand the services and get out to the people who find it’s most difficult to access them.

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Tue 15 Dec 2009, 17:35 GMT
Issue No. 2182
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