Thursday saw relationship education at a technology college in Accrington eclipse England’s Ashes victory and the London tube strike on Twitter.
It appears that, for a nation notoriously tight-lipped about sex and relationships, we were all very interested in what Godedle Liekens, a sexologist and UN goodwill ambassador, had to say on the matter.
In an effort to promote her proposal that British sex education be revamped to include lessons on pornography and sexual pleasure, Channel 4 filmed Liekens as she spent two weeks giving Year 11 pupils a comprehensive sex and relationship education (SRE) course, similar to those in Belgium and other central European countries.
With British teenage pregnancy rates still ranking among the highest in Europe, and the documentary’s featured headmaster claiming that “without a shadow of a doubt, the biggest single influence on children is pornography”, the suggestion that a more comprehensive SRE course be rolled-out in secondary schools seems sensible.
After watching the documentary however, many were quick to realise that this is not only sensible, but very necessary.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the documentary was the deplorable attitude displayed by the majority of the boys towards consent in particular, and women in general. It seemed that, even taking into account teenage bravado, the boys’ SRE had been co-opted out almost entirely to the porn industry. Without a hint of irony, the boys fervently outlined the sexual acts and appearance they would expect (not appreciate, not prefer) from a female partner because: “respect, innit”.
The divide was pointed out by Liekens, who noted the lack of participation from girls in the class. In an uncanny parallel of the pornography industry, the boys discussed in great detail what they expected and required, and the girls, for the most part, sat meekly by and accepted this.
The microcosm of society played out in their classroom was shocking. It spoke not only to parents who, before the documentary, may have been ignorant of the fact that over 90 percent of UK children have viewed pornographic material by the age of 10, but also to women and girls about the way they continue to be viewed and what they are valued for in Western society.
For all the gender equality battles won via the UN’s “HeForShe” campaign, the Everyday Sexism Project, the UK’s recent global summit to end sexual violence, new police powers to end FGM etc., others are lost in the education (or lack thereof) of the men and women of the future.
Even from the teachers, a degree of embarrassment was displayed as Liekens suggested SRE include topics such as consent and sexual pleasure. Yet if pupils aren’t going to learn about these important topics in school, and parents are ill-equipped to do so too (evidenced by one parent who confessed herself ‘naïve’, and another who called Liekens to complain about her lesson on female anatomy), their education will come from ill-advised peers and porn.
The need for SRE education isn’t just about intimate relationships, it’s about the gender divide and, in particular, the way our society teaches men and boys to view women and girls. 10-year-olds and teenagers viewing porn and other hypersexualised media are not doing so with the critical thinking skills an adult might approach these with.
The adults’ embarrassment in the documentary is misplaced – ignoring our sexualised and often gendered media is no way to tackle it. The boys’ calls for “respect” are perhaps fuelled by porn, but they are reinforced elsewhere too, in social as well as traditional media. Just because schools are not discussing the fact that threatening a woman with rape is now a frighteningly common way to shut-down her arguments over Twitter, doesn’t mean that pupils aren’t reading this and learning that this is an appropriate way to silence female voices.
Sexual violence and the gender divide are complex phenomenon, but they stem in part from ongoing, misplaced notions of male superiority and power. If young people are exposed to these notions day-in-day-out by the media, why shouldn’t SRE combat this in the same way that promoting British values has been introduced to combat other kinds of misinformation learned outside the school gates?
If we’re not actively teaching young people that men and women are equal, that sexual pleasure is a non-gendered notion, then we’re letting the media teach them otherwise.
What emerged from Liekens lessons, more than anything else, was the empowerment of the girls and the boys. The concept that knowledge is power was very clear in their new found confidence, with the girls finally speaking up and one of the most outspoken boys admitting that he “didn’t know that’s what girls wanted”. Overall, all the pupils came out of the lessons with a new found respect for themselves and each other.
 Home Office (2015) ‘2010 to 2015 government policy: violence against women and girls’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/2010-to-2015-government-policy-violence-against-women-and-girls/2010-to-2015-government-policy-violence-against-women-and-girls> [Accessed: 10 August 2015]
 Michael Asimow, Kathryn Brown, David Papke (2014) ‘Law and Popular Culture: International Perspectives’, p.86