In September the TES published an article entitled ‘Why You Need to be Teaching Sexual Citizenship’, outlining sex and relationships advisor Jonny Hunt’s idea that children should be taught about sexual pleasure. Safe Schools Alliance objects to this proposal. Before we examine the reasons that this idea is not an unmitigated positive, here are a couple of Hunt’s other ideas:
First, Jonny Hunt was behind the secondary schools’ RSE programme unironically named ‘Respect Yourself’. This programme described degrading and dangerous sadomasochistic practices inspired by pornography, such as ‘cock and ball torture’ and ‘bukkake’. These are practices no child needs to accommodate, either in their vocabulary or their developing sexuality. They are certainly not practices that any adult has any business informing children about.
Second, Hunt is also responsible for the ‘All About Me’ primary programme. This instructs teachers to discuss with children how nice masturbation feels. It also describes perfectly normal early years behaviours, such as hugging and kissing, and the words “poo”, “willy” and “bum” as “sexual”. The sexualisation of ordinary behaviours is a red flag and calls into question the judgements of someone described as an ‘expert’.
Onto the idea that schools should teach children about ‘sexual citizenship’. The skill of this bold statement is that it sounds reasonable on the surface, caring even, especially in the wake of the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ scandal. However, there are multiple safeguarding issues that arise from it. These include:
Lack of definition
The TES article defines sexual citizenship as being “about your life skills in regards to sex and relationships: how to manage your feelings, understanding what consent is, knowing what your rights and responsibilities are.” These life skills, like all life skills, may be performed either well or badly. The inevitable implication is that someone who does not know their rights and responsibilities is a bad sexual citizen, with the inevitable victim-blaming implication that they are to blame for any negative sexual experiences or assaults that happen to them.
Hunt attempts to misdirect the reader, using arguments such as “There’s no positive conversation around consent” and “All the messages we give kids are negative.” The effect of these arguments is to try to shame adults, to make them doubt their impulse to safeguard children, especially as Hunt is reported as having “spent around 20 years working with teachers and students, training professionals” and is therefore presented as an expert. He continues in this vein by telling teachers that “however uncomfortable you may feel about it…[it] is more important than it has ever been.”
Adults should feel uncomfortable talking to children about sexual pleasure. Indeed, if the words ‘adults’ ‘and’ ‘children’ and ‘sexual pleasure’ appear together, then a red flag should be raised.
Both platonic and sexual relationships should be based on mutual respect; this can be discussed and taught without going into detail about sexual pleasure. Young people do not need to know specifics in order understand that both participants should feel completely happy with any interaction, and that ongoing consent and mutual respect are essential.
Discomfort of children
At this point it must be remembered that PSHE is a compulsory subject. Children do not have the option to miss these lessons. Any child that wants to do so would have to explain why to a teacher, and no doubt face scrutiny from other children as to their reasons. There is a difference between PSHE that covers information about sex that may protect children from harm, and PSHE that is not intended to protect children from harm but is intended to promote a pleasurable sex life.
Sex and a good sex life are undoubtedly important to many adults; however, neither adults nor children should be forced to listen to or discuss sexual pleasure. Children cannot choose their classmates and it may be extremely uncomfortable or distressing for many children to have to discuss sexual pleasure not just with people that are their friends, but with people they actively dislike. Given the high levels of sexual harassment and assault in schools, it is very likely that girls will be forced to engage in discussions about sexual pleasure with boys who have harassed or assaulted them. No adult would accept this situation in the workplace and yet this is being suggested as appropriate for children.
Mode of operation of abusers
We are also troubled by Hunt’s emphasis on pleasure because it ignores the mode of operation of abusers, which should be known to anyone purporting to be an expert in sex education. It is common for abusers to tell children that they have enjoyed the abuse. This is a deliberate tactic used to shame children into silence. Furthermore, some children may experience involuntary reactions that the abuser describes as ‘pleasure’, thus further blurring the boundaries between abuse and consent. This can cause self-blame by the survivors of abuse.
Problems of teaching sexual citizenship ‘at all times’.
Hunt says that teaching ‘sexual citizenship’ should be “a priority throughout school at all times”. However, it is unclear from this how teachers should maintain the boundaries that are essential for safeguarding, and it appears to us that the dangers of these ideas need spelling out:
Most abused children will have yet to disclose. Many abuse victims do not feel comfortable disclosing their experiences until adulthood, if at all. Many will not even realise they are being/have been abused, and some may have the realisation in the lesson. All RSE lessons focussing on sex education must therefore be delivered with these children in mind, preferably by adults that know the children, so distress and changes in behaviour can be observed. This is best done in designated lessons, not across the curriculum.
Erosion of children’s boundaries and associated dangers
Aside from the danger posed by actual predators, if ‘sexual citizenship’ is promoted in the curriculum, then adults talking to children about sex will become normalised, eroding children’s boundaries. The increasing purchase of such ideas undermines the impulse of teachers to protect children and encourages those with nefarious intentions.
Undermining of safer recruitment
Sexual citizenship entirely undermines the principles of safer recruitment because it becomes more difficult to spot a predator, and gifts them the defence of plausible deniability. It is known that predators will target any organisation that will give them access to children and this will only get worse if talk about sexual pleasure is embedded in schools.
Safe Schools Alliance believes that sex education must be for the benefit of children, and no one else. It must be age-appropriate and factual. They should not be taught to believe that sex is shameful or dirty, a duty or a performance – and as such comprehensive lessons on consent are imperative. When the basics of mutual respect are present then mutual sexual pleasure is more likely to follow, and as such it is not necessary to explicitly teach children about sexual pleasure.