We have recently been contacted by parents concerned about the RSE sessions delivered in their children’s schools by the School of Sexuality Education. We have looked into this organisation, who say that their “unembarrassable” team provide in-school workshops on “consent, sexual health, porn and positive relationships“. What we have found demonstrates a lack of safeguarding knowledge and understanding amongst those purporting to be professionals.
We have reviewed a paper that was written by members of SOSE and that clearly links to the approach outlined on their website, entitled Play-Doh Vulvas and Felt Tip Dick Pics.
In this paper, the authors state that “Historically, sex education has been conceptualised as a part of health policy, with the prevention of pregnancy, disease and infection being its primary aims.” To remedy this supposed fault, they propose “a more holistic approach incorporating sexuality, gender issues, pleasure, and consent” appealing to the recent call to teach ‘sexual citizenship’ in schools. We have already written about the problematic nature of this idea.
The School of Sexuality Education’s approach includes a focus on the vulva and clitoris in an activity that involves shaping genitals with Play-Doh to “create new forms of bodily awareness in the classroom.” This experimentation is positioned as a “newly developed research methodology.”
The authors state that “Particular emphasis is placed on the vulva and the clitoris to counter-balance its general erasure in popular culture and RSE”. It is not clear from this what problem the authors are trying to solve, but it is very clear that they have not adequately considered the problems that may arise from it. The correction for over-exposure to explicit images of the male body should not be the forced participation in the creation of explicit images of the female body. We believe that it is in itself a form of grooming, suggesting as it does that the norm is for genitals to be exposed and that doing this in a group setting, whether willingly or not, is empowering.
Girls should not have to focus on their genitals at school, in the company of unknown adults (no matter how “unembarrassable”), teachers, their friends, and members of the opposite sex, potentially including those that have sexually assaulted them. However, as the School of Sexuality Education does not recognise the material reality of sex, it is not surprising that they cannot perceive the potential safeguarding issues here: they make a point of stating that “The Play-doh activity is prefaced with a discussion of the non-binary nature of biological sex (as well as gender and attraction), intersex bodies, and genital variation.”
If they are unable to recognise that these body parts belong to girls, then recognising the potential issues facing some girls during this discussion will be beyond them. Indeed, they state that “no part of the body stands as the dominant signifier of either sex or gender”, leaving one to wonder who this paper is really aimed at empowering.
Felt-tip dick pics
Later in the paper, the authors discuss another type of session that involved girls drawing the dick pics they have received as part of “a transformative pedagogical process that enables them to question phallic force relations.” Some of these pictures look like this:
Rather than focusing on the need to explain to boys that they should not be sending these pictures, girls are potentially retraumatised by being asked to recall receiving sexually explicit images. The paper acknowledges that sometimes, due to reasons including “space constraints” this was done in “mixed-gender” groups. It is also notable that where they have recorded groups as being single-gender, this does not mean that they were single-sex, since, as they remind us “gender identification is variable”.
Therefore we may have girls in groups with boys who have sent them these sort of images, or whose friends have done so, and who are expected to re-live this experience in front of the boy.
The authors assert that the experience generates consciousness-raising through “talk, laughter, scrolling through apps on phones.. and drawing on the templates”. However, the re-creation of these images could lead to immediate dissociation and / or subsequent distress for any child who has been or is being sexually abused. This would be difficult enough for a trusted teacher to notice and deal with, let alone a classroom full of other children laughing about the images, led by an unknown adult.
‘Engaging’ with porn
The School of Sexuality Education paper contains disturbing assertions about the use of “age appropriate” in the latest DfE RSE guidance. The authors state that basing RSE on this concept has been “critiqued as delaying many relevant discussions of sexuality until too late, due to discourses of childhood “innocence” and moral panics over sexualisation, which work to deny young people essential information that are part of their sexual rights (Robinson, 2008; Renold et al., 2015).” We have written about the work of EJ Renold in relation to the development of the Welsh curriculum and are not surprised to see that she has influenced the thinking here.
Implicit to this argument is the ‘stage not age’ position that states that since some children are aware of inappropriate content, it is therefore acceptable to expose them to further inappropriate content, on ‘educational’ grounds. However, it is never acceptable to make children pay for the safeguarding failures of adults and then accuse those wishing to protect children as suffering from moral failings.
One such way the paper proposes that children pay for adult safeguarding failings is by suggesting they have the right to “engage with porn in government-endorsed curriculum.” The type of engagement is left open, which is contrary to effective safeguarding because it is well known that predators will seize on any ambiguity in order to transgress children’s boundaries. Safeguarding demands the worst possible interpretation of any ambiguous statement – which is easy to do because the authors, rather than objecting to porn on safeguarding grounds, instead suggest that it is not diverse enough and “tends towards…male ejaculation.”
We have written previously about the consequences of exposing children to porn. Any discussion of it at school should be extremely mindful both of the physical and emotional damage it can cause and the safeguarding risks inherent in discussing it with children who are being or have been abused.
We are therefore unsurprised by the authors’ further assertion that children have “sexual rights.” But the one right that all children have is to be kept safe from predatory behaviour – less likely when schools invite organisations to discuss “taboo” issues “namely female genitalia, pleasure, and desire.” This is an imposition and robs children of important rites of passage.
Furthermore, in an attempt to focus on the fact that females deserve as much sexual pleasure as males, by disrupting “the penile-vaginal coupling,” the authors state that there needs to be a “rethink” about the “range of body part relations to one another.” This is reminiscent of the Proud Trust’s ‘Dice game,’ below, which, amongst other combinations, encourages children to insert objects into each other’s anuses.
We would suggest that children be given lessons on mutual respect and the importance of communication and consideration for others in all interactions. As children get older this can be extended to discussions about intimate relationships, without adults needing to be explicit.
The paper makes adults’ dereliction of duty into children’s problems. Rather than addressing the society that adults have created and perpetuate, the authors recommend we further expose children to inappropriate content by subjecting them to ‘pedagogical’ experimentation. Like many of the research and resources we comment on, this paper contains ideas that undermine safeguarding principles and, as such, we believe the School of Sexuality Education has no business being in schools.