On choosing ignorance

Imagine for a moment that History was made an optional subject for schools to teach. “You can teach them about the past – tell them about world wars, and uprisings, and revolutions and dictatorships. Like, if you want. If you’ve got a spare hour or two in the timetable to fill, that’s cool, revisit the olden days. But you don’t have to. We don’t think it’s crucial. It’s the past, innit? It’s not going to happen again. No point in going over it.”

That would be odd, to say the least. It would seem wilfully ignorant, deliberately obtuse. It would be as if education authorities wanted schoolchildren to be at a disadvantage, to have no sense of how we got to here, and now – to have no sense of context, of perspective.

(You know exactly where I’m going with this, I know you do.)

A couple of weeks ago, I actually signed one of those change.org petitions that crop up seemingly once every forty-five minutes. This one, to be exact. The campaign is spearheaded by Laura Bates, who started the Everyday Sexism project, and while I’m never convinced that these petitions do anything except give the signatories a clicktivism-gasm, it was reported last week that Education Secretary Justine Greening is considering making SRE compulsory. How we educate children about sex and relationships was in the news again on Tuesday morning, as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellent (NICE) has issued a set of guidelines on how to deal with what they’re calling “harmful sexual behaviour” in children and teenagers.

It’s hard to determine how the NICE guidelines will work in practice, if indeed they’ll work at all. It all seems a bit woolly at the moment, but the general idea appears to be to get teachers, parents and healthcare professionals to keep an eye out for any problematic behaviour so it can be addressed early. Best case scenario, everyone will remember that the key phrase here should be “age-appropriate”, to reduce the chances of some poor hormone-riddled (or to borrow an excellent phrase from Probable-Future-Mother-in-Law: “knob-struck”) teenager being frogmarched into a police station for sending one explicit message.

Because we really don’t need any more people on this planet who are weird about sex. We’ve got quite enough of those, thank you. We have enough of those stories to be able to write the endings blindfolded. The boy who never learned that girls are human beings too goes on to be the man who feels entitled to demand, and to simply take without thinking. It should go without saying that the genders aren’t always that way round, but I can only write as a woman. 1 in 5 women aged between 16-59 has experienced some kind of sexual violence. 1 in 5.

So the fact that we’re still dilly-dallying over whether to make SRE compulsory is baffling.  I know sex is a topic that does tend to scare the horses rather, but a) it’s how we all got here, and b) it’s not even just about sex. Every single one of us has relationships, from tepid friendships to torrid love affairs. We all need to know how to interact with other human beings in a pleasant, kind way.

A common argument against teaching SRE in schools is that “it should be up to the parents”. With all due respect (can one type sarcastically? If so, I’m doing that), no, it bloody shouldn’t. You cannot presume that all parents will do a good enough job. Or even give it a half-arsed attempt. And besides, the parents aren’t the ones who are young, wracked with hormones and insecurity, and trying to fumble their way through their school years without actually dying of embarrassment now. They may remember what it’s like to be a teenager – or at least think they do – but they don’t know what it’s like to be one in 2016. And how quickly we forget our younger selves, anyway. I remember being 16 and thinking 18-year-olds were “grown up”, and now anyone under the age of 24 is, in my eyes, “basically 12”. If SRE does become compulsory, it means that it can be standardised; everyone will be taught the same thing at the same time, approximately. No-one goes uninformed.

What’s the point of an education system that doesn’t even try and address some of the practicalities of adult life? Not once since my GCSEs have I been called upon to outline the short-term causes of the First World War, or explain how an oxbow lake is formed – but many times, I have had to stand my ground, stick to my guns, to feel OK about saying “no” when everything else in the room seemed to want me to say yes. Every single woman I know has a story, a truth, about a time that she wasn’t heard, or understood, or treated with basic respect. Every single one – and most of these women have enough such stories to fill an evening.

If you refuse to let young people learn about something that will, undoubtedly and 100%, affect them, you do them an unfathomable disservice. You actively disempower them. You choose ignorance. Because kids are kids, and teens are teens, and eventually they look for answers. A few decades ago it might have been the sexy bits in Jilly Cooper (no bad thing), or a magazine furtively passed round the back seat of the bus, a few years ago it was Fifty Shades of Expensive Presents, now it’s Snapchat (probably. I don’t know, I’m not down with the kids). And somewhere on that timeline, the internet happened. Type and ye shall find. Rule 34. The internet has enabled us to have the most imaginative sex we could possibly want, and has been invaluable – genuinely – in reassuring those who are into more niche things that they’re not alone. That a fantasy is just a fantasy. That it’s OK to want one thing inside the bedroom and something else entirely outside of it. But you have to know what you’re looking for if you’re going to ask the internet about sex. You need to have the facts, the realities, the human element, already in your head.

If we choose to educate from a young age, we might have a hope of moving the conversation on from “was she wearing a short skirt?” and “had she been drinking?” to “why did he think he could do that?” We also might have a hope of stamping out prejudice. Teach children that there are mummies and daddies, but also daddies and daddies and mummies and mummies. And people who are happily single, happily celibate, happily asexual, happily every shade of the sexual rainbow. Look at the human race, kids, isn’t it clever? Look at all the ways it knows how to love. How to be.

Let’s hope we’re not waiting too much longer for SRE to be made compulsory. Done right, it has the potential to reduce rape and sexual assault, increase tolerance and understanding, and make us nicer to each other. Who wouldn’t choose that?

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