A clarification on “dirty pictures & paedophiles” and the great big sex and relationships education “debate”


So obviously yesterday’s polemic from Lynette Burrows on BBC Sunday Morning Live* included her making statements such as “this sort of education that is obsessed with destroying childhood innocence in a way that is reminiscent of paedophilia” and “To me, anyone who wants to talk “dirty” to little children is a danger to them” and “How are they [children] to know the difference between a stranger in the classroom showing dirty pictures and a dirty old man in the park showing the same pictures who is in fact a predator”

These disgusting statements giving the idea that sex and relationship education included dirty pictures and that was akin to paedophilia was something I had to address and clarify in this post.

Firstly I am not exactly sure what was meant by “dirty pictures”.  If she meant pornography then I can assure you that would be illegal to show to anyone under the age of 18 and no teacher in their right mind would ever think of doing such a thing and if they ever did then they absolutely need to be dealt with accordingly. (more on the law here).

Unfortunately the anti-sex education lobby often seize upon specific teaching materials and vilify them across the media as proof of the “terrible dangerous explicit nature of sex and relationships education” what they never point out is that many many schools don’t actually use those specific resources or will only use them after careful negotiation between the parent and school (and often at a later age than suggested).  In one case a resource was torn apart in the media for being very explicit for students when it was never actually written for students- it was written for practitioners!

If by “dirty pictures” Lynette Burrows meant diagrams about reproduction then yes these are used- but I am not entirely sure what is “dirty” about teaching about the parts and functions of your own body.  In science (I am also a fully qualified science teacher with a large part of my degree being reproductive physiology so it’s something I am really passionate about) I use age appropriate diagrams of the male and female reproductive tracts, both external and internal depending on the age and stage of the group. Boys and girls approaching puberty (which remember is happening at a younger and younger age) need to to be taught how to keep their bodies clean and what to do if they think something is wrong (eg. thrush or balanitis) .  Girls need to  know where to put a tampon if they choose to use them and where a baby comes out of. I’m often very surprised how so many females (adults included :o) who don’t realise women have three holes or the amount of Y7′s (11-12 year olds) boys and girls who think a baby comes out of your bum! I totally agree this information can and absolutely should be imparted at home as well but given the amount of misconceptions I encounter covering this topic then it really isn’t being done very well at all in many cases.  (Parents reading this wanting support for how to talk to your children about body parts- I suggest you book yourself on your nearest Speakeasy course and read this).

In terms of images I use I also use lots of scientific images such as:

(source) which I think is a stunning visualisation of the sperm meeting the egg and clarifies the size differential between the two (can anyone see anything “dirty” in that? because I really really can’t!). We also might look at fetal development in the womb and use ultrasound pictures or photography to explore that in the science aspect of Sex and relationships education. Again I can’t see anything “dirty” about such images.

The “dirty pictures” I personally refuse to use are graphic upsetting images of aborted second or third trimester foetuses (as this is a tactic used by some anti-choice groups to scare young people and affect pregnancy decision making and is unfair as the vast majority of abortions are carried out in the first trimester- only a small proportion of abortions are carried out later – for more information on Best practice in Abortion Education please see Education for Choice’s wonderful toolkit- they state in their best practice checklist that schools should”

"Avoid inappropriate images, particularly those
used out of context; that may be distressing or
upsetting; or which are designed to provoke
feelings of guilt and shame."

(For more background on this see herehere and here)

Also the other “dirty pictures” I now refuse to use are those of disease ridden STI genitals.  This is because it is an inaccurate scare tactic that may do more harm than good- for example the pictures used are often extreme examples so someone who is sexually active may think they are fine if their symptoms don’t match those they saw in their sex education lesson. Also many STI’s are symptomless so what we actually need to be reinforcing is that if you are sexually active- using condoms and regular testing is the best way to protect yourself from STI’s.  Bishtraining has some more fab ideas on how to cover STI’s in sex and relationship education lessons here.

Unfortunately I know that many schools do use use such pictures as part of their sex and relationship education lessons, and this is something that does need addressing.  It was interesting how Ms. Burrows presented her case as in “sex and relationship education in this country is proven NOT to work” when actually the case in this country is that it has never been given the chance to work properly.  There are pockets of excellent practice and then there are lots of schools doing their best with little or no support, and there are lots of schools not bothering at all because they are too scared to tackle it.

Most of us working in SRE have questions/concerns about what is taught in places. It doesn’t mean we think it is failing, it just means we always want to do better.  There are some excellent examples of evidenced based sex education practice such as SRE Project but likewise we know that there are identified issues with SRE and its a shame that in the government changeover some of the suggested solutions to the issue were not acted upon. (So please contribute to the current PSHE review and help contribute to making SRE better)

It’s such a shame we always end up going round and round in these circular  pantomime style debates (with obligatory big bad wolf!) where we  lose the chance to have a sensible discussion about where things are going well or badly, and how we can improve. It also means we can’t address the very real concerns parents have because things are set up in a right/wrong fight club style format.  I was really disappointed that as the only sex educator on the show I wasn’t given the time or real opportunity to respond to comments and misunderstandings about sex education.   This style of debate isn’t helpful and doesn’t help things move forward.  (It is such a shame when here is a lovely example of how both sides of a debate could work together for the greater good.).

Civilised discussions on this issue are both important and possible, after all I think all of us have a common ground that we want our young people to grow up safe and happy and have respectful loving relationships.  From personal experience many parents who come to me wanting to withdraw their child from sex education (panicking about what they read in the media) often actually choose to keep their child in the classes once they have been reassured about the aims and content of the curriculum, and they are more than happy for me to teach their child those things.

Now onto this disgusting vile notion linking paedophiles with  young people’s sex educators.   Absolutely foul.  Let’s be very very clear here- if Ms. Burrows has a serious allegation against a particular educator then she absolutely needs to report her concerns to the police and have them investigate it properly, (as should anyone suspecting abusive situations).  The fact she never has makes me think that this is a smear tactic to put more teachers off delivering this very important subject.  (As an aside I think it interesting she also advocates smacking children- which many people including the NSPCC constitute as child abuse).

Teaching children to know the parts of their body actually reduces not encourages abuse. I know of a horrible case where the abuser referred to his penis as a lollipop- because no-one would really worry about a child talking about sucking or licking a lollipop :( . This is when NOT teaching children about their own body is really really dangerous.  Teaching children about good touch and bad touch and that no-one should touch your body without your consent and being able to name parts of the body is essential to reduce abuse and lets remember that the vast majority of child sexual abuse occurs by someone the child knows- it is much much less likely to be the random paedophile in the park, or the “stranger in the classroom” .  For the record all teachers in UK schools are fully CRB checked and all sex education teachers should always follow professional teaching standards and following their school’s sex and relationships education policy (that should be published to all parents and carers) as well as the schools child protection procedures.

A huge huge amount of the work I do is about supporting young people to recognise negative or abusive relationships and supporting them to seek help and avoid dangerous situations.  Unfortunately sexual bullying, sexual assaults and rapes are happening to our young people and it is so so important to address these issues with young people as part of sex and relationships education.  In fact part of my previous work involved supporting  girls who had been gang raped (which I worry is becoming an increasing problem in inner city schools)- trying to support them to rebuild their lives.

So don’t you dare try and liken me to an abuser for working so so hard to stop this exact issue.

(*Please see here for link to iPlayer of the BBC sunday morning live episode and my initial response- which was written in haste straight after the show and is a bit jumbly so a bit embarrassed that over 2000 of you read it! But many thanks for all the RT’s and wonderful support :)),

Thanks also to @DrPetra for her wise advice on this post as well as her support! Thanks to @Edforchoice and @bishtraining too. :)

14 thoughts on “A clarification on “dirty pictures & paedophiles” and the great big sex and relationships education “debate”

  1. This is horrific. I’ve heard a lot of rubbish spoken about SRE but never this bad! Personally, I have better things to do that thinking up ways to ruin children’s innocence. Well done for speaking up.

  2. It sounds like a relatively simply case of conflating ignorance with innocence. Keeping children ignorant does not keep them innocent. Instead, ignorance allows misinformation to spread.

  3. Fantastic piece, and I really hope the links you have shared challenging her smears and misinformation are used by parents and educators alike. It’s clear her allegations – if such a term applies to her attempt at scare tactics – were baseless. We can only regret that #bbcsml allowed her claims to go unchallenged during the programme. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. . .

  4. Exactly. I know that as a teacher I appreciate specialist helping teach the parts of SRE that many other teachers feel inadequately trained to teach themselves. Burrows has certainly not helped them feel more comfortable about covering important SRE which parents (a) generally want their children to be taught, and (b) sometimes feel inadequately prepared to talk about with their children. For Burrows to say that showing my children diagrams of their own bodies is “dirty pictures” beggars belief. And I certainly shouldn’t start on the man who disagreed with non-judgemental teaching.

  5. This ridiculous woman’s remarks remind me very much of my own ‘sex education’ in a Catholic comprehensive 30 years. It consisted of viewing slides of aborted foetuses with no explanation as to why we should view these horros; the resident Nun telling us that “French kissing” invariably led to pregnancy and the use of tampons meant a loss of virginity. Presumably all this nonsense was intended to scare us, but actually we just thought that she and the teachers who delivered this curriculum were immature idiots. There was no sensible discussion that was pertinent to our age group, and most us went through our teenage years confused and misinformed. It was a scandalous dereliction of care and responsibility by the school and the church for which I have never forgiven them, especially as most pupils came from homes where these issues weren’t discussed either. So please keep up the good work. You should not even be having to justify your work. Anyone who likens what you do to paedophilia is a dangerous fool.

  6. The biggest problem, of course, is that reasonable, *normal* people don’t get a right of reply. It’s only the loonies and bigots who get to have their shrieking vileness heard in the name of balance.

    They shout loudly and so their voices are heard. So must we, so that our shall too. Complain about this to the BBC. Complain about this to your Union if you are a teacher of SRE in the NASUWT or the NUT. Complain about this to your MP – if your MP is a decent human being and not Nadine Dorries.

    People like Blithering Burrows are allowed to carry the debate because the silent majority of decent human beings don’t want to make a fuss. But in this case, our young people deserve better. We all have contacts with Brooke, with Marie Stopes, with FPA, with PCTs; they all have media departments or PR contracts. The Campaign for ‘Real’ Education and Burrows may think they can shout loudly: they need to learn that being *reasonable* does not mean you can be shouted down.

    Make some noise, people.

  7. Superb post. I was appalled that this dreadful woman was given so much air time and your right to reply was so limited. SRE is such an important part of our young people’s education and the BBC allowing Burrows to spout her bigotry and misinformation unchallenged, has not helped educators at all. Many parents feel uncomfortable discussing these issues with their children, probably due to the poor or nonexistent education they themselves received, and there is an opportunity to break the cycle. We need to take it and remove the shame associated with children simply learning about their own bodies.

  8. Even though parents do give their own version of sex education in a home environment, in a class of 30 pupils, children probably have all been given different levels of information and, as I see it, what the school SRE does is to ‘level the playing field’ ie bring them all to the same level of knowledge. ie it complements what is done at home and should not be seen as a threat. My children’s school invited parent in to view the material and discuss and then there was an option to withdraw you child if you wished. Only one child in my 4 children’s year groups (ie 240 kids) was withdrawn and my child (the eldest) still remembers this happening – sad really, that this child is still remembered about 7 years later as “the one that was not allowed to go to SRE”.

    Actually, our lovely SexEd person also covered things I had not even considered eg actually showing them sanitary towels, tampons etc. It had not even entered my head that I should actually do this – what a numpty I was!!

    Good thing was that after the lessons had been given (and I knew when they were taking place), we could discuss at home again, fill in any missing info etc in a relaxed way. All seemed very natural, informative and I really had no complaints.

  9. Great to read some informed opinion here. I’d go so far as to say it’s a relief after watching Sunday Morning Live – tabloid TV masquerading as public service broadcasting.

  10. Pingback: Musings on my own BBC Sunday Morning Live complaint. | sexedukation

  11. Hi, nothing realy to add to the debate but I just wanted to say how sorry I am that you had to go through this (especially as you are pregnant) there are plenty of parents out here who really appreciate the work that you andother SRE teachers do and I commend you for going on the programme and trying to put right some of the lunatic ideas people have.
    Incidentally my teenagers went to a church high school and were subjected to just the sort of pictures you describe (aborted fetuses) and I would definitely have opted to protect them from that, had I been given the option….which I wasn’t.
    Keep up the good work.

  12. Pingback: For the record #BBCSML | sexedukation

  13. Pingback: Sunday Morning Live- The story so far- Updated 26th Oct | sexedukation

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