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."
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 :)),