Sex ed, not just about the birds and bees…

Should schools be teaching children about pornography?

According to Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner, there should be no doubt. We have a duty to protect children from harm (enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). And this should extend to preparing children to deal with sexually explicit material.

birds and bees book

(c) Keeki under creative commons licence

When I first read this, it produced a sharp intake of breath.

Since J has started at this new school, his confidence has grown (good). He no longer clings to the wall at the end-of-term school disco (also good). eton boys doing gangnam styleHe’s out there with the other 7-8 year-olds, making a rather bad attempt at gangnam style (I’m less sure about that development).

Despite my deliberate policy of arriving late for pick-up (so that I don’t have to witness the carnage) I can’t ignore the evidence that my little boy is growing up.Fast.

Worse, at home, I find myself fighting a (losing) battle to explain the lyrics to Sexy Lady without lying, or suffusing red with embarrassment. It requires lots of deep breaths (at least the prenatal yoga came in useful for something), but all the same, I can feel my smile stiffen as I attempt to maintain a veneer of political correctness. In teacher-speak, I’m struggling to keep it age appropriate.

And, as J grows up, it becomes harder. It’s me that’s likely to doze off and sleep through the Watershed. And forget the concept of top shelf. A life-long short-ass, I’ve only just stopped holding J aloft so that he can reach my copy of Slimmers’ World in our Tesco Metro.

So the Children’s Commissioner’s announcement didn’t exactly have me jumping around the room with excitement, or blowing the dust off my Everyman’s edition of the Karma Sutra.

However, the statement by the Children’s Commissioner comes on the back of some hard-hitting research. Porn is prevalent. (A sign of the times, the Karma Sutra now comes in a 3D smart phone app. with hologram pop-ups).  As Atkinson puts it, we live “in an age when “violent and sadistic imagery is readily available to very young children, even if they do not go searching for it, their friends may show it to them or they may stumble on it whilst using the internet.”

The jury’s still out on what effect that may be having. However, as Sue Berelowitz, the Deputy Children’s Commissioner, points out, it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to vigorously scientific analysis. Research is beset with ethical difficulties. You can’t divide kids into two groups and feed the non-control group a diet of violent porn.

However, there is persuasive evidence that there is a link between violent attitudes and violent media. Worryingly too, there is an increasing trend for younger, and younger, children to become both the victims and perpetrators of sexual violence.

Maggie Atkinson freely admits that the link between pervasive pornography and violence is not scientifically proven. (Such proof, ethically, is an impossibility). However,  in her words, it is “a risky experiment to allow a generation of young people to be raised on a diet of pornography.”

Atkinson argues that improving the way that schools deal with relationships and sex in schools can play a vital role in addressing this. All education providers, she argues, should teach children about safe use of the internet.

(Currently, there is no statutory duty on schools to provide comprehensive education on sex and relationships. And, in general, independent, academies and faith schools enjoy even greater freedom over how they approach sex education).cover to shaggy's sexy lady

It’s a tricky one. Berelowitz is keen to emphasise that schools should adopt a sensitive approach. Speaking to the TES, she explained:

“We are not expecting schools to use images. They will teach about how pornography fits in the context of a healthy relationship, having the confidence to say no and what to do if you are dissatisfied with what you have seen.”

So far, so good. And it seems like she is not alone.

Today Mumsnet publishes the results of its survey on sex education in schools. Interestingly, 80% of respondents thought sex education should explore the issues of pornography and the media. Likewise, a survey carried out by the UK headteachers’ union, the NAHT, found that four in five parents want schools to address the dangers of pornography as part of sex education.

Perhaps I can relax next time I hear those Shaggy lyrics, safe in the knowledge that a trained professional will explain them to my son.

Then again, perhaps not. I can feel a whole new can of worms opening up. And it’s not just about what’s age appropriate. It’s about how sex education should also be context appropriate. And I’m just not convinced that accepting the prevelance of pornography, that children can access, is appropriate at all.


Mumsnet sex education survey

Children’s Commissioner

A few months ago, I blogged about the Government’s PSHE review (Sex Education, fit for purpose?)


About sarah

Old enough to know better, still young enough not to care. Property lawyer, sometime developer, writer and mother, coffee lover and cat-napper. I blog about life as a mum in North Wilts.
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3 Responses to Sex ed, not just about the birds and bees…

  1. May says:

    I agree with you, and I agree with the Commissioner. I wish there were more regulation to prevent porn from being as freely available. Never mind children, I would like to be able to protect myself from it! But even more so, it shouldn’t be available for children to stumble across it. However, we need to be realistic: children will see images they don’t understand, they’ll hear talk they aren’t old enough to properly contextualise, and they’ll find out about things that we wish didn’t happen but do. I think schools do have a duty to educate children for the real world, and apart from anything else, nothing is more effective at making something uncool than discussing it in class. As long as porn remains something shadowy that children share on their smartphones in the corners at lunchtime, it will have some allure. If teachers matter-of-factly explain what it is, and make the connection between those images and what is being (hopefully!) taught in biology and health education classes, it will probably lose some appeal. It’s a really hard issue though.

  2. sarah says:

    Thanks, May. Yep, there was nothing less alluring than the sex education at my old school. It may well have that effect, I think it all depends on when and how it’s done.

    Guess my fear is that it’s another tick box and not enough thought goes into it (a long time ago, but at my old school, the cookery teacher doubled-up as the sex guru and it wasn’t a winning combination).

  3. Erica Price says:

    It’s a dilemma and I’m not sure which way to fall. If done well at school, it would be helpful. However, I think it would be passing the buck not to try to address issues like this at home too.

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