Age-Related Sexpectations

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 “Miss Brown, how can people have sex with three people at once?” is not a question most people are confronted with at 2pm on a Wednesday afternoon. This particular question was from a thoughtful, 9-year-old girl. She had seen something online and thought our sex education lesson was as good a time as any to seek some clarification. A deep breath and a quick moment to order my thoughts and I had an answer for her. Teaching sex education can be incredibly challenging but I’ve always enjoyed it. Firstly, because it is so important and secondly because the pupils always find it fascinating.

In the first lesson there’s inevitably a bit of giggling; it can take a while for the class to feel comfortable using words they don’t normally hear/see in the classroom (apart from during those sneaky looks in the dictionary during quiet reading or the occasional, sly Google search during Computing.) Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that 10-year-olds are obsessed with finding out about sex per se it’s more that they are infinitely curious about the world around them and, in particular, about their own bodies. For every, “What does an orgasm feel like?” question there is, “Why do we have eyebrows?” or “Why do men have nipples?” I don’t discriminate between questions in my classroom and I do my best to answer all of them as honestly as I can.

Anyone who has ever taught sex education to 9-year-olds will know that 9 years old is already too late. I’ve had 9-year-olds ask me questions about threesomes, STDs, masturbation, oral sex, sex with animals and everything in between. For most of those children this was the first sex and relationships education they’d had and their prior knowledge on the subject came from older siblings or whatever they’d seen on the internet. They weren’t asking those questions to show-off, be cheeky or wind me up. For most of them it was the only opportunity they had ever had to get some honest, straightforward answers about the mysterious world of sex. By the age of 9 they’d already been given several mixed messages and were almost relieved to have the chance to do some fact checking.

This is why I think sex and relationships education (SRE) is so important: it answers questions pupils actually wanted answered and provides them with facts that could impact their decisions later in life. Yes, reading and writing is crucial but forgetting how to use a semi-colon is unlikely to result in an unwanted pregnancy whereas not understanding how get hold of and use contraception might. It’s arguably one of the most important areas of the curriculum.

So you can imagine my despair when this week when Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, announced that sex education would not be made compulsory. The announcement was made after four House of Commons committees wrote to Morgan asking for the status of Sex and Relationships Education to be raised to statutory. Before you tell me that you have a very real memory of being shown a dated video by some red-faced Year 6 teacher etched into your retinas yes, at the moment sex education is compulsory, but only from the age of 11 and parents are allowed to remove their children from certain parts of it. This is the part I’ve always struggled with: parents are not allowed to remove their children from Maths, English, Art, Music, History etc… so why are they allowed to decide that their child should not receive this crucial part of their education?

There is a tension between parents and schools on Sex Education in a way there isn’t over other parts of the curriculum. I’ve rarely had a conversation with a parent about whose responsibility it is to teach their child about fractions or complex sentences. I’m of the opinion that we cannot rely on all parents to educate their children in an honest, factual way. Obviously, some parents are great. They feel confident talking to their children about sex and relationships and don’t mind answering any questions. Sadly, for every parent who is perfectly capable of teaching their child about sex there are parents who, due to cultural reasons, religious reasons or just plain old embarrassment are not able to have those discussions in an honest, open and factual manner. I once had a parent complain that I’d been teaching her son about “The Gays” (as if they were a mountain range.) I patiently explained we’d actually been having a discussion about the use of homophobic language and labels. Her next question was, “Well what am I meant to say to him when he asks questions about this at home?” The idea that she should just be honest hadn’t occurred to her. Her annoyance was not that he had been learning about homophobic language but that it had highlighted her own anxieties about discussing homosexual relationships.

Which is why every year, as we approach sex education, there are mutterings from a small group of parents that their children are “too young” or (my personal favourite) it might “give them ideas.” I understand that the fact that 1 in 3 10-year-olds has viewed pornography online might be difficult for some parents to accept, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Ten years old is too late. As for “giving them ideas” – firstly when it comes to sex young people don’t need to wait for school to give them the ideas so surely it’s better that they know the facts rather than having to piece together things they hear in the playground or see online. Secondly, don’t worry, nothing will dampen those thoughts faster than showing them a video of a woman giving birth.

If it were up to me, SRE would start earlier than 9. In Key Stage One I’d start with children knowing the technical terms for their anatomy and move on to educating children to understand that there are parts of their body that are private that nobody (apart from a doctor) is allowed to touch. In lower Key Stage Two we should teach puberty and the changes their bodies will go through in the coming years. It is important that this is done right – there are tales of girls starting their periods and think they’re dying because they had no idea this would happen or even boys who are worried that their periods haven’t started. Then finally, at the start of upper Key Stage 2, we should teach sex and relationships.

It’s the relationships aspect of SRE that anxious parents overlook. This is the time to discuss: homosexuality, asexuality, what it means to be transgender, feminism, marriage, divorce, fertility, dating and anxieties about relationships (which they may already be having.) Obviously these conversations shouldn’t just be restricted to sex education lessons but it’s a great place to start. This education is vital and we are doing young people a disservice by allowing their parents to opt them out of it.

Mind you, perhaps I shouldn’t expect a man who is alleged to have had sex with pig to consider honest, open discussions about sex and relationships a priority for education.

The Daft Dad Stereotype Needs To Stop

“The first rule of being a man in modern Britain is you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

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It was a very ordinary Tuesday. I went out to collect my class and one of my favourite parents (yes, we have favourites) came running up to me dragging her daughter behind her. “Sorry Miss Brown, it was Daddy’s turn to get her ready today so surprise, surprise, she hasn’t got her glasses!” This isn’t a one off. I’ve heard dads blamed for, incomplete homework, no book bag and unwashed hair. Of course it could just be the case that there are hundreds of incompetent men out there producing children without the intelligence to look after them but I doubt that’s true. It got me thinking.

I am a feminist. This means I believe in equal rights for men and women. In many ways women still aren’t treated equally to men and I will always speak up against that. However, there are mutterings at the moment of a “crisis of masculinity” that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Research conducted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity which aims to tackle male health inequalities, found that men are more likely to take their own lives than women – in fact suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35. The research also discovered that, on average, men attain lower at all stages of school, are more likely to be homeless, are less likely to access NHS services when they need to and, as they get older, men have fewer friends than women and feel more isolated.

So what is going on? Men still earn more than women, they dominate politics and business and are less likely to be the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. There isn’t an expectation on them to sacrifice their careers for family life and, to top it all off, they don’t have to give birth. Yet suicide is the cause of death for 26% of men under the age of 35.

So let’s start at the beginning.

School Days

The problem starts in the first few years. Seven-year-old boys are 7% less likely to reach the expected level in reading and writing than girls. By the end of Primary school, that gap is eight percentage points. It gets wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12%; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. So whilst 66% of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56% of boys manage the same. Show me a maintained school that doesn’t have “boys’ writing” on their School Improvement Plan and I’ll show you a school in denial.

One could argue that this is because we have an education system based on an outdated model that measures how many revision notes you can remember and how neat your handwriting is but that is probably being too cynical. Also, I seem to remember the Daily Mail once published a “schools are sexist towards boys” article once so let’s give that argument a wide berth. The reasons boys don’t achieve as highly as girls is a separate article/dissertation in itself (one that I may write in the near future.)

Media Men

Now I am not for a second suggesting that the way men are portrayed is worse than the way women are portrayed but I think there is definitely an issue here. Adverts, in particular, like to present the man as a bit daft, bumbling and almost childlike. Think of any advert that shows a “regular household” and you will see a man struggling to get their heads around childcare, internet providers or electrical goods whilst the women run around sorting out the house, the children and generally saving the day.

Of course the reason this started was to subvert the stereotype of the airhead woman being rescued by the competent, strong man. Whilst I understand where this formula came from I can’t help but feel it is counterproductive in the fight for gender equality. We’ve all agreed it isn’t right to perpetuate unfair, female stereotypes so why don’t we feel the same way about male stereotypes?

A couple of years ago there was a Boots advert that showed two women, full of cold, talking about the busy days they’d had. When they ask about each other’s partners they both explain their partner is tucked up in bed with a cold – bless him. The message is clear: women get on with it whilst men mope about. If that advert was men talking about women it would have been called out as sexist.

From Homer Simpson, to the man who was late to his wife’s prenatal scan because he took a detour to McDonalds or the “Huggies” Dad Test –  advertising love the “dumb Dad.” He is presented as an additional child, creating more work for the Mum. The message is loud and clear: he is surplus to requirement within the household.

Gender Roles

It used to be so simple (albeit unfair.) The man went off to work/kill a mammoth and women would stay at home to cook dinner and clean the cave. Thank God/Father Christmas it changed. Women don’t have to choose between a career or a family, they can have both, either or neither. Inevitably, this fact has had an impact on relationships between men and women too. Women don’t have to rely on men for a roof above their heads/financial support/protection from bears and men cannot assume that the house will be clean and dinner will be on the table when they get home.

This is fantastic and I am so grateful to be born at a time where I can choose whether or not I have children, where I work, where I live and how I spend my money. This does mean that couples, rather than making assumptions, have to have a conscious discussion about the roles they are going to play in their relationships. Are they going to share housework equally? Who will sort bills? Who will do childcare and who will work or will you both do a bit of both? Obviously this issue affects both men and women but are men going to opt for childcare if they are constantly made to feel as though they aren’t doing the job as well as a woman would?

Partners

When I first got together with the Man on the Piccadilly Line people would talk about “training him up” which is a strange way to speak about a human and I’m not sure if any of his friends asked him the same question about me. We’ve allowed this idea that men would be “lost” without women or need us to improve them to take hold. It is unfair, untrue and never said by men about women. It’s the female equivalent of the man that talks about “her indoors” or “the old ball and chain.”

I’ve never heard any of my male friends say, “Yeah she’s putting on weight. I’ve told her she needs to get rid of her tummy so she’s joined a gym. I’ve bought her some new clothes to try and replace those god awful cardigans she wears.” (I’m a big fan of a cardigan.) Yet it’s a common theme women trying to “improve” their partner and not in a “helping them achieve their dreams” sort of way. In a “wear this, eat this and be a bit more like this” sort of way. It’s not by ANY means all, or even most, women but it’s enough.

Surely when you commit to a relationship you are committing to love that person for who they are not for who you hope you will be able to train them to be. By marrying me, The Man on the Piccadilly Line knows that every couple of months he will probably get a phone call asking if he’ll be home soon because I’ve locked myself out. He knows that if we get lost it will be he, and he alone, that has to get us found as my sense of direction and map reading skills resemble those of a snail. He also knows that I will leave my hair straighteners on at least three times a month. Equally, I know that most of our holidays will be taken by train, I will occasionally find the freezer emptied of food and replaced with bags of ice for a DIY air-conditioning experiment and I will sometimes lose him to a novel he’s writing, the World Cup or Battlestar Galactica marathons. I’m sure you could try and train the person you love to be more like version you have in your head but you won’t be particularly successful and it will make you both miserable.

Yet comments like this are so common they’ve almost become acceptable in some female circles. You can talk about your partner’s appearance, annoying habits and make derogatory comments about their intelligence, organisational skills or competencies. (Disclaimer: obviously we are allowed to moan with our friends.) I just worry that for some people there is a sense of achievement in promoting how incapable your partner is in comparison to you. It is possible this stems from some women feeling it is justified. After all, women have had more than their fair share of this sort of treatment, this just resets the balance, right?

I am a feminist. This means I will always fight for equality between the sexes. I’m not saying that men deserve to be held up on a pedestal and neither am I denying that women still suffer at the of hands inequality far more than men do. But let’s be vigilant. The fight for equality is not won by indulging lazy stereotyping.

Why I Wish I Wasn’t “Left-Wing”

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As you can imagine, over the years I’ve met with lots of parents because we’re concerned about their child’s progress. The classic one is spelling: “We’re thinking of having her/him tested for dyslexia” they’ll announce gravely. Now I don’t for a second question the existence of dyslexia, but I’ve always found it interesting that the number of dyslexic pupils increases with the level of affluence of the school catchment area. I digress.

“So… should we have her tested?” they ask anxiously. My answer is always the same. “Have her tested if you think having a name for why she finds spelling difficult will help her.” The diagnosis of dyslexia doesn’t suddenly provide a school with additional resources and strategies for teaching that child. Strategies targeted at dyslexic children are often just good practise and work just as well with children that are not dyslexic so they are probably happening. For some people the label is almost a comfort “Oh, so THAT’s why he/she can/can’t do ____________.” I don’t say that with judgement and obviously there are many cases where you need to have your child’s needs diagnosed as they require specialist health care and treatment.

So there is a need for labels; we use them a lot in schools: High achieving, low achieving, free school meals, gifted and talented, English as an additional language, special educational needs etc.. they are the terms that staff use between themselves as a shorthand for talking about groups of children. But what happens when you leave school? Are you labelled at all? Well yes, of course, but by whom and are the labels helpful? We have labels to describe gender, sexuality, faith, race, appearance and interests. Before writing this post I started listing some of the labels someone might attach to me and there was nearly 100. Are they all accurate? Yes. Do they tell you a lot about me? Not really.

Politics if full of labels: leftie, tory, liberal, anti-establishment, pro-establishment, feminist, anarchist, left-wing, right-wing, Blairite. These words have become shorthand for the values people might have. They are so common that we rarely scrutinise how much we really understand by them. I think the best description I found was in this post:

“They [labels] give us a comfy vagueness of meaning, without having to bother with the hard graft of true understanding.” 

Whilst I use the term “left wing” to describe myself, I often wish we could do away with speaking about political views within these limited terms. Firstly, by separating views into “right wing” or “left wing” it means people feel as though they have to “pick a side” and stick with it. These labels are clumsy; they lack nuance and don’t accurately describe people’s views which evolve and change all the time. Most people (myself included) are a mix of what would traditionally be considered “left wing” and “right wing” beliefs. I attend local Labour Party meetings which means I sit in rooms with 12-15 Labour party members and we talk about local politics. All of these people are “left-wing” but their views vary hugely and the term left-wing doesn’t begin to explain what these people believe.

Secondly, there have been occasions when I’ve given my opinion on an issue and the response has been “well you’re a leftie – you would say that.” As if having left-wing views is how I was born or the way I will always think rather than a choice I make about each issue. I find this way of thinking particularly unhelpful because it suggests your political views aren’t based on any sort of conscious thought process (which arguably for some people, they aren’t.) It implies people are born to either a “left wing” or “right wing” family and that’s the side they’re on for the rest of their lives.

When it comes to voting labels complicate things further. You have to once again pick a side. My rather fantastic friend Kirsty once made a rather brilliant off -the-cuff suggestion that people should be able to vote between two parties on individual policies. I loved this idea – the two main parties wouldn’t just be able to take chunks out of one another because they would need votes each other’s “supporters”. People would be able to openly discuss the different viewpoints without feeling pressured to commit to one side or party. It might lead to a more honest way of doing politics.

Voting

I’m not sure what the answer is but I do think being labelled as part of a particular side can close down debate and discussion because it then becomes about one side proving the other wrong. I also think some people feel intimidated by political labels it makes them feel they “don’t know enough” to have an opinion.

It’s also subjective. Both Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn have been described as radical. Ed Miliband was criticised for being too left-wing by some groups and too right-wing by others. David Cameron has been criticised by Conservative backbenchers for being too left wing on equal rights. One man’s Corbyn is another man’s Gove. No wonder people are confused – the definitions of these labels seem to change depending on who is using them.

If I’m really honest with myself perhaps my main concern is that labels are just so lazy. At school I often remind/nag children about being specific with their vocabulary choices. I really try and discourage them from using lists of adjectives to describe nouns but if they really must use an adjective at least let it be meaningful and accurate. That’s all that this opinionated, cheese-loving, educator asks.