WOW: The lowdown on sex ed
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
The full-on three-day WOW (Women of the World) festival, now in its eighth great year at London’s Southbank Centre, is galvanising and uplifting – a rush of input, ideas and exchange. This year I’m on a mission to navigate the seemingly hundreds of workshops, theatre, comedy and music events by targeting discussions around sex-ed topics.
My daughter, age 12, is amenable to coming along on Saturday on condition that she’s accompanied by a friend. They arrive in time to hear a female bagpipe player electrify the air before trans activist and model Munroe Bergdorf commands the stage.
We’ve got to make tracks to allow enough time to queue for the first session. The girls wander off towards the MUSLIM GIRLS FENCE display and the video game HAIR NAH that involves combatting people trying to touch a black woman’s hair.
I go to watch YVETTE, a true story performed with physical and emotional honesty by young writer Urielle Klein-Mekongo about 13-year-old Evie and her “stolen childhood… her crush, trying to be a woman, friends, virginity, garage remixes, Hello Kitty underwear, an ‘uncle’ lurking in the corner of her story”.
The atmosphere in the riverside building – with its brass detail, burnished wood and 1950s-patterned carpet – is calm, bright, animated, vibrant with conversation. Scanning the marketplace stalls I zero in on Girls Rock music camps, WUKA (Wake Up Kiss Ass) period pants and Book of Deer baby blankets printed with 96 iconic women.
At tables under a sign proclaiming THIS IS A VAGINA, women work with seamstress-like intent on creating delicate, strong, fanciful replicas of female anatomy using tissue paper in shades ranging from light pink to mocha and lots of lace and glitter.
I dash upstairs to THE WONDER DOWN UNDER: A USER’S GUIDE TO THE VAGINA session. Authors Nina Brochmann and Ellen Stokken Dahl, both from Norway, declare that “women are supposed to be pure, untouched, mysterious clean machines. It’s very limiting. But it’s a right for women to know how they work. We need to talk about the clitoris!”
Sex ed has a lot to answer for. “At school you learn about how the penis changes in puberty but not the vagina, so young women aren’t prepared,” they explain. “You don’t learn that having discharge keeps vaginas healthy, so girls and women often think something is wrong with them. You don’t learn that women have responsive, not spontaneous, desire – that they need mental foreplay to have desire, and then arousal follows.
“Because of porn, a lot of women experience anxiety about their labia. We can all identify an ideal ‘tidy-looking’ vulva. Something’s wrong with this model, not with women. We need information about the diversity of women’s bodies to understand that we are all different and normal.”
Their words are mirrored by a slide reading “We are all the same, we are all different, we are all normal” in the YES YES YES! session presented by Ruby Stevenson of sexual-health charity Brook. It’s a crash course not only in the G spot but also the O, A and C spots, pubic hair, masturbation (“It’s all in the mind. Invest in your sexual pleasure through solo sex”) and the pressure to have “fireworks sex”.
In her Sex Ed Recap section, Ruby has the audience stand if they had sex education (in the roomful of 100 everyone except for one or two stands up), if they learned about women’s outer genitals (the vast majority sit down) and if they learned about pleasure (no one is left standing).
“Pelvic-floor exercises should be taught in puberty education,” says Ruby. “They’re also worth doing for sexual pleasure, which is empowering and vital for our wellbeing.”
Diagrams of female anatomy are, Ruby says, “whitewashed” in sex ed: “The clitoris is a powerhouse. A penis has 4,000 nerve endings, but a clitoris has 8,000!”
Ruby is impassioned about body positivity. In her Vagina Vs Vulva section she stresses the importance of boys and men learning about female bodies and pleasure to counter what they see in porn: “The diversity and variety of vulvas really needs to be spoken about. People’s genitals are as different their faces.”
Choose a positive adjective for vulvas, she tells the audience – and in one thunderous shoutout people scream: “Unique!” “Diverse!” “Magical!” “Divine!” “Amazing!”
“How do you bring up conversation about sex?” asks Ruby. “Use a book or a talk like this as a starting point, and go on a journey with someone. Learn together.”
Challenge is a theme that underpins the WE DON’T NEED NO SEXIST EDUCATION session. “Two-year-olds are aping oversexualised body language,” says teacher Susie Burrows, age 70. If adults challenge unwanted touching, young children will too.”
Spelling out the need to “develop a culture of challenge in schools and a curriculum about respect”, advisory teacher Mike Vance, who focuses on black boys, says: “Challenge the misogyny of how women and girls are presented in the media and social media – and the impact of porn on the psyche of boys. It’s about our power culture.”
Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista, declares: “We need a whole-school approach to tackling sexism and sexual harassment. There are levers we can all pull – parents too – to bring about change. Talk to the school, governors, local authorities, the government. What parents do is really important! Because sexism in schools doesn’t take place in a vacuum.”
Education starts at home, an audience member agrees – “but how do we ignite parents to get involved?”
Mike Vance has a ready answer. “Ask your school for parent workshops – and set the agenda. Then get the message out to other parents.”
While my daughter and her friend are torn between attending the PRIVILEGE 101 or the ROCKET WOMEN: WOMEN IN THE SPACE INDUSTRY sessions, I head for the Pledge Wall, which overlooks the terrace onto the Thames. There I add two Post-its about parents talking openly with their children at home – the central idea of my company Outspoken Sex Ed.
At the TEENS TALK BACK session, it’s shocking to hear the four beautiful young panellists from Speakers’ Corner – “a political, creative social space co-run by a collective of women & teenage girls” – in Bradford recount stories about how body-image and self-esteem issues had held them back. Because of comments at family gatherings about their weight or their own impression that something was wrong with them (“No one looked like me”), they would avoid friends, stay home from school, not eat. “At school mental health is looked down on. But young people are confused and going through so much. Talk about feminism and body image with them. Give them the message from a young age that they are perfect.”
They rush headlong at topics like social-media expectations, girls not doing PE because of boys’ abusive comments, self-harm, self-care, having hope.
Their rallying cries are inspiring: “Accept yourself. Your body is perfect. Remember: ‘I am me. You are you. Why are you telling me to be some way?’ Have courage – start the conversation. Boys challenge us about feminism – they go: ‘What’s the point?’ It’s because of their ignorance, their lack of social knowledge, lack of education. So we debate it and they don’t bother us again.
“We need to work as young people to tackle issues as they are growing. Our campaign is: I Am Perfect As Me. We’ve learned to use our platform for positivity. It’s about moving forward together and about adults learning from young people. Talk openly. We need more openness.”
I raise my hand to ask how parents and children can discuss tricky topics. Their answer addresses young people: “Every mum has a duty to give advice. It doesn’t have to be your mum – talk to a friend’s mum; I’m not even joking. But try to open discussion with your parents. Try to show them what’s going on in the world. Choose a time and place to talk to your parents – and have the integrity to do it.”
There’s a moment of friction between my daughter and me after she and her friend find out that I’ve just done a “twerkshop” called WOMEN, DRUMBEATS AND SELF-CARE. But what’s so mortifying about me joining in with a crowd gyrating around the Clore Ballroom to rousing Afrobeats?
We go our separate ways.
A VIEWS ON THE NEWS discussion chaired by WOW creator Jude Kelly covers sex-ed territory. “There’s pushback from the parents, not the young people, about talking openly about same-sex marriage and gender in the context of healthy relationships,” observes TV presenter Stacey Dooley.
“We have to involve young people in open discussion about consent so they grow up not as perpetrators or victims. Teachers must have training in order to feel equipped. Primary-school teachers can use little figures to ask: ‘Does this person own this person?’ and convey power structures in relatable terms.”
Journalist Mei Fong points out: “Schools have fire drills but girls aren’t taught how to act when they’re molested, which happens on a regular basis much more than fires.” Jude Kelly adds: “We want molesting drills! We must educate boys, give them the tools to understand things like sexual harassment and acknowledge their confusion even while we call it out.”
At the end of WOW, Unique Sabanda presents an idea for an initiative encouraging fathers to braid their daughters’ hair and eventually discuss things like periods so they confront the complexity of what it means to be a woman and become closer to their girls.
My daughter’s top priority seems to have been fuelling her way through the day with chips and hot chocolate. At least she’s taken in the atmosphere, and hopefully some things will have made an impression on her. She even made a badge. Against the plain background she’s written one word and underlined it: “Feminist.”
This piece was originally published on Medium on 16 March 2018