The vocal minority turns up the volume on protesting sex education
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
The smartphone generation, my two teenage children included, have had to deal with the lure and pressures of 24/7 access to the digital world during their formative years. Now 13, my daughter came of age when getting an iPhone at the end of primary school was a rite of passage. Suddenly everyone with a smartphone had a “porn production studio” in their pocket, as American sex-advice columnist Dan Savage puts it.
Being concerned about the impact of pornography on young people was one of the reasons I co-founded the social enterprise Outspoken Sex Ed. Its aim is to encourage parents to talk openly with their children about sex-education issues. These days sex ed encompasses such topics as consent, body image, self-esteem, healthy and unhealthy relationships, gender inequality, LGBT issues, unrealistic expectations around sex and bodies, pleasure, sexting and the impact of porn.
Statistics show that young people’s top choices for learning about relationships and sex education (RSE) are school and parents. Parents are in agreement: 84% want both school and home to have a role in RSE. A 2011 Mumsnet survey found that 98% of parents are in favour of RSE, 69% think it should be compulsory in primary school and 90% think it should address matters around sexual orientation at a mean age of 10.5. Issues around pornography should be discussed in school, say 83% of polled parents. Meanwhile schools themselves view parental engagement in sex ed as an important way to shore up children’s classroom learning.
So at first glance it seemed alarming that a UK Government and Parliament e-petition entitled “Give parents the right to opt their child out of Relationship and Sex Education”, launched on 18 December 2018, was quickly garnering support. By the first week of February 2019 it had surpassed the 100,000-signature mark. MPs are now set to debate the issue in Parliament on 25 February.
Does this volume of signatures represent a groundswell of parental pushback against RSE? Or is it an outcry from a vocal minority that opposes sex education?
Take a closer look, and the motivating factors behind why the petition was set up and why so many have signed become clear.
Initiating the petition was Dr Katherine Sarah Godfrey-Faussett, a psychologist and the founder of StopRSE.com, who became a Muslim 25 years ago. In a speech last November at the Islamic Unity Conference she denounced the implementation of RSE as an “assault on the family” and “a war on morality and on our spirituality”.
Speaking on Ahlulbayt TV – in a Facebook-posted interview in December 2018 with Rebecca Masterton, an author who also converted to Islam some 20 years ago – Godfrey-Faussett advanced the theory that “RSE is a gateway for lobby groups, sex-ed organisations and LGBT organisations to push ideologies and heavily sexualised resources into schools. A lot of images produced by LGBT sex ed basically amount to cartoon pornography.”
Mid-interview, Godfrey-Faussett reveals: “I had to be kind of quite strategic with the petition, so I went back to the fundamental right of parents to choose.”
In the UK, sex ed has long been in urgent need of an overhaul given that government guidance dates from the year 2000. As of 2020, RSE will be mandatory in secondary schools. The new draft guidance on RSE stipulates that parents will have the right to withdraw their children from sex ed (although children can opt in three terms before they turn 16), and that religious schools can teach according to the tenets of their faith. The Sex Education Forum, however, maintains that schools should not “exclude particular topics or information because of the faith or beliefs of parents”.
Nowhere does the petition disclose Godfrey-Faussett’s conviction that a social-engineering process is underway to acclimatise us to sexual ideologies, including the idea that children have a human right to be sexualised. As proof of ulterior motives behind this mass movement, she cites UN plans to roll out comprehensive sexuality education as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Earlier in the year [there were] gay Pride marches in primary schools,” she says. “It’s coming as an onslaught.”
Masterton subscribes to the same school of thought: “The ideology being promoted is that children… should not just have the right to express their sexuality but they should have the right to experience sexual pleasure.”
In fact a rights-based approach does underpin good-quality sex ed – the Sex Education Forum is on a mission to “ensure children and young people’s entitlement to RSE” – and the subject of pleasure is often taboo in sex ed. But in sex education that emphasises sex positivity, pleasure is key – and is interconnected with consent. How can anyone be assertive about what they don’t like if they haven’t discovered what gives them pleasure?
The Department for Education (DfE) states in its response to this RSE-opt-out petition that best practice involves the head teacher “discussing with the parents any detrimental effects that withdrawal might have on the child, including any social and emotional effects of being excluded eg receiving information from peers or from the internet”. Importantly, RSE lessons must always be taught “with the aim of providing pupils with the knowledge they need of the law”. It also states: “Pupils need to know how to be safe and healthy.”
A key principle of good-quality RSE holds that children’s knowledge of correct names for body parts is vital to safeguarding and to preventing sexual abuse. However, Godfrey-Faussett maintains that “it is not the place for school to educate children in the most intimate matters… [using] private parts with explicit names… The way the ‘p word’ and ‘v word’ are being taught… can be traumatising if a child has never seen that.” She gives the example of a girl feeling ashamed to think that the boy next to her might know what girls’ bodies look like.
Sex education is predicated on the idea that keeping children innocent can mean keeping them ignorant and at risk. In an Outspoken Sex Ed blog post, RSE teacher Yoan Reed reflects about society: “We want to shield children from knowledge about sex because we equate that with danger… [This] drives parents to maybe not talk about the educational part of sex… Children will want to know about sex, but that doesn’t mean they are sexualised – that means they are informed. We must also make a distinction between sexualising children and educating children about sex.”
The DfE, in its response to the petition, makes clear schools’ responsibility to engage proactively with parents, emphasising that schools “see building on what pupils learn at home as an important part of delivering a good education”.
Reed concurs: “Parents have got a big responsibility to convey their own values at home rather than getting angry with the school for teaching sex ed on the basis of common values.”
The conflict over how information learned at school differs from beliefs instilled at home elicited a balanced response from Birmingham primary-school head teacher Hazel Pulley. Having piloted the No Outsiders programme, which focuses on difference, inclusivity and tolerance, she told a Muslim father: “Whatever parents [say] in the home [is] their decision but it’s lovely that the children will hear both views.”
In today’s increasingly polarised world, those are welcome, if not fighting, words.
If you support sex education, email your MP outlining your views. For more information on the benefits of RSE and the upcoming debate in Parliament about parents opting out their children, go to sexeducationforum.org.uk
This piece was originally published on Medium