Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

sex education

Bad news: Parliament voted down measures to make sex and relationship education required in British schools. Instead of comprehensive, rounded and LGBT-inclusive, British schools can continue to teach a minimal battery of reproductive biology combined with a tissue of religiously-inspired propaganda and call it education in order to satisfy the concerns of “faith communities”. In Britain not offending religious people is apparently a more important public policy outcome than teaching students that gay people are human, how to negotiate sexual consent and how to not get sexually transmitted diseases.

Britain needs good sex education, not a porn panic

In the last few weeks, the British press and politicians have been getting themselves worked up into a lather over porn, following the conviction of Stuart Hazell for the murder of 12-year-old schoolgirl Tia Sharpe.

And we are seeing a slow drip-feed of stories about young people driven into sexually abusive relationships. Because porn.

Porn is giving young men the wrong idea about women. It is promoting rape and murder and violence and forcing teenage girls to engage in sexual acts with their male partners in ways they find uncomfortable. And, of course, Tia Sharpe.

Politicians are arguing that we should have an “opt-in” filter, by which they mean a filter that you opt-out of (or, rather, you “opt-in” to see the material that is filtered).

Let’s pull the emotional sticky plaster off this proposal right now. If enacted, it would do nothing in the Sharpe/Hazell case. Hazell is clearly old enough that he would be able to opt-out of any filtering arrangement on his Internet connection. Child pornography is already filtered through voluntary agreements at the ISP level by the Internet Watch Foundation. In spite of said technical measures, people like Stuart Hazell was able to get his hands on child pornography. If we can’t filter child pornography, what makes anyone think we’ll be able to competently filter other types of pornography?

And filtering pornography is a fairly succeed-always-or-fail-utterly proposition. Anything significantly less than 100% and the whole point of the filtering is gone. It only has to fail a few times for horny 15-year-old boys to stock USB flash drives up with naughty pictures and videos and they’ve got a newly hot playground commodity.

And fail it will. Filtering will always have a substantial false positive and false negative rate. The cost of the false positives is much higher than the cost of the false negatives. Porn is a commodity: if one porn site is filtered, there’ll always be some that aren’t. But the false positives? Good websites offering, say, high-quality sex education, or social support for LGBT teenagers… those are the things which overzealous censors look at and go “OMG PORN” and block. Those sites being blocked is a major cost to any filtering regime. Let’s not bullshit each other: if a censorship regime were instituted, plenty of those sites would be blocked. Every time I use a corporate connection with a filter in place, I check a few sex education and LGBT support sites and always find a few of them blocked.

And teenagers aren’t going to go out of their way to pass PDFs around the playground on the topics of “how do I put a condom on?” or “I think I’m gay and I’m scared to tell my parents”. But you can bet they’ll start doing so with USB sticks filled with hardcore porn.

Of course, any censorship regime will just prompt teenagers into investigating ways around filtering. Proxies, Tor, VPNs, illicit porn sites that are off the radar of the censorship regime. Put a barrier between horny 15-year-old boys and porn and they’ll find a way to get around it. (Actually, not just boys, plenty of girls watch porn too.)

How do I know? Because I’ve been a horny 15-year-old boy and known a fair number of equally horny 15-year-old boys. We found porn online. Lots of it. Before that, horny teenagers nicked Playboy from shops. Online porn was a lifesaver for a socially awkward, fearful closet case: it softened ever so slightly the feeling of loneliness, alienation and “I must be the only person on the planet who feels this way”, and gave me a way to have fantasies and desires that I wouldn’t have been able to dream of acting upon for many years later. I can’t imagine how much worse being a closeted teenager in the era of Section 28 would have been if it weren’t for the availability of Internet porn. When schools were legally forbidden from saying anything even vaguely affirmative about being gay, porn takes up the slack.

But, the advocates of bans, blocks and censorship will respond, that’s great for you: but what about all the teenagers who are (supposedly) being fucked up by porn? What do we do about the porn problem, if it is indeed a problem? Two words: sex education. There does seem to be a problem with people who take porn too seriously, and end up having unhealthy relationships with other people because they can’t quite tell the difference between porn and reality. Is porn the problem though? Maybe.

But sex education seems to be a far bigger problem. Back when I was in school, sex education seemed to amount to little more than colouring in diagrams of penises and vaginas, and labelling the subsidiary parts thereof with various Latinate terminology. What it lacked in positive, affirming assurance that I wasn’t an evil sexual deviant for fancying other boys it made up for in helping me identify the vas deferens by using colouring pencils to mark up a diagram. Sex education was treated primarily as a biological, scientific matter rather than a human, relational, psychological matter. Why did nobody ever think it might be important to teach people about having healthy relationships? The ability to colour in a vagina doesn’t exactly make up for not being taught to respect and care for and communicate with a sexual partner.

There’s two reasons sex education was shit: Section 28 and religion. Forbidding local authorities from “promoting homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” (that word “pretended” still makes me squirm) is not a good starting point for a comprehensive and reasonable sex education curriculum. And then there’s religion. Faith schools are still at liberty to teach all sorts of complete horseshit to kids because of religion. Even in secular comprehensive schools like mine, there was still a lingering respect for the Church of England, with occasional lectures on morality from the vicar of the parish church. Religion has had a toxic effect on sex education: given the inherent misogyny and homophobia in so many of the world’s “great” faiths, how could it be any other way?

What Britain needs is a comprehensive, universal, inclusive and affirmative sex education curriculum. It needs to be inclusive of gay and straight kids. It needs to be taught in full awareness that kids are going to be watching porn (even if you do institute some silly and ineffective censorship regime) and have both positive and negative ideals derived from it. It needs to deal with healthy relationships, and how to integrate sex into healthy relationships built on trust, communication and informed consent. It needs to teach children how to cope with becoming mature, sexual adults rather than hoping desperately that they remain children.

Based on the evidence I’ve seen, teenagers who are exposed to good sex education tend to have much better results: fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer sexually transmitted infections, more likelihood that the LGBT kids will come out and not feel like shit about their lives. Funny that. Don’t lie to teenagers, give them decent information and you grant them the responsibility to live the lives they want to. Treat them like grown ups and they start to act like grown ups.

If we fail to provide that as a society, we have failed teenagers. Porn is a distraction from the actual issue: politicians need to have the courage to argue for decent sex education for all. That means standing up to the prudes, the right-wing “concerned mother” brigade and the religious nitwits and arguing that every single teenager deserves to be taught about sex in a way that respects and honours their sexuality rather than spreads shame, fear and nonsense.