Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Sex education in schools is often a painful and embarrassing experience with an uncomfortable humanities teacher, who drew the short straw in the teacher’s lounge, and wants to be there even less than the students. I’m sure my school was not alone in the graphic PowerPoint presentation at a sixth form assembly which showed up close and personal pictures of STI ridden genitalia, accompanied by the message from the school nurse: ‘this could happen to you if you don’t use a condom’. Whilst of course this is an important message that needs to be communicated, sex education needs to be more than warning of the dangers of unprotected sex.
In the UK it has been estimated that 20% of women and 4% of men, which equates to 3.4 million females and 631,000 males, have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16. Violent sexual attacks are rife and horrifically under-prosecuted, which in turn discourages individuals from reporting them. For example, in 2018 just 1.7% of reported rapes were actually prosecuted in England. This is a heinous injustice to victims and is very telling of how our criminal justice system treats some of the most vulnerable people. However, sexual assault is often much more subtle than what you read about in the news. Sexual violence can happen regardless of if someone is in a relationship, their age, gender, sexual preference, or any other factor. It can take people months or even years to realise that an experience they had with someone was problematic.
When it boils down it, sexual assault is committed by individuals; it is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is no one else’s fault apart from the perpetrator. Now, there are many ways that we as a nation can try to combat this issue. I believe one of the most important, and simplest things that we could do is improve sex education and teach consent in schools. Government guidelines over sex ed are incredibly vague, emphasising ‘respectful relationships’ and understanding what constitutes as sexual violence by the end of secondary school. Rather than teaching people to recognise what experiences constitute as unacceptable, surely they should be learning about conversations and actions that they should be experiencing.
In 2015, a tea drinking video was released to explain consent in simple terms. It gets the viewer to imagine that instead of initiating sex you are making them a cup of tea. If you ask and they say no, you do not make them tea; or, if they initially want tea but halfway through decide they no longer want tea, you cannot force them to drink it. It also covers if someone is asleep, or too drunk, then they also cannot have tea. This is exactly the kind of education that everyone should learn; consent has to form the basis of any relationship or sexual encounter.
Whilst this, of course, will only work to a point, it is an important stepping stone for all students to develop a healthy relationship with sex at such a formative point in their lives. Sexual experimentation is a part of many people’s lives, and education on consent, as well as sexual health and contraception, would equip everyone to stay safe whilst ensuring their experiences are always consensual. This will help teenagers already going through a tough time in their lives to navigate the complexity of adult relationships. Groups have already started working towards spreading this kind of education throughout the country, but it is imperative that it soon becomes a national policy.