There’s a lot uniting English people at the moment. The World Cup, Danny Dyer speaking the mind of the nation and standing up to Piers Morgan, our collective lobster sunburns. And, perhaps most importantly, Love Island. Love Island is on the lips of the people and the media. One particular comment from the Guardian made me pause – ‘Love island normalises emotional abuse’ . Is Love Island really ‘normalising’ abusive relationships? I couldn’t help but feel patronised.
Young people start learning about sex and relationships well before grasping how to load ITV2. Claiming shows such as Love Island ‘normalise’ unhealthy relationships assumes that Whatsapp group chats don’t explode when the participants behave disrespectfully. If anything, examples of poor relationships untangling in front of us provide just as many learning opportunities as positive examples. What’s more, we’re fools to misconstrue the influence ‘celebrities’ like those on Love Island have on us at all, especially with regards to sex and relationships.
Articles like the above wrongly assume celebrity culture is the devil on all our shoulders in this area. A study carried out between Brunel and Manchester Metropolitan Universities was the U.K’s first empirical examination on the role of celebrity on young people. In debunking the myth that young people are ‘obsessed’ with celebrity culture, it found that young people actually use celebrity culture to talk about their own values and ideas about morality and conduct as it provides a shared collection of stories we can relate with.
To deny the influence of Love Island is to deny that you were doing something else last night at 9pm. In fact, on it’s opening night, Love Island 2018 was ITV2’s most watched show in history with 3.37 million people tuning in. Last season’s viewers averaging between 1.5 and 2 million viewers each episode and a top episode was watched by 2.4 million people when three of the couples had sex. I’ve unexpectedly been impressed with female participants this season speaking openly about how sex is something to be enjoyed and not stigmatised. Sure, most relationships don’t have the incentive of a £50,000 cash prize, and Love Island should definitely be taken with a pinch of Mallorcan sand, but after finding most of the show’s negative commentary resembling the anxious forums of Mumsnet, I started to wonder what the better alternatives really are.
Like many others, sex and relationships education at my secondary school involved bananas and Pasante condoms (these reportedly had been Durex before the full effects of austerity were felt). Officially, only pupils attending local-authority run secondary schools (a third of all secondary schools) are offered sex and relationship education while PSHE is only mandatory at independent schools. Academies have no official requirements. In these cases, students typically 11 years old in Year 7 start ‘learning’ about sex, reproduction, sexual health, and sexuality and are guided by policy that is now over 20 years old. While it’s promising that the Government will be standardising sex and relationships education across all primary and secondary schools starting in September 2019, the poor standards that have come before this require the Government practise in this area to be fundamentally rethought.
The Sex Education Forum surveyed over 2000 11-25 year olds and found that the Government’s attempt to teach us about sex has been a flaccid one. More than four in ten had not learnt about how to tell when a relationship is healthy (46%) or abusive (44%). Shockingly, a third 34% had been taught nothing at all about sexual consent. When one in five women and one in twenty men in Britain experience attempted sex against their will, this is not good enough. Overall, just 10% of those surveyed said the sex and relationship education they received was ‘very good’, and more than one in five (22%) said it was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. So while the importance of educating young people about healthy relationships is indisputable, what’s being carried out now is wildly inadequate.
Whilst going through the guidance papers that accompany this Government legislation, some worrying guidelines given to schools appeared. One encouraged schools to ‘link sex and relationship education with issues of peer pressure and other risk-taking behaviour, such as drugs, smoking and alcohol’. This is a little counterintuitive because frankly, young people love risk, but more importantly, grouping the experience of sex with other unrelated ‘adult’ experiences essentialises it beyond the unique discussion that it deserves. Other weak areas include the emphasis on marriage as a successful example of a relationship and the lack of framework for catering to religious, ethnic or groups with learning difficulties (other than the parent withholding the right to remove their child from class altogether). And how is successful sex education singularly measured by governments across the world? By the reduction of teenage pregnancy rates. To say this wrongly puts an emphasis on women controlling their experience of sex and relationships is an understatement. Of course it takes two to tango but long term indicators such as low records of abusive relationships, steady rates of romantic cohabitation, and civil partnerships are more holistic measurements of positive sex and relationship education but ultimately don’t provide the quick fix that policy success seeks.
While the government is perhaps well intentioned when it says ‘children need high quality sex and relationships education so they can make wise and informed choices’, it seems that young people are being informed of certain choices with subjective standards. Just because the government shapes other aspects of our sometimes intimate lives, it does not mean that it is always best placed to. Is it even morally right for it to do so? The government taking on this role as a sex and relationship educator ultimately puts an onus on itself being as progressive as those it wants to educate. While the current guidance from the year 2000 is likely to be superceded with new legislation in 2019, there’s no promise of it better reflecting who we are as a society.
The starkest example of the government being out of step is the total omission of young people’s opinions in shaping sex education guidance. No policy content is shaped by the people that are to benefit from its teaching and no frameworks are suggested to better facilitate feedback from young people. Instead schools policies are advised to be developed in consultation with parents and the ‘wider community’ (social workers and health professionals). Considering how ‘the talk’ tends to feature as the butt of many friends’ anecdotes of teen angst – with my own version failing to ever materialise – the jury is out on how well suited parents are for this role either. There is no question about how important these conversations are to young people; the Terence Higgins Trust found 99% of young people between 16-24 think sex and relationships education should be mandatory in all schools.
This entire debate is a wider example of another way in which the government and young people are not able to communicate effectively, something that I hear is pretty important for successful relationships. What’s more, the government’s assumption that something can not be learnt unless it is taught bedrocks the entirety of young people’s experiences. Instead of switching off our TVs, celebrity culture should be used constructively in the classroom in acknowledgement to the influence it has on all of us. Shows like Love Island – with examples of relationships on more steriods than Adam or Wes – are ultimately myriad reflections of romantic experiences that ‘normal’ people relate with more than the fictitious roleplays our Government champions. Perhaps it’s time for the government to be dumped from our own love islands.