Last night Channel 4 showed a new documentary, Sex In Class.
It followed Belgian sex educator Goedele Liekens as she brought her frank and explicit classroom methods, normally delivered in the Netherlands, to a group of 15/16 year-olds at a state secondary school in Accrington, Lancashire.
The programme was great in many ways, demonstrating not only the desperate need for full and proper sex and relationships education in British schools, but also the effectiveness and enormous benefits of the Dutch approach. Where the film fell short was not in what it portrayed, but what it didn’t.
Of course the documentary had been made from many weeks filming and edited down into 47 minutes, so this is not necessarily a criticism of Liekens, but there were a couple of troubling omissions from the final cut.
Most obviously, there was no mention of diverse sexualities or gender alignments. It was assumed that everyone present and watching was cis and straight. This was surprising and disappointing.
Less surprising, if no less disappointing, was that while the issue of consent was explored quite deeply, it was strictly in one direction. The teenage girls were portrayed as victims-in-waiting for the crass, crude, porn-scarred boys beside them. I’m not going to dwell on this point because it’s a familiar narrative. Sure, a couple of the boys themselves provided enough raw material to prove that such fears are not entirely unfounded. At the same time, there was little editorial effort made to suggest it might actually be a bit more complicated than that.
One dynamic which was not shown – and I am not surprised because it is scarcely if ever mentioned in such contexts – was the concept of a boy’s consent, his right to say no. Despite its radical pretensions, the documentary did not entertain the idea that one of the girls in the room might be the instigator or even the aggressor in a sexual approach, or that a boy might ever not want to have sex. With tedious cultural conservatism, the boys were presented strictly as brash sex machines, while the girls were the custodians of sexual consent.
There are at least two distinct reasons why this has to become part of the conversation and curriculum on SRE. I’ve written both here and elsewhere about the research which shows surprising prevalence of coercion and abuse perpetrated by women against men and boys. There can be little doubt that many of those incidents or crimes are the product of a mindset which says men are always up for sex and if they can be physically aroused then they are fair game. Their consciously-expressed consent is considered irrelevant.
The other reason is illustrated powerfully by a thread on Reddit today. It’s a single comment thread drawn from a wider discussion about men’s experiences of female sexual abuse. The initial comment was this:
Had a girl physically hold me down and say “I can’t believe you’re saying no.” It was very uncomfortable. It didn’t go any further than that but I still can’t believe she assumed that I wanted to have sex with her.
I’d suggest reading the whole thread because it is fascinating, but in brief, it includes a string of men recalling female partners who had reacted to a man saying “no” with dejection, depression, anger or even violence. Perhaps even more revealing were similar numbers of women confirming that they had indeed felt all of these emotions and more.
OHHHH yes. I remember the first time my now-husband just didnt feel like having sex. I had a bit of a meltdown. I was freaking 25. I feel bad about it now because I realize how dismissive that is of his needs and feelings, and at the time, HE wound up feeling guilty. I later told him he didn’t have anything to feel guilty about and he has every right to autonomy and consent. It worked out ok and I learned a very important thing, but at the time it was very emotional.
I was raised my whole life to believe that men got horny all the time and need it all the time, to the point that you need to be on guard so you aren’t raped. So how was I supposed to know that it wasn’t like that? I felt like the biggest asshole.
Same here. I was like 20. We were sort of living together (been married 15 years now). He came home from work and just wanted to take a nap. Turned me down. I flipped out. We aren’t just taught men are always up for it, IMO we’re basically taught its all they care about, all they think about, and the ultimate goal to anything they do or say. So when he said no it was very confusing. I now know that men as well sometimes just aren’t up for it.
Those are just a few of many. And I think there are some really, really important lessons there. Most obviously, the male sexual insatiability is a myth. Not every man is in the mood all the time, for whatever reason, not every man is unable to resist a woman’s attractions.
At a more profound level though, I think it shows that sex education which depends upon stereotypes and generalisations of women or men does no one any favours. Sex education which denigrates or even demonizes men and male sexuality is quite simply bad sex education, it does not adequately prepare boys or girls for a healthy and satisfying sex life and can create whole new problems. The women writing on Reddit today were describing emotional distress and relationship problems that had been created by a myth about male sexuality, a myth which I fear SRE classes could, in some instances, perpetuate. Great, healthy sex requires not only mutual consent, it also demands mutual attraction, mutual enthusiasm and mutual trust. Great, healthy sex education needs to nourish those, not undermine them.