We need to modernise sex and relationship education

Over the course of the last year the media rediscovered its fascination with feminism- a movement that is now going through its fourth wave. An unprecedented amount of articles tracking the progress women have made towards achieving genuine gender equality was published this International Women’s Day. The statistics they contained demonstrate why feminism is still very much needed in modern society. One in three women worldwide will be beaten or sexually abused in their lifetime. Two women a week are killed by an intimate partner in the UK, and only 1% of the world’s property is owned by women.

The early years of this millennium were characterised as a post-feminist age. Women were told that sexism was dead and encouraged to believe occupations such as lap dancing can be sexually empowering. Thanks to the work of wonderful feminist organisations committed to debunking myths about feminism and educating young women and men about its potential for change such as Object, End Violence Against Women (EVAW), Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3, a growing number of young women and men committed to social justice have joined the fourth wave of the feminist movement.

Despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, feminists don’t think all men are rapists and women-haters. In fact, the current generation of feminists fully recognises how patriarchy oppresses both genders, and places great emphasis on forging alliances with men.

The most successful way to prevent sexism is through education. However, on 28 January the House of Lords voted against a Labour Party amendment to the Children and Families Bill that would have made sex and relationship education (SRE) a mandatory part of the school curriculum.  

We currently live in an era where many young men learn about sex and acceptable treatment of women from pornography, the most hardcore and violent of which is only ever just a few clicks away. It’s time for the government to acknowledge the elephant in the room and focus on finding an appropriate solution.

A well thought-out and properly executed SRE programme has huge potential to reduce violence against women by educating young women and men about abuse and teaching them how to engage in healthy, respectful and most importantly, consensual relationships.

Although the provision of SRE education could have a revolutionary impact on gender relations, the House of Lords voted it down and Education Secretary Michael Gove MP remains opposed to making it a statutory requirement. Even though it is encouraging to see that SRE education has even made it onto the political agenda, it is far more disappointing to watch our government drag its feet on this issue.

As usual, where our government has failed, the responsibility of teaching what is acceptable behaviour has fallen onto the shoulders of civil society. No child in school today would get away with racist comments yet the same cannot be said for sexism. If we ever want to achieve gender equality, we need to start treating sexism on par with racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other social ills of this kind. In short, we must all accept the responsibility to call out misogyny when we see it.

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