Two recent news stories have been very unsettling, even for those of us who have worked in health and social care for a number of years.
The first, here in the north of England, is of a man convicted of raping his two daughters over many years. The attacks led to 19 pregnancies. Nine of the children were born, two of whom died on the day of their birth, and the other 10 pregnancies ended in miscarriage or abortion. The events are chillingly similar to those seen in Austria where Josef Fritzl has been sentenced for the imprisonment and multiple rape of his daughter.
The second story is of a nine year old Brazilian girl who became pregnant with twins after allegedly being raped by her step-father. Police also suspected him of abusing the girl’s 14 year old disabled sister. The Brazilian Catholic church has taken the decision to excommunicate the mother of the 14 year old along with the doctors who agreed to the abortion for the young girl – effectively declaring their act as a greater crime than the ones committed by the perpetrator of the sexual abuse.
However, as these two stories vividly demonstrate, many people experience coercive and violent sex over which they have little or no control. Sex and pleasure will not be linked in the minds of these victims.
When I worked as a child protection social worker, I was constantly reminded of how difficult it is for girls and young women to discuss sexual abuse that they had experienced. This situation was made worse by a lack of appropriate vocabulary to describe what had happened to them. There was also confusion about what was acceptable and consensual activity within their family.
One young woman (tragically one of many) described how she did not know that having her ‘tuppence’ touched by her step-father was wrong until she complained of soreness around her vaginal area to a school nurse.
Ignoring the rights of children and young people and denying them accurate and consistent information about sex and relationships makes children even more vulnerable.
Writing in the Daily Mail, the columnist Melanie Phillips attacks the materials used in sex and relationships education in schools: “Sex education teaching manuals set out a full range of sexual positions, partnering and perversions. Much of it looks like propaganda for sexual licence; some of it is not so much education as indoctrination…” and, she continues, “It promotes sexual pleasure as a ‘valid sexual and reproductive health need for all young people’.” (February 16, 2009)
The intention in the teaching and promotion of sex and relationship education, as most of us know, is completely the opposite. The intention is to establish clear boundaries and acknowledgement of the distinction between consensual, pleasurable sexual experiences and coercive, violent sexual experiences.
A confusion seems to exist between efforts to educate and promote more sexually aware and sexually competent young women (and men) with the increasing sexualisation of women by the media. Pick up any popular women’s magazine and you will see an obsession with weight and weight loss. Overt correlations are made between being thin and being more confident, attractive and sexier.
Consider the messages that a magazine I looked at recently gives to young women. The strapline declares: ‘Brand new you! Happier. Healthier. Sexier’. A Paul McKenna exclusive boasts ‘I can make you thin without dieting’. An advert completes a hat trick of messages about the sexual availability of women. The advert for ‘Quick cook rice’, which is adjacent to the image of a lipstick, jokes ‘while dinner’s cooking you’ve still got time to do the decorating’. And that’s without reading the magazine!
Such editorial and advertising imagery promotes ideas about women’s sexual availability. These messages not only affect women and their expectations and experiences of sex and relationships but they also affect the expectations and experiences of young men. Everyone loses out in terms of good sexual health.
A sexual health doctor told me how it is increasingly common to examine young women who have depilated all of their pubic hair. When the doctor queried this practice many of her patients responded that their male partners find pubic hair on women ‘dirty’.
There appears to be increasing anecdotal evidence of the effects of sexualised and pornographic imagery on people’s expectations of sex and the female form. What we also must question is to what extent the removal of pubic hair is also an attempt to infantilise women’s bodies.
The Government has just launched a consultation called ‘Together we can end violence against women and girls’. One of the things the consultation calls for is a public debate on whether there is a link between sexualised images and perceptions of women and sexual violence. The paper points to disturbing statistics about sexual and domestic violence. For instance, a Teen Abuse survey by Sugar magazine and the NSPCC in 2005 found that one in five teenage girls had been hit by a boyfriend; and one third of teenage girls said that ‘cheating’ justifies violence. In other studies highlighted, a quarter of respondents said that they thought a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing; 40% of victims of serious assault over the age of 16 had told no one about their experience; and only 6.5% of rapes reported to the police ended in conviction.
Reassuringly the consultation paper emphasises the important role of good personal, social and health education (PSHE) and sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools in promoting healthy relationships from a young age. The paper is uncompromising in recognising the value of educating young people that any kind of violence or coercion has no place in a mutually respectful relationship.
The critics of improved sex and relationships education seem to think we live in a society in which the denial of appropriate sex and relationships education will protect young people from predatory adults and abuse; a soft-focus ‘Youth-topia’ where young people will be imbued with all the knowledge, skills and experience to negotiate safe, pleasurable consensual sex the first time they engage in sexual activity; a ‘Youth-topia’ where there is a consistent and infallible ethos to ensure the rights of children which protects them from all forms of sexual, physical and emotional abuse; a ‘Youth-topia’ in which young people’s sexual awareness is only awakened when they meet their prince or princess, fall in love, marry and live happily ever after. Those days of innocence have gone – but did they ever exist? Or were children bullied and abused as they are now, with the additional insult to their sense of selves of being gagged by society?
I welcome the Government’s Consultation Paper as a more realistic approach to the issue of sexual violence. I also welcome the Paper’s recognition of the importance that SRE has to contribute. Those of us that inhabit the real world are not calling for a ‘sexual free-for-all’, rather an end to gender based violence and sexual coercion; and for me that requires us to actively promote a sexually competent, well informed population where consensual and pleasurable sexual activity is discussed more openly and more freely.