There’s a lot that’s depressing in the Women and Equalities Select Committee report on sexualisation in schools. There are the children who report being pressured into sexting or sexual acts; the 18 per cent who say they’ve been sexually harassed at school, and the 12 per cent who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. But one of the most depressing things of all is this comment from 17-year-old Lucy on how the problem might be addressed: “People should be taught that everyone is different,” she says. “It’s OK if you want to have sex and post pictures of yourself but if you don’t feel ready to do that it’s OK, it’s just that you are young and immature.”
How sex positive, how broadminded, how utterly, utterly grim the two acceptable options laid out there are. It’s OK to be your own pornographer and share naked selfies, but it’s also OK not to because you might just not be ready to take that great step into adult relationships. It’s often said that the alternative to the impoverished curriculum that passes for sex education in the UK should be something called “consent education”, in which children learn the mantra “no means no and yes means yes”. But how can that ever be sufficient when girls like Lucy have already imbibed the underlying code that no means you’re infantile and undesirable?
The version of sex that children are introduced to in the classroom is all too often a hopeless abstraction, concerned only with the arid mechanics of reproduction and disease-avoidance, and narrowly fixated on penis-in-vagina. Rather than preparing children to navigate the sexual world with confidence, this curriculum tends to leave them baffled and ignorant about the actualities of relationships. “How funny that we can’t bring ourselves to tell our children the most fundamental truth about sex, that most of the time we have sex, we have it for pleasure,” says the science writer and activist Alice Dreger, reflecting on her son’s experience in the US school system.
And yes, it is funny that sex education is so coy when it comes to feelings. But pleasure isn’t the only emotion associated with sex, as the Women and Equalities Committee report makes clear. There is also pressure, shame, vulnerability and a total absence of pleasure – at least, when it comes to girls’ experiences. Because despite committee chair Maria Miller’s insistence that “we need to address this issue now, and stop it from blighting the lives of another generation of young people – both male and female,” this is not a gender neutral issue and we cannot address it by pretending there is some kind of equality of victimisation. The lives being blighted are very nearly always female ones. When boys are the targets, their distress is real; but thanks to sexual double standards, it’s rarely as devastating as it is for girls.
Just look at the stories told by the young people interviewed in the report. Here’s a girl who sent intimate pictures to a boy because “she thought it would make him love her”; he forwarded them to the whole school. Here’s a girl who went to a friend’s house and ended up performing for a webcam before she’d even had her first kiss; the pictures were circulated, and left her feeling “disgusted with myself”. Here’s a boy who “wanted his girlfriend to dress like a porn star and do what a porn star would do.” One girl explains with icy clarity how the constant pressure of porn and pornified culture has worn away her belief in even the possibility of no: “My view of being a woman was so warped I kind of felt like I just had to accept it and give men what they want.”
You could point out that all this is nothing new, and you’d be right to. Women’s dead-eyed submission to men’s sexual demands is as old as patriarchy: “Hundreds of thousands of years have shown us that women cope, effortlessly, with having joyless sex,” writes Caitlin Moran (in a 2012 column that, curiously, makes this an argument in favour of prostitution). And Lynsey Hanley, in her new book Respectable: The Experience of Class, recalls being a child in the Eighties: with porn mags circulating at school and Benny Hill on TV, this was no golden age of innocence. “If things seem bad now,” she caution, “the timbre of the culture then was easily as fixated on women as objects, as things to be chased and to be torn apart once they’ve been used.”
So it’s possible to argue that the report reveals not a frightening internet-fueled increase in male violence and sexual entitlement, but a perverse positive: finally, girls are naming the abuses against them. Possible, but wrong. Pornography is no longer restrained by paper, but replicates and spreads virus-like on mobile phones – and every child has a mobile phone. That means that every child has a camera, too, and can make themselves a direct participant in the economy of exposure that seems to make up the adult world. Selfies are rated. Nudes are coaxed, then distributed. Lives are trashed.
In the annual anxiety about girls outperforming boys at GCSE, it’s rarely mentioned that female academic success has barely dented the wage gap. Maybe that’s because boys are learning something so much more valuable at school than simply how to pass an exam: they’re learning how to dominate. They don’t even have to be direct participants to benefit: a boy can refrain from pinging any brastraps himself and still acquire the useful habit of filling all the space left by girls who’ve been aggressively taught to shrink themselves out of harm’s way. So let’s teach girls more than consent. Let’s teach them refusal. Non-compliance. Let’s raise a female generation that knows the giddy pleasure of laughing off heterosexual drudgery. And then the boys, if they don’t want to be left behind completely, will have no choice but to learn to do better.