RSE Consultation – my response about the secondary RSE bits

Here are my responses to the RSE Consultation which I did yesterday (I know I know, I’ve had weeks to do it, but it’s just me here). It’s a big consultation and it’s unwieldy, but if you wanted to have your say about the content of the RSE guidelines for secondary schools then that would probably just take you a few minutes because it’s just one box. I know. Here’s what I had to say about that in case you wanted to copy my homework.

The consultation link is here and you have till 11.45 tonight apparently (Wednesday 7th November 2018). Brook also have done this for the whole consultation, which you can read here. End Violence Against Women Coalition have shared their thoughts too.

There’s one big section asking about the content and I pasted all of this into it. Sorry/not sorry DfE. The numbers refer to the numbers in their guidance which are right there for you to look at in the consultation, just click the link. Apart from the bits in navy blue, everything below is what I said. Sorry, wordpress is being a dick today.

  1. I’m very pleased to see this less hierarchical approach to relationships. There are many potential valuable relationships and relationship models. Learning about how to do different kinds of relationships, and how we shouldn’t just be asking one relationship to give us everything, is an extremely important learning outcome. We should also not be creating a hierarchy of romantic relationships being more important than other kinds. I would caution against the idea that marriage relationships are any better or more ethical than other kinds of relationships.
  1. I would like to see something in here about the importance of consent and for the possibility that sex can be enjoyable and what RSE can do to address the fact that often sex is not enjoyable or consensual for too many people.
  1. Teachers often don’t feel able and are often just not equipped to answer young people’s questions about safer sex. It’s important for teachers to have up to date knowledge and to be able to answer students questions in a confident and matter of fact manner. I think these kinds of lessons are best dealt with by outside experts, for example from local sexual health services, or specialist sex educators.
  1. I think ‘intimate relationships’ is a term which needs to be unpacked here. A lot of young people will have intimate relationships that are not necessarily sexual. I think it would be more helpful to talk about intimate or sexual relationships in order for that to be clear.
  1. This seems to put the emphasis on the individual for being in a relationship which might not be good for their mental health — this is victim blaming. Instead, the guidance should be emphasising: self-care; looking out for others; about addressing our own relationship ethics; and being critical of the messages we receive about how being in a romantic relationship is always better than being single.
  1. Seems to be very muddled. It seems to suggest that young people should cultivate resilience in order to overcome barriers. This is an extremely unhelpful neo-liberal message to be including in a resource about RSE. Many of the barriers to good outcomes for people around relationships, sex, sexuality and how they feel about themselves are down to structural inequality: this is something that needs to be addressed within the guidance rather than simply telling students that if they work hard they will succeed. However this section also talks about some virtues, such as kindness, generosity and sense of justice, which are certainly important.

I think that this section needs to be rewritten to talk about:

– why it is that some people have more power and privilege than others,

– why some people receive status for their sexuality whilst others receive stigma,

– how our relationship to this oppression can affect our relationship with ourselves and others,

– how we can embody kindness and generosity in ourselves, but also towards others and in our communities and society in general.

  1. RSE should be inclusive throughout the life cycle, which means that we need to be making sure that LGBTQIA folk are included in all RSE. This can be done by having a broader working definition of what we mean by sex (that sex is not just procreative, that it doesn’t always have to happen with someone, and that sex isn’t always necessary for a relationship), referring to partners, using gender neutral terminology, etc. All RSE needs to be inclusive and not just for straight and cis students.

So I’m assuming that when you are talking about “Sexual orientation and gender identity should be explored at a timely point and in a clear, sensitive and respectful manner” that you are talking about more in-depth teaching about different labels, people’s relationships to their labels, the stigma and discrimination that many people face, how we can advocate for the rights of minority genders and sexualities etc. Which I agree would need to be timely (in order that young people get it), but inclusive RSE needs to be all the way through the school.

We have to move away from what we have now, which is RSE which completely leaves out any students that are not straight, whilst simultaneously failing straight kids with the one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality.

  1. This is extremely muddled. Is it meant to be about ethics or the law? Certainly secondary RSE needs to have clear teaching about the law, but it also needs to go way beyond this in order to give students the opportunity to explore what constitutes sexual ethics. Allow for students to build on their own values so that they get to talk about what a responsible sexual subject might do, but also about what makes it more difficult to behave in an ethical way. All the way through the guidance there is too much about the what and not enough about the how. We can tell young people what the law is, but what young people are interested in talking about is ethics and real life situations.
  1. Abusive relationships are about power imbalances and this doesn’t really come across in this section or in the rest of the guidance. In this section in particular we need to reframe how young people are vulnerable to exploitation by adults. I would also be wary about using classroom based RSE to deal with safeguarding issues, particularly around FGM.
  1. I would like to see a more affirmative framing of young people’s digital worlds. The EU Kids Online projects highlights that the risks of young people’s online lives are often overstated when compared with the many opportunities that young people can encounter. I would also welcome some links to online resources for young people of secondary age here, such as

(these blue paragraphs are quotes from the guidance)

  • what marriage and civil partnerships are, including their legal status e.g. e.g. that marriage and civil partnerships carry legal rights and protections not available to couples who are cohabiting or who have married, for example, in an unregistered religious ceremony.

This seems to conflict with the messages that there are different types of committed stable relationships.

  • the characteristics of positive and healthy friendships (both on and offline) including: trust, respect, honesty, boundaries, privacy, consent and the management of conflict, reconciliation and ending relationships. This includes different (non-sexual) types of relationship.

The importance of consent in relationships and how we might go about navigating it. We also need to bring in power here or all of this is a bit meaningless.

  • how stereotypes, in particular stereotypes based on sex, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability, can cause damage (e.g. how they might normalise non-consensual behaviour or encourage prejudice).

This needs to be expanded on to make it clear that our experiences of status or stigma because of our identity and experiences can mean that it’s harder for some people to have the kinds of sex and relationships they might actually want, rather than what they should have. For example There is a lot at stake for many people when trying to negotiate using condoms in relationships: “I mean the sex is great, but he won’t use condoms. I keep insisting on it but sometimes we go bareback. I feel like he could just turn around and find someone else if I keep nagging him, but I’m in love with him and don’t think I’ll find anyone else like him.”

  • the facts about reproductive health, including fertility and the potential impact of lifestyle on fertility for men and women.

I think this is important to address because we aren’t teaching young people properly about fertility. Young people think that their chances of getting pregnant are much higher than they actually are. This has two unintended effects a) that they panic about sexual activity that have very low risks of pregnancy or b) the belief that, because they haven’t got pregnant immediately from contraceptionless sex, they are infertile and so won’t use contraception.

  • that there are a range of strategies for identifying and managing sexual pressure, including understanding peer pressure, resisting pressure and not pressurising others.

We also need to address the pressure at a societal and community level. We need to get away from individualising RSE and making it about the interpersonal, where our relationships take place, and the broader messages we are receiving. Just teaching ‘resilience’ is not good enough and it’s not going to work.

  • that they have a choice to delay sex or to enjoy intimacy without sex

Can we specifically talk about asexuality here. Also the working assumption of this document seems to be that sex is about reproduction, and thus is very specifically about penis in vagina sex. This excludes anyone who doesn’t have a penis or vagina but it also creates an expectation that sex is this one particular act that many people just don’t enjoy. If the message that sex education sends out is that the only kind of sex that counts is penis in vagina then a lot of people will feel pressured into doing it if they don’t want to. So to bring in more possibilities for consent we also need to be talking about the many different kinds of sexual activity which we may or may not want to have.

  • how the different sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDs, are transmitted, how risk can be reduced through safer sex (including through condom use) and the importance of and facts about testing.

I would welcome specific guidance about not using images of STIs here. They seek to stigmatise those people who have experienced STIs and are also inaccurate, as most STIs are symptomless or have very mild symptoms.

  • how to get further advice, including how and where to access confidential sexual and reproductive health advice and treatment.

I would like to see a stronger emphasis on how schools and services can work together more.

© Justin Hancock, 2023

Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people and adults in person and millions online at his website for young people BISH. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here and stay up to day by signing up for the newsletter.