Why we Need Better Sex Education

I read a piece last week in The Guardian arguing that women should be allowed to get ridiculously drunk if they want, like men can, rather than be told they can’t in case they are raped. There have been a few campaigns around this area recently- I signed a petition earlier this year asking the NHS to take down posters in hospitals with statistics on how many rapes happen after the woman has been drinking. The problem here is obvious: we’re looking at the wrong end of the problem, because you know what the common denominator is in all rapes? Rapists.

Obviously, The Guardian article attracted a lot of comments and I had an ill-advised scroll through. One had missed the point completely – asking why women were fighting to be allowed to emulate men’s stupid behaviour instead of focussing on things women were good at, when the point is that women should be allowed to drink without being blamed if something then happens to them – but another made me stop and think. It said that the point was that drinking too much makes you more vulnerable to crime in general, and as rapes happen statistically more often to women, drinking makes women more vulnerable to rape. It said: ‘to protect yourself from being raped, one of the things you might want to consider is not getting so drunk that you can’t fight off an attacker’ (italics my own). There are a few points I want to make using this as a starting board. Unfortunately, the more I go into this the more there is to talk about, but I’ll try not to ramble and rant on for too long.

I feel like we’re talking about different issues here. The vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, but I think that often the idea people have is of someone attacking you in the bathroom at a club, or in the street on the way home, or in the back of an unlicensed mini cab. This is the image that was conjured up for me by the phrase ‘can’t fight off an attacker.’ The problem with the comment in this context is that if a man attacks a woman, it is likely that she will be physically weaker than him and, drunk or sober, that she would not be capable of fighting him off. I can sort of see the person’s point, that you might be more coordinated if you were sober, but there could also be an argument that if you were drunk, your inhibitions would be lowered and you might try something you wouldn’t if you were sober- pushing your finger in his eye, perhaps. A friend of mine reacted on instinct when drunk and it may have saved her from a very nasty experience. She was getting in an unlicensed cab with some friends, but the driver started to pull away as soon as she got in without waiting for the others. Without thinking, because she was drunk, she pushed herself straight out of the moving car. If she’d been sober, she may have been too frightened.

I think the other issue we’re talking about here is much more ambiguous. Part of this argument has already been made beautifully in another article I read reacting to a piece on Bloomberg News talking to boys at American colleges, who said they feel like too much of the blame for sexual assault is being put on their shoulders. At first glance, this sounds like a ridiculous headline- again, the common denominator in rapes is rapists- but when you read the whole article you see how confused young men are about what is and isn’t okay when it comes to girls who’ve been drinking, and dating in general. I completely agree with the author of the piece that what is needed here is better education for boys and young men about consent, and I would also argue we need to educate girls and young women too, on what is and isn’t expected of them when it comes to sex. Part of the problem here is that both sexes aren’t raised by the media and by culture in general to view sex in the same way. It appears to me that we are all conditioned: women are expected to give, and men can expect to take. Of course, this is not universal, but I believe it is played out in all sorts of cultural stereotypes. It’s included in the idea that men want sex more than women (when sex drive is completely individual), it’s in all the moments in films and television programmes when a man does something for a woman- even if it’s just buy her a drink- and then feels entitled to something afterwards. You’d hope that this was an attitude that isn’t around anymore, but I have heard stories from friends which tell you that that isn’t so. Real, complicated sex education is so important for breaking down these kinds of “norms.” I read new Sexual Guide for Boys and Sexual Guide for Girls pieces online recently, and they’re both a step in the right direction. Men and women need to be taught their own rights and rules, particularly as ‘hook-ups’ become more and more common as an accepted way of dating, as discussed in my last blog. What I didn’t say then, and I will say now, is that ‘hook-ups’ (I really don’t like the phrase, that’s why I’m insisting on putting it in inverted commas) aren’t necessarily a bad thing: if that’s what you want, then that’s great, and sometimes they lead to the hand-holding and dates to the cinema that might once have more commonly happened first.

But boys need to know what the rules are with girls, particularly when they’ve been drinking: where the line is that you shouldn’t cross, and you should take her home and put her to bed ALONE as you would for a friend or a sister. And of course, on the flip side, girls need to be aware of the difference between ‘I completely blacked out’ and ‘I remember saying no and him carrying on’ and ‘I wish to God I hadn’t done that.’ The last is often another symptom of poor sex education and females feeling that they are expected to have sex with someone after they’ve reached a certain point, that if they say no, it could get nasty, or just not knowing how to say no. This is a horrible situation to find yourself in: you’re out with friends and you’re kissing a boy, someone you know or someone you’ve just met, and suddenly it’s the end of the night and your friends have disappeared because they expect you to be going home with him, or he turns to you and says: ‘I won’t kiss you anymore unless you go home with me,’ and you’re young and confused and, yes, maybe you’ve had a drink, and even though what was fun a few minutes ago now feels scary and half of your brain is aware that the correct response to this, the response you’re going to wish you’d said for years, the response you will give when you’re older and understand yourself better, that response is: ‘Oh- well in that case, feel free to catch the next bus to FUCK OFF,’ but you don’t know how to say no and the only card you’re being shown is one that says this is expected of you, that you owe this person something, so you go through with it even though you keep thinking all the way home you should tell him to take a hike and when you get to the house you have to excuse yourself to sit in the bathroom and swallow a panic attack before you go ahead. And you find your voice too late, an hour later, when he asks if you want him to stay and you say: ‘Actually, I’d really rather you left,’ because all at once you need to be alone to nurse the aching shame that comes with not understanding how you couldn’t say no to something you’re not sure that you wanted, just because everything was pointing you towards giving in as the easiest, somehow safer, option. Of course, I don’t know what this situation looks like from the male perspective. It may be just as awkward and weird and uncomfortable for men as it is for women. Either way, we need to work it out.

I have strayed a long way from the initial point of this article, because when I start talking about these issues every point I want to make uncovers another layer of the problem. It all comes down to needing better understanding of ourselves, and of sex, and teaching people that we are all equal and nobody is ever allowed to force anyone to do anything. Most of us know now that too often the blame for rape is put on women – for not wearing enough clothes, or putting themselves in dangerous situations. Alcohol does increase the possibility of engaging in risky behaviour, and we should all be careful of that, but equally we should be building a society which makes it safer for women to get drunk in public, or to wear skimpy clothes, or to walk home alone. Nobody is entitled to expect sex from somebody else, and nobody should be forced into it, or to feel that they have to ‘give in’ and sleep with someone, in any context, whether you’ve only just met or you’ve been in a relationship for years. It is always your choice.

Here are those links again for Sexual Guides. Both very interesting and worth a read.

Sexual Guide for Boys

Sexual Guide for Girls

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One thought on “Why we Need Better Sex Education

  1. I’m a woman and when my sister was young I asked about her sex education in school (we’re from Australia were we teach sexual education in our schools) and she knew a lot about the mechanics of sex but no one had spoken to her about the emotions involved, what are good and bad relationships, etc. We started have talks about the emotional aspects of sex and relationships. Also, she didn’t have practical understanding about how to put a condom on, how to get the Pill, etc – I wasn’t going to leave it all up to the knowledge and fumbling of a teenage boy. So I showed her how to put on a condom, we talked about other forms of birth control and about positive, loving relationships. I wasn’t in any way pushing her to become sexually active, I just wanted her to have options and be able to protect herself. One of the best things I’ve ever done.

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