Why is sex education a feminist issue?

sexplain's Youth advisor Ingrid Berdal explores the subject of sex education as a feminist issue.

The following article is taken from Ingrid's feminist campaign plan, devised during a work experience placement in gender and conflict at King's College London.

This project aims to address the subject of sex education as a feminist issue and explain why it should be viewed in this way.

The main reason is most likely that the topics frequently untaught by secondary schools in sex education or PSHE classes often arguably have greater consequences for female than for male students. These include consent, the teaching of which, as well as helping to inform women of their rights in situations in which they may be abused (in an age where this is still an issue for women worldwide), can contribute to building confidence.

Illustration by Sexplain's  Evie Karkera .

Illustration by Sexplain's Evie Karkera.

Another avoided area includes parts of the female anatomy, which creates the undeniable impression that there is no value in learning about – and shame in discussing – them. The fact that a student, who later spoke to the Guardian newspaper about her experience of sex education being taught when she was in secondary school, upon asking why the female students in her class had not received information on masturbation in a booklet during a sex education lesson while male students had, was told by her teacher that ‘Girls don’t do that, that’s disgusting’ (1), gives further evidence of the stigma surrounding female bodies and sexual pleasure.

Furthermore, focusing mainly, or indeed purely, on the reproductive purposes of sexual intercourse, protected sex and sexually transmitted infections reinforces the idea that teaching female students about sex as a natural and enjoyable aspect of adult life is unnecessary.

This can overall continue to encourage gender norms, such as that men are more aggressive while women are submissive, in addition to others including men being rational and women emotional, putting, of course, pressure on all to behave in a certain way. Research would suggest that not enough measures are put in place to erase the concept continuously being embedded in the minds of young people that men are naturally inclined to be more sexually active, and that this is somehow healthier than it being the case for women.

Examples of this are female rape victims in the USA who have felt at fault for not preventing the attack (2), as well as the observation made in the article ‘Gendered construction of sexual risks: implications for safer sex among young people in Kenya and Sweden’ that in both countries, however different their approaches to teaching sex education, girls could not be seen as having the same sexual liberty as boys, and were to be more concerned with ensuring that sex was protected (3).

In order to change these perceptions, which are harmful to both boys and girls, the sex education curriculum needs to be reformed in a way that teaches equality in relation to sex and relationships, in order that no individual feels restricted by the harmful expectations resulting from gender stereotyping.

Therefore, consent and sexuality are among topics that need to be prioritised in PSHE classes – with especial regard to inspiring confidence in girls on issues surrounding their bodies and sexual health – as well as ensuring that students learn properly about forms of discrimination, including racism, and that they are aware of diversity of gender and sexual orientation.

More to the point of showing that this is an intersectional feminist issue, students should also be taught about the impact of poverty on accessing information on sex and sexual health, illustrating that this is as much a class issue as a gender issue.