WRITTEN BY WORK PLACEMENT AND PHD STUDENT NATASHA RICHARDS
The Gender and Education Association (GEA) works to challenge and eradicate sexism and gender inequality within and through education. I attended the GEA Conference 2019 as a representative for Sexplain UK, as well as within my role as a doctoral researcher at the University of Essex.
In the opening to the conference, the challenges to gender equality were deliberated and there was a push to not become complacent or disheartened in the increasingly uphill struggle towards equality. Instead, all educators should mine hope from the positive and courageous work that is taking place, to challenge inequalities at all levels and in all areas. The four-day conference continued to be a testament to this message, showcasing inspirational work across the academic, professional and community sectors.
Many of the presenters addressed intersecting inequalities, particularly with regards to race, class and gender. It was noted that it is not the individual that needs fixing, but the system that allows and encourages inequalities to persist. Humans are not born with prejudice. We learn it. Education is essential to addressing and dismantling prejudice. There are ways that prejudice can be addressed: stereotype replacement; counter-stereotype imaging; individuating not generalising; empathy and perspective training; increasing opportunities for engagement beyond the basic. Sexplain workshops incorporate these actions and continually interrogate the company’s practices to ensure that all aspects of inequality are challenged within the work.
There were a huge amount of fantastic talks and workshops over the four days. Below are some of the standout moments, that were particularly relevant to the work at Sexplain UK.
LGBTQA+ Young People
At Sexplain UK we are fully inclusive of all gender identities and sexualities. It was great to attend workshops and talks at the conference that provided approaches to supporting LGBTQA+ students. One of the finest quotes of the conference came from Portsmouth Pride Youth Society, who said that to help students, organisations need to “help them create a tribe or a family”. There are many barriers to young people accessing services: cost; assumptions; incorrect pronouns; perceived judgement; fear; gendered forms; toilets; stigmas; changing rooms; being ignored; being told “too young” or “it’s a phase”; lip service and fake acceptance; inappropriate questions; having to show ID; out of date terminology. There are things that educators and organisations can do to combat barriers: challenge discrimination; promote LGBTQ+ rights; wear rainbow lanyards as beacons of safety; use appropriate language; use correct pronouns; avoid assumptions; personal and professional development; gender neutral toilets/forms; positive role models; transparency when making a mistake; be an ally; be non-judgemental; support your local pride events; “listen to the voice of the child”. The last one is particularly important. Young people are experts in their own lives. Sexplain UK wholly and passionately agrees with that sentiment and places it at the core of the company’s vision.
The conference highlighted how gender plays an important role in our understandings of education. We live in a very gendered society. In her talk on Subversive and Protest masculinities: Key Concepts for Masculinity Studies, Professor Anna Hickey-Moody (RMIT Australia), addresses the “boys are in crisis” narrative which is currently dominating the public sphere through the media. One of the ways we can change narratives is by telling new stories. Utopian stories can go beyond what we can envisage achieving and provide new understandings of gender and gender expression.
It is essential that toxic masculinity, and attacks on women, are immediately addressed as they are pervasive and damaging in current society. In her talk ‘Stop making up words you toxic feminist’: Urban Dictionary as primer in rape culture and toxic masculinity, Dr Debbie Ging (Dublin City University), addresses the weaponization of violent pornography and the growing themes in ‘incel’ attacks. She reveals how Urban Dictionary, the 22nd most popular website in the US, is predominately written by men to a male audience. She challenges the idea that Urban Dictionary is in any way democratic and instead emphasises, through analysis of the language, that it is a tool used to further sexualise women by men.
In her talk Toxic Masculinity, the ‘Teachable’ Moment, and 13 Reasons Why, Dr Tanya Horeck (Anglia Ruskin University), discusses how binge culture can impact the understanding of systematic issues, and how these issues evolve over time. She acknowledges that there is an educational value to 13 reasons why, but it needs to be interrogated. There are issues with the content, such as rape being used as a plot device. But also, the trigger warnings associated with this disturbing content are used to heighten the experience; they are another level to unlock in a similar way to how someone might binge on a video game. Each episode is a new level to unlock. Educators need to foreground the systematic violence and address the difference between reality and fiction in the way that systemic violence unfolds over time.
Professor Jessica Ringrose (UCL), advisor to Sexplain UK, emphasised in her talk, Digital Sex Education: Toxic masculinity and the ubiquitous dick pic, “schools are in a scramble” to address statutory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE). She highlighted how the old guidance was set 20 years ago, so an update was extremely necessary and welcomed, but that the new guidance is problematic, which is something Sexplain UK have also acknowledged. Ringrose highlighted that under the new guidance young people can still be pulled out of RSE lessons and that schools could still omit important information under their own jurisdiction. During the presentation people were animatedly nodding and saying “yes”, demonstrating the shared agreement on the subject. Ringrose emphasised her dislike of the films Tagged and Exposed, due to the victim blaming that is prevalent throughout the films. Currently, sexting research has very generalised findings. Ringrose wants to do a more specific survey. She is currently conducting focus groups, in partnership with Sexplain UK, which aim to further interrogate the mass consumption and distribution of sexual content amongst young people. Comprehensive research is essential to comprehensive education.
In the closing hours of the conference, I attended a talk by doctoral researcher Sarah Handyside (University of Warwick): "It feels like when my phone dies, I die with it." Smartphones, social media and teen embodiment. A fantastic title, and an important area of research. She discussed the interesting challenges to conducting research and developing education programmes around digital issues when smartphones, and technology more broadly, change so quickly. She emphasised how faster, richer interactions are developing as smartphones improve. She described how young people understand an imagined audience when they use social media. In her findings so far, as the research is still in the developing stages, she found a strong relationship between embodiment and social media and emphasised that this relationship needs to be focused on more acutely when educating young people on the use of social media and digital issues.
Dr Akane Kanai (Monash University) highlighted how educators need to also continue to educate themselves and “stay woke”, in her talk Digital feminism and affective learning practices: self-surveillance, care, and self-transformation. Through her research she found that intersectionality repeatedly came up as an issue even though it wasn’t originally a focus of the project. She found that celebrities have become shorthand for discussing good and bad feminism. Educators can use celebrities as an accessible resource for talking about intersectional feminism, as well as other issues around relationships and sex. Dr Kanai stated that intersectional feminism is seen as “the perfect feminism”, therefore there can be a lot of care and anxiety around “saying it right” when talking about feminism and feminist issues. Discussing intersectional feminism with young people can open broader debates on knowledge and the politics of circulation. Here at Sexplain, our approach, as detailed on our website, is intersectional feminist, non-binary, sex positive and non-judgemental. It is important for us to discuss what that means in practice and how it fits with the wider discussions of intersectionality.
I could write a lot more about the conference but will leave it there for now. Here are some of the key points I took away from the four days:
Education is an agent for change; to the individual and thereby to society
It is essential that educators interrogate unconscious bias, particularly with regards to race and class
Educators need to engage with LGBTQA+ identities otherwise they are failing students
It is at the intersections of protected characteristics that tensions exist
Young people are growing up in an increasingly digitised world, which needs to be a core consideration when developing education programmes
Some of the questions I left considering were:
How can we continue to address intersecting inequalities?
How can we be more aware of, and address, unconscious bias?
What role should technology play in RSE?
Question for you… what are YOUR unconscious biases?