Debbie Ging: 'The sex education programme in Irish schools is over 20 years old... Change is essential'
Sexual harassment has dominated the news in recent weeks, with allegations made against powerful figures such as Harvey Weinstein sparking a worldwide #metoo social media campaign. The media's focus on Hollywood might have made it easy to dismiss serial predators as part of the celebrity lifestyle, but the #metoo initiative brought home the staggering scale and everyday nature of sexual harassment in women's - and many men's - lives. According to Facebook, 4.7 million people posted #metoo comments within the first 24 hours alone.
Reading the stories posted, I was struck by two recurring themes: that experiences of unwanted sexual advances often began at an early age (11 or younger) and that a key motivation for posting #metoo stories was to ensure that the next generation won't have to experience this.
Among the many areas in which concrete change can be effected, education is an obvious starting point.
Sex Education, in particular, is key to teaching about equality, consent and respect. However, the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in Irish schools is over 20 years old. An analysis of the curriculum content conducted in 2006 noted that it focuses largely on the avoidance of pregnancy and STIs, and encourages students to wait for sex 'until the time is right'. An evaluation in 2007 also revealed that there was a strong perception amongst students that RSE was selectively addressed and sometimes even ignored. This study also found a lower implementation in all-boys schools. This kind of gender inequality in the provision of such an important aspect of education points to a wider issue with gender inequality in education and society.
Emphasis on risk and prevention places a disproportionate responsibility on girls as the gatekeepers of sex, underpinned by an assumption that boys will push to go as far as they can. Teachers report that boys find it particularly difficult to talk about sex. There is little, if any, space for boys to discuss intimacy, hurt, sexual rejection and fears about sexual inadequacy, a void which can be filled by alternative sources online, from hardcore pornography to the burgeoning industry of pick-up artists (PUAs) who tap into male sexual rejection, frequently encouraging non-consensual approaches to so-called 'seduction'.
Understanding and engaging with this broader social context is vital. The pervasive myth that women's self-objectification is empowering has exacerbated the idea that women's bodies exist to be rated, selected and consumed. A new wave of digital feminism has been met with a particularly toxic backlash, whose extreme misogyny has percolated into mainstream online discourse. Urban Dictionary, the crowd-sourced lexicon for contemporary slang, is infused with pornographic and misogynist rhetoric. The problem with the 'pornification' of mainstream culture is not about the greater visibility of sex, but the greater visibility of sexist sex, in which women are degraded, the sexual double standard still prevails and consent remains disputed.
Often wider school cultures may compound rather than challenge this sexual double standard. Dress codes forbidding girls from wearing short skirts or 'revealing' tops presuppose that female sexuality is problematic because it is 'distracting to boys', yet no such assumptions are evident in rules which forbid boys from wearing tracksuits or jeans that show their underpants, which are often more concerned with sloppiness than male sexualisation.
Similarly, cyber-safety guidelines, talks and educational videos about sexting generally reinforce the idea that it is the girl whose sexual reputation is at stake ('those pictures could ruin your career'), rather the boy who has violated her trust and privacy by sharing nudes with his mates ('boys will be boys'). Children are rarely taught to question the social order that perpetuates sexist values, an approach built into sexuality education programmes in the Netherlands and Sweden.
A cultural shift in thinking about sexism, sexual abuse and harassment is needed and this includes our schools. Along with reviewing and updating curricula, we need to focus on changing practices in schools that may reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and limit development for both girls and boys. By setting high expectations for all students irrespective of their gender, we can start to change the inequality that persists in wider society when it comes to the different levels of accepted behaviour for men and women. Teaching young people about sex should not be viewed as a set of problems to be managed, but as an opportunity to empower them as sexual citizens. Developing critical literacy in this area from as early an age as possible is essential if campaigns such as #metoo are ever to become redundant.
Dr Debbie Ging is Associate Professor of Media Studies in the School of Communications, DCU. She will deliver the keynote address at Educate Together's forthcoming Ethical Education Conference on November 25 in the Grand Hotel, Malahide. educatetogether.ie.