‘The bedroom and the tampon tax will both be scrapped’: And other things I wish the Queen had said in her speech

Today the Queen revealed the Conservative plan for Britain over the next five years. The usual pomp and ceremony was present, but the 26-bill package was severely lacking in any policy I’d like to see us adopt as a nation.

First published by The Independent, 27th May 2015

Today the Queen revealed the Conservative plan for Britain over the next five years. The usual pomp and ceremony was present, but the 26-bill package was severely lacking in any policy I’d like to see us adopt as a nation. Here’s what Her Majesty didn’t say, but I wish she had done:

1. There will be meaningful regulation of the press

I want to see greater regulation of Britain’s press, and no, I’m not talking about censorship. No one company should be able to own more than a certain percentage of our media.

2. More affordable housing will be built, and rogue landlords will be penalized

Landlords are part of the real conversation we need to be having about welfare in Britain. We waste billions on housing benefit, as those on low incomes are forced into the costly private rental sector. Rogue landlords are often able to operate with impunity, collecting huge rewards for vermin-infested living spaces. Research has found that landlords are responsible for 740,000 unsafe homes in England alone, and rake in £5.6 billion every year. Why are we letting this happen?

3. Energy prices and rail fares will be frozen

Or better still, renationalize them. We should be encouraged to use public transport, both to protect the environment and cut down on congestion on the roads. Steadily rising rail fares are not an encouragement, and they actually serve to penalize those without cars. In terms of energy costs, no one should have to choose between eating and heating their homes when the weather gets colder. Our country should not be held ransom to the big six energy suppliers, forced to accept rising tariffs on their whims.

4. The hunting ban will remain in place

There is absolutely no reason that the hunting ban should go anywhere. If your hobbies include riding around with your mates and a group of dogs so you can chase down and rip apart a defenceless animal, you need to have a long, hard look at yourself and your priorities. Fox hunting is cruel and unnecessary. It’s also a sport for toffs and should be consigned to the history books.

5. Sex and Relationships Education in schools will receive a radical overhaul

All children should receive unbiased and accurate sex and relationships education. Academies and faith schools should be forced to provide clear, truthful information on contraception, healthy relationships, consent, gender and identity, LGBT relationships, the impact of pornography, STIs and abortion. There should be no exceptions. Young people must be equipped with all the necessary tools to navigate their relationships, in order to make healthy, informed, consensual choices.

6. The bedroom and the tampon tax will both be scrapped

The bedroom tax was a cruel policy when it was first conceived, and its application has been even more heartless. It has caused immense suffering, and must be scrapped as a matter of urgency. If men’s razors are considered essential items and women’s sanitary products are taxed as a luxury, we’ve actually gone through the looking glass. The tampon tax is unfair and needs to be ended.

7. Women who have suffered sexual assault, forced marriage, FGM and domestic violence will not be detained in facilities like Yarl’s Wood

This practice is cruel and inhuman, and mostly hidden from the public eye. People who have suffered the most horrific treatment elsewhere in the world are being locked up indefinitely in Britain, while we very slowly decide whether their torture has been sufficiently awful. Places like Yarl’s Wood are prisons, where women are stripped of their privacy and routinely assaulted by male guards. Many become suicidal. I can’t be proud of a country where we sit back and allow this to happen.

8. We will lower tuition fees and ban unpaid internships

Call me a sandal-wearing idealist, but I believe that as long as you have the ability, you should be able to further your education and improve your chances of success. Tuition fees stand at an all-time high and the Tories have not ruled out a further rise. Soon, only the wealthy will be able to afford an education and the rest of us will have to choose between a qualification and a lifetime saddled with debt. Unpaid internships are a similar blight on the face of Britain, allowing the well-off to fund their offspring through months of work for no money, while those without financial advantages are shut out. This is no different to certain people being able to buy their foothold on the career ladder, and it makes a mockery of the idea that Britain rewards merit.

Don’t Criminalize Teens For Sexting: Educate Them Instead

It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon.

First published by The Huffington Post, 7th May 2015

It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon. There are also more immediate concerns, like navigating the unstoppable tide of online pornography, cyberbullying, and exam pressure. It’s no wonder that most young people are unaware of the fact that by taking explicit pictures of themselves, they risk facing criminal charges.

A loophole in the law means that any under-18 year old taking explicit selfies can be charged with creating and sharing indecent images of children. This is particularly nonsensical in the case of 16 and 17 year olds, who can consent to sexual acts and relationships, but are unable to take or share erotic pictures of themselves. The charge of creating images of child sexual abuse is a very serious one, and the legal definition should differentiate between pictures taken consensually by over 16s and children being photographed and groomed for sexual abuse by adults.

I’m not attempting to gloss over the very real problem of teens who have their intimate photos shared with peers and strangers without their permission, after their relationship with the intended recipient has broken down. This can be absolutely devastating, particularly in the wake of the slut shaming and disrespect from friends and classmates that inevitably follows.

Criminalizing young people, however, completely misses the point. Instead of slapping teenagers with criminal records, we should endeavour to support them and provide them with high-quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education. Young people should be educated about the essential nature of consent and respect in their relationships, so that the idea of sharing another teen’s intimate photos without permission becomes socially repugnant.

Sex education desperately needs to provide a solid foundation upon which young people can build healthy, loving relationships, and respond to the pressure to be sexually desirable, to emulate pornography, and to acquiesce to the demands of partners with strength and maturity. Schools must commit to tackling the bullying of teenage girls when private images are used to humiliate and silence them, and this shouldn’t involve the police penalizing the young women themselves.

Teenagers are doing their best to cope with their entry into a highly sexualized society, and they have grown up with technology that allows them to immortalize and disseminate every minute of their lives. Equipped with hormones and smartphones, they should not be criminalized for documenting their burgeoning sexuality, and we owe them the education that will allow them to make smart, respectful choices when it comes to technology and their bodies.

Sex education in the UK: time for a far-reaching overhaul

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?

First published by Open Democracy, Tuesday 31st March 2015

Sex education in British schools is failing to educate children about consent and healthy relationships, or include LGBT issues and address harmful gender stereotypes. Do the government’s new plans go far enough?
I don’t remember much about my own sex education lessons, other than an overwhelming sense of dread. We were taught about the terrifying prospect of pregnancy and about numerous sexually transmitted infections, with accompanying graphic images on laminated pieces of card. I was terrified that the teacher was going to talk about same sex relationships, knowing that it would lead to shouts of ‘dyke’ and my peers putting chewing gum in my hair. I realise now, of course, that if LGBT relationships and their validity had been discussed, the nightmare of homophobic bullying I endured during high school could’ve been dealt with much more effectively.
Everyone has a different story about their experiences of sex education, but the thread that runs through all of them speaks of inadequacy. Too little, too late, too biased, too focussed on the mechanics, too weird, too awkward, too many gaps. When 40% of teenage girls have been pressured into sex, and 22% surveyed by the NSPCC said that they had been subjected to physical violence by a boyfriend, including punching, slapping, strangling and being beaten with an object, it’s pretty clear that our approach to sex education needs an immediate and far-reaching overhaul.
The NSPCC’s report also found that the UK had the highest rate of children and teens sending explicit sexual images. 40% of the girls who had sent sexual pictures to a boyfriend said that their partner had then shared the images with other people. 39% of boys admitted to watching porn regularly, and 25% were shown to harbour extremely negative attitudes about women. In order to tackle these issues, sex and relationships education urgently needs to address them. The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on our university campuses doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If children are taught early on about the essential nature of enthusiastic consent, and about the harmful culture of victim-blaming and rape myths, I believe that the prevalence of sexual violence can be combatted effectively and young people of all genders can be mutually supportive, rather than in opposition to one another.
Grace attends a selective state school. She wishes there had been more than a very basic model of safe sex and some ‘gory’ STI photos discussed, and describes her sex education as “totally penis-centred, with the vagina barely mentioned, let alone the parts labelled”. She says “there was absolutely no talk about consent or even what consensual sex means, or mention of anything other than heterosexual couples. Consent should be the most crucial thing when teaching young people about sex and when things like foreplay aren’t even mentioned, it’s unsurprising that teenagers turn to porn to answer their questions”.
Porn is currently a point of contention in the debate over what should be taught to children and teenagers in their sex education lessons. A leading Danish sexologist is calling for pornography in be shown in classrooms as part of a healthy, well-rounded sex education curriculum, so that teenagers can be“conscientious and critical consumers” who can tell the difference between fantasy and real relationships. Although there are those who think that young people are more than capable of separating the fantasy of mainstream porn, with its false focus on spontaneity and predilection for showing women in a subordinate and submissive role, if sex education is inadequate, it’s likely that porn will be used to fill in the gaps.
Anyone who opposes the expansion of sex education in the name of protecting childhood innocence is living in a fantasy land. Unless you cut your child off from all forms of technology and contact with other children (and their laptops and smartphones), you cannot prevent children from accessing or being shown pornography.
Teenagers need to be equipped with the critical tools that will allow them to view commercial sex as exactly what it is, rather than a guide to how they should behave in the real world. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in the Guardian, that “young women have told me how surprised they have been when, during sex, hands have been placed around their necks, their hair has been pulled so hard they’ve wept, their faces and breasts have been ejaculated on without consent”, citing these stories as examples of how pornography has infiltrated the relationships of teenagers.
It’s also important to consider the differences in the kind of information given at faith-based schools, as opposed to the sex education curricula taught at non-denominational, secular places of learning. Claire attended a Catholic school in the 1990s and remembers attitudes to contraception being very poor. “There was a page missing from our biology text books and when we looked in the index to find out what was missing, it was the page on contraception. Our main sex education was delivered during an event called “family day” at a nearby convent where we mainly talked about adult life, getting jobs, having a family etc. This included a very uncomfortable talk from our form tutor who talked about how God only approves of the kind of sex that can make babies… so using your mouth or hand is very bad.”
Little appears to have changed in terms of how sex education is delivered at faith-based schools. Charlotte left school five years ago, and remembers her sex education at a Catholic school as “extremely biased and confusing, particularly to people who didn’t define as heterosexual. We were shown abortion videos and given a slut-shaming talk by people who told us we had to wait until marriage to have sex”. Female oral sex was never mentioned, but Charlotte was told that “giving your husband a blowjob is the most intimate thing you can do”. The teacher described this as part of a wife’s “emotional responsibility” to her husband.
There’s obviously a conflict of interests here. Some parents will inevitably choose to send their children to religious schools because they want them to receive teaching that is influenced by religious doctrine. Unfortunately, this is extremely harmful when it comes to sex education, as teenagers are often provided with information that is objectively false, that leaves out crucial material, and is inherently detrimental to young women when they are shamed for showing an interest in sex or becoming sexually active. All children and teenagers, regardless of whether they come from Catholic, Church of England, Muslim or secular backgrounds, deserve to receive unbiased information about sex and relationships, so that they are able to make their own, informed choices about their lives and bodies.
If teachers aren’t correctly trained to deliver a meaningful sex and relationships curriculum, it’s essential that schools employ outreach and youth workers who can pick up the baton in this area. Schools should be equipped to provide honest information about LGBT relationships and gender identity, so that gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual and transgender students are not excluded from sex education. Teenage years are full of exploration and are often the time when young people are discovering and coming to terms with their sexuality.
It’s important that we don’t overlook the interest teenagers have in the fundamental questions about sex and relationships. Young people need to be aware of the building blocks that will help them form healthy, mutually pleasurable relationships, including creating foundations of trust and respect. Otherwise, the myth that sex is something men should attempt to get from women (at all costs) and sex is something women should withhold from men (to prevent them being denigrated as ‘sluts’ or ‘easy’) will continue to be perpetuated.
The government’s plans to introduce the teaching of consent to children aged 11 are definitely a step in the right direction, but do they go far enough? The series of lesson plans on the meaning and importance of consent, produced by the Personal Social Heath and Economic Education Association (PSHEA), were backed by ministers but not made a compulsory part of the curriculum. This means that teaching of consent may be cursory or sporadic, and some schools may choose to ignore the lesson plans altogether.
The need for a more comprehensive sex and relationships curriculum is urgent. By providing young people with unbiased and broad-ranging information on consent, mutual respect, mutual pleasure, pornography, and the meaning of rape culture, structural problems of sexism and sexual violence can be challenged early on. It’s essential that teenagers are able to navigate sex and relationships in a safe and informed manner, so that their personal lives can be fulfilling and independent, and free from harmful misinformation and abuse.