How can we teach boys respect if we don’t give them any?
On the 27th of January a letter appeared in The Times, written by a group of campaigners, including Holly Dustin from the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Justine Roberts founder of Mumsnet, and Polly Neate from Women’s Aid.
The letter calls for reform of the way that sex education is taught in the UK, specifically for it to be made compulsory, and for it to be updated to address both the influence of violent internet pornography, and the high level of abuse of girls by boys.
The Times also carried an accompanying article, on its front page, discussing and elaborating on the contents of the letter.
The central argument, that more needs to be done to protect girls, is surely beyond dispute, but nonetheless several aspects of the campaigners’ approach are open to legitimate criticism.
The letter makes almost no attempt to clarify the nature or scale of the problem. Only a single statistic is used :-
“One in three girls experiences groping or other unwanted sexual touching at school.”
No source is given for this figure, and no estimate is made of what proportion of boys might be involved in committing these acts, nor how many are being influenced by violent online pornography.
But even beyond the shortcomings of the way in which the case for reform is being presented, of greater concern ought to be the manner in which the debate around these issues is being framed.
The accompanying article appears under the headline “Boys need to be taught how to treat girls.”
One might hope that this was just a provocative simplification of the article’s content, intended to draw the reader in, but in the very first paragraph we find –
“Sex education should be compulsory at secondary schools to teach boys to respect girls, according to prominent campaigners.”
And in the second –
“Boys and young men appear to be getting their education about sex and relationships from internet pornography, the group says, leading to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.”
And further along still we are told that schools should be “educating boys to develop a more respectful attitude.”
If generalisations containing this degree of negativity were being made about girls, or about a particular race or religion, would it still be seen as acceptable for them to appear, without qualification or counter-argument, on the front page of The Times?
Throughout the article boys seem to exist only as the perpetrators of abuse against girls, never as children in their own right with their own issues deserving of consideration.
Unfortunately the attitude taken in the article is only a reflection of a wider mindset.
In the UK we seem to have a collective indifference to the problems facing boys today. In the last couple of decades boys have fallen steadily behind in most aspects of education.
One only has to walk past almost any college or university to see how un-ignorable the gender gap has become and yet, most of the time, we just keep on ignoring it anyway.
In particular we seem immune to the possibility that any form of bias may be operating against boys, even when that bias is in plain sight.
Statements like “boys need to be taught how to treat girls” are making an assumption of guilt based solely on gender.
What will be the outcome if these sentiments find their way into any future education reforms?
If boys perceive that they are being taught about respect in a way which shows no respect for them, then how likely is it that the whole exercise will simply backfire, discrediting the very issues it was intended to address?
Surely the best, most obvious and easiest solution is to seek to bring up boys to have a degree of self-respect and confidence in themselves which prevents them from being susceptible to malign influences from their online worlds or anywhere else.
Would it be so difficult to incorporate this approach into a new sex education curriculum, fundamentally revised to address not just the problems but also the possibilities that the 21st century has created?
Whatever difficulties the easy access to online pornography might be causing for young people trying to make sense of their sexualities, the internet has also made it possible for them to seek out, in safe anonymity, genuinely informative and balanced advice. This has surely been at least partly responsible for an unprecedented level of awareness of the wide variety of sexualities and of healthy sexual practises that now exists.
As a society that values diversity and equality, should we not be seeking to build upon this level of awareness by producing a sex education program based around mutual respect, open-mindedness and tolerance, in which negative stereotypes play no part, and in which the definition of ‘normal’ is expanded to include any safe practise that consenting adults wish to engage in?
The promotion of the idea that boys are inherently predisposed towards misogyny and abuse is utterly incompatible with such progressive principles, and does not represent a step towards female equality but rather an unthinking leap straight past that point and into a new set of inequalities.
The way that sex education is taught in the UK certainly needs to be updated, and greater effort and urgency needs to be put into tackling the sexual harassment and abuse suffered by girls. But these are not the only issues which need to be addressed, and demonising the other half of our children isn’t going to solve anything.
Photo— Flickr/ Eagle Brook School