Researcher discusses 'Sex in Class' documentary

Posted by ap507 at Aug 10, 2015 09:50 AM |
Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans reviews the recent documentary 'Sex in Class' and examines sex education issues
Researcher discusses 'Sex in Class' documentary

Belgium’s Goedele Liekens is on a sex education crusade. Stephen Wells/Channel 4

Please note: The following article contains some graphic content.

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

The somewhat volatile debate about sex education and its content that has taken place in recent months has been re-opened by Goedele Liekens, a Belgian United Nation's goodwill ambassador for sexual health. Liekens campaigns for a mandatory GCSE in sexual health in which the topic of pornography, sexual pleasure and sexual agency be given priority, issues, she argues, that are sadly omitted from children’s education in the UK in contrast to some other European countries. To this end she is seeking government support and spent two weeks making a documentary   ‘Sex in Class’ at Hollins Technology College, Accrington, Lancashire.

The programme was preceded by somewhat sensationalist headlines:  “Channel 4 sex education documentary brings pornography into the classroom” and “Ex-beauty queen teaches schoolchildren about the 'joys and pleasures of sex' in new TV show”. I feared it would demonstrate little more than a further example of the ‘pornification’ of culture where the expertise which many adults now give pornography as the ‘how to’ manual of sex has infiltrated into the classroom.

Head teacher Steve Campbell permitted Liekens to make her crusading documentary in his school because of his own concerns about the sexualisation of children by pornography.  He declared: "I believe that the route we are going down is appropriate and is what is needed in the school."

Nevertheless Campbell and his colleagues expressed some ambivalence about whether pornography should or even could be a mandatory topic of sex education. They were concerned at a number of levels: whether they have the competence and confidence to teach it; whether parents would assent to this as a curriculum subject; whether the UK is ready for such a straightforward approach to sex.

The Gender Agenda of Pornography

The documentary demonstrates the kinds of approach to sex education Liekens thinks we should adopt. Thirteen Year 11 teenagers aged 15 to 16 years old volunteered to take part in her experiment where she gets pupils to discuss their own use of pornography.

In so doing, Liekens forefronts the issues of gender and power imbalances in pornography. What happens in pornographic scenarios happens in the classroom:  males are dominant and assertive; females are compliant and take their lead from their male counterparts.

The boys discussed how they had used pornography for some years now and masturbated to it two or more times a day. One boy clearly understood his dominance and sexual agency with regard to girls. He was vociferous in expressing the view that swallowing semen and/ or welcoming ejaculate on her face (colloquially known as the money-shot, a prevalent pornographic trope) is the duty of the girl. Initial consent to have sex with him implied automatic consent to this form of male orgasm and shows ‘respect’ for him.  He would immediately ‘dump’ any girl in possession of pubic hair, in contrast to the shaved genitals of pornography performers.

Liekens encourages the boys to write a sexual script where girls experience sexual pleasure, and gets them to draw female genitalia. She encourages homework, such as shaving their pubic hair on a daily basis so that they may identify with the discomfort and itchiness felt by the girls.

She expresses shock at the ignorance of the girls about their own anatomies since they ‘don’t have a clue’ about the shape and position of the clitoris and urethra.  She gave them hand-held mirrors so that in private, if they chose, they could familiarise themselves with their own bodies.

Girls became more emboldened as the lessons progressed, shifting from silence about their feelings to open resistance to their alleged pleasure in having ejaculate on their face and in their eyes, or to the necessity to shave their pudenda on a constant basis in order to possess what the boys described as desirable rather than revolting ‘fannies’

The final class showed the boys more reflective and less ‘cocky’ about their own sexual ‘entitlements’ and clearly touched by the honesty of the conversation that had grown up between themselves and the girls.

Sex Education Pedagogy

Lieken’s educational approach is premised on the belief that as teachers and parents we are failing our children.

In conventional sex education, although the anatomy of genitalia is often shown, the clitoris is excised from representation. This mirrors the silence of girls about their own sexual agency.  Teachers don’t challenge the boys’ sexual attitudes to girls which were clearly taken from pornography.

Discussion about pornography in which boys and girls were encouraged to open up about their feelings enabled them to critically reflect upon pornography.

Simon Blake, Chief Executive Officer of the Brook charity, is sympathetic to Liekens’ aspirations but points out that resistance to discussion in the classroom about pornography and sexual pleasure is based on the idea that it will cause premature sexual awareness. The Conservative MP Graham Stuart, former head of the education select committee, clearly expressed this sentiment in discussion with Liekens.

In contrast to these anxieties, Liekens argues that children are like plants: if you don’t give good sex education at an early age they will grow in the wrong direction. She argues ‘it is about time we changed the script’ about the ‘lies’ of pornography.

A Counter-force to Pornography

I was surprisingly heartened by Liekens’ aspiration for sex education in the UK. Whether we agree or not this should take the form of a GCSE, the broad premises of her thesis are admirable and necessary: girls should be provided with knowledge of their own anatomy and the clitoris as a site of sexual pleasure; boys and girls should be given critical skills to reflect upon the narratives and tropes of pornography; the empowerment of girls to negotiate and express their own desires and sexual boundaries will bring about healthier and less exploitative sexual relations for both sexes.

Those who argue such an education sexualizes adolescents need to confront the sexual reality of the majority of the nation’s children. It is the utter ubiquity of internet pornography which is sexualizing adolescents.  The form of education that Liekens suggests is a counter-force, one that is made necessary by a society in which we define pornography as a democratic right and avail ourselves of it in vast numbers, thus making its availability and consumption by sexually curious teenagers inevitable. If we genuinely wanted to end the premature and inappropriate sexualisation of teenagers we would look to our own practices as adults.

Share this page: