Now I Can Breathe: tackling male violence
Pleasure and consent. The impact of porn on children and young people. And the increasingly topical issue of tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG). These are the relationships and sex education (RSE) topics that, as the director of Outspoken Sex Ed, I still find the most compelling.
So I was thrilled to interweave my thoughts on sex education, male violence and the vital part that parents play by talking openly with their children at home in a public discussion.
Here is the 3-minute speech I gave on 22 November at the Camden Council debate on Violence Against Women And Girls (VAWG)…
Lighting the way: tributes at the Sarah Everard vigil on 13.3.21 (Image: GQ)
How do we tackle violence against women and girls? A sign from the candlelight vigil after the murder of Sarah Everard pointed the way – it had the phrase “Protect your daughter” crossed out and written underneath it: “Educate your son.”
Parents are their children’s first and main educators – and their sex educators, the missing link in their sex education. These days sex ed incorporates topics like body image, gender stereotypes, LGBT+ identities, porn, sexting, pleasure and consent. And they are all interrelated.
Sex and relationships affect all of us – on a societal and personal level – our whole lives long.
When I co-founded the social enterprise Outspoken Sex Ed in 2018 – to get parents talking openly with their children about sex and relationships – two things shocked me. 1) The 2016 Women and Equalities Committee report on how prevalent sexual harassment and sexual violence were in schools and 2) The fact that, from 2013 to 2017, child-on-child sexual abuse had risen by 71%.
What immediately springs to mind as a probable influencing factor is porn – 88% of which is said to be violent or degrading towards women. Although there seem to be correlations – but no proven causation – between watching porn and how it might influence children and young people’s sexual development, anecdotally we hear about how it can affect young people’s body image and self-esteem, their attitudes and behaviour.
I believe that the accessibility of porn is the genie out of the bottle that has sparked people – the world over – to acknowledge that porn is now sex education by default for children and young people, who are exposed to it sometimes as young as age 7. The antidote is critical thinking about porn and talking openly about it, both in school and at home.
Outspoken Sex Ed was founded on the premise that talking openly at home helps with safeguarding, improves mental health and strengthens the parent-child connection. Every two weeks, through our newsletter and online, we signpost parents to the latest news stories on sex and relationships topics that they can use as talking points and ways in for starting sex-ed conversations with their kids.
Making news last month was the Police Scotland campaign Don’t Be That Guy which encourages men to call out gender-based violence and challenge their attitudes to women (its message is: “Most guys don’t look in the mirror & see a problem. But it’s staring us in the face. Sexual violence begins long before you think it does. Don’t be that guy”).
Meanwhile, 25 November marks White Ribbon Day, which raises awareness worldwide about preventing and ending male violence. As White Ribbon UK explains: “Men’s violence against women exists on a continuum. Sexist jokes, banter, catcalling and harassment [can] end with rape and murder.”
Also hitting headlines in the past few years have been initiatives around consent and sexual harassment and assault started by women and amplifying women’s and girls’ voices – from MeToo, TimesUp, Everyday Sexism and UK Feminista’s It’s Just Everywhere report on sexism in schools to recent impressive campaigns by young women: there’s Our Streets Now – started by sisters Gemma and Maya Tutton (above), then aged 15 and 21 – which combats public sexual harassment (PSH); there’s the Teach Us Consent petition started by student Chanel Contos, who collected over 6,000 testimonies about sexual assault; there’s Girls Night In mobilising women to boycott bars and clubs after the needle-spiking outbreak; there are the consent classes for teenagers piloted by Reclaim These Streets and Shout Out UK, and of course there is the power of the testimonies – now over 54,000 – submitted to Soma Sara which galvanised Ofsted into action to review sexual abuse in schools and which made the words Everyone’s Invited shorthand for confronting rape culture.
Public-awareness campaigns around smoking and drink-driving changed people’s attitudes and behaviour. It can happen, as Hemingway wrote: “Gradually then suddenly.” An article in Bazaar magazine put it well: “We came up with ‘Hands, Face, Space’ – surely we can create messaging on ending male violence.”
Yes, the personal is political – and knowledge is power – and sex education begins at home.
Schools encouraging parental engagement in relationships and sex education (RSE) is vital.
And parents talking openly with their children about difficult sex and relationships topics continues to play a crucial part in making violence against women and girls socially unacceptable.
This is a slightly longer version of the 3-minute speech given on 22 November 2021 at Camden’s Full Council Debate on Violence Against Women And Girls (VAWG) as part of the council’s involvement with the 16 Days Of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign
• In response to Councillor Anna Wright’s speech about porn normalising violence against women
Parents these days generally have not been raised with parents who spoke openly with them so it’s very difficult to talk about sex and relationships issues, particularly pornography. However the British Board of Film Classification has said that children are coming across it at younger and younger ages – some as young as 7 – either they’ve been shown it, they’ve looked for it or they’ve found it. It’s so important for parents to have the skills, the confidence and the tools to be able to just challenge themselves and try to talk openly – to normalise it as well at home, the fact that you can talk openly. Statistics also show that children do want to turn to their parents for talking about sex and relationships issues
• In response to Councillor Rishi Madlani’s question about what men can do individually
It’s so wonderful, if you have sons or daughters, to speak openly about sex and relationships issues. Generally it falls to the mother in a family to speak about these things, however it’s wonderful if a man can open up and talk to their daughters or their sons about things like pornography or how they felt growing up, going through puberty and that sort of thing, and show that vulnerability. Because sex and relationships is something that’s so important to all of us our whole lives long…
Listen to the moving words of Amina, a teenager whose experiences spurred her to work with teachers to stop sexual harassment at school, in the powerful 9-minute 2019 BAFTA-nominated video Now I Can Breathe by Adam Tyler (director of outstanding short Screwball!)