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Do boys really need sex and relationships education? asks Wendy Earle

Masculinity can make you go blind, boy!

How can you tell soap operas are fictional? In real life, men aren't affectionate out of bed.

Why can't men make eye contact? Breasts don't have eyes.

These two anti-men jokes are from a collection of over 30 recently e-mailed to me by a friend. The fact that my friend is a man is pretty telling. Being male these days is a joke, it seems: or at least you have to laugh or you would cry. There is a growing consensus that through moral education boys must be protected from a dismal future as 'typical' men - potential delinquents, child abusers, wife-beaters and all-round losers.

Last November the Sex Education Forum, a wing of the National Children's Bureau funded by the department for education and employment, published 'The charter for effective sex education in school', calling for the inclusion of sex education in the national curriculum. Effective sex education is not really about the biological processes so much as about preparing children 'for healthy and fulfilling relationships'. This latest initiative is particularly targeted at boys: the Sex Education Forum has launched a government-sponsored campaign entitled 'Let's hear it for the boys!' to support 'sex and relationships education for boys and young men', for which they have published a handbook with the same name.

In contrast to the traditional notion of a carefree boyhood, the editors of this handbook assert, 'It all feels a bit grim, growing up as a boy, alone and alienated and relying on a peer group which also fosters that aloneness'. They claim that their research 'showed that boys and young men felt under real pressure to present as "hard", "strong" and "knowing it all" and to conceal displays of caring, dependency, loving and other forms of nurturing or supposed effeminacy' (Let's Hear It for the Boys!, Gill Lenderyou and Caroline Ray (eds), 1997).

Along with many others today, Lenderyou and Ray argue that a key purpose of sex education should be to counteract gender-role socialisation that makes boys act out male stereotypes. Masculinity, they believe, leads to displays of unacceptable behaviour: 'The goal of achieving successful mascu-linity may force them to differentiate themselves from gay men, women and "failures" by adopting homophobic and sexist behaviour and attitudes.'

Effective sex education is here about establishing a new standard of acceptable behaviour, one that is based more on traditional 'feminine' attributes rather than 'masculine' ones. 'Masculine' attributes - aggressiveness, presenting a strong front, hiding emotions, appearing knowledgeable and rational - are now seen as inherently problematic: damaging both to boys themselves and to the people around them.

Sharon Lamb, writing in the Journal of Moral Education, argues that 'sex education must take as its moral injunction the diminishment of violent sexual behaviour in our culture' ('Sex edu-cation as moral education' in vol 26 no 3, 1997). In her view there is a continuity between the obnoxious behaviour of a pubescent boy who grabs a girl's breast as he walks past her to impress his friends, and the crimes of a serial rapist and murderer. She claims that sex-role socialisation puts boys 'at risk of becoming sexually coercive in adulthood', that boys are less trained in 'empathic interpersonal problem-solving', and are 'less accepting of emotions such as sadness and tenderness'. Therefore, sex edu-cation should 'teach values such as consideration, carefulness, concern and care as healthy sexual practice'.

The concerns about boys' social and emotional development are largely misplaced. There is no connection between 'laddish' behaviour in boys and their adult personas. Research evidence shows that boys (and girls) grow out of stereotypes. As children and teenagers they use stereotypes in different ways, to help them work out their identity and establish themselves in social groupings and in wider society, but as they acquire a more complex grasp of human individu- ality and moral values they become more complex and individual themselves. As they mature, they lean less and less on stereotypes as guides to their behaviour and attitudes, and develop more individually defined approaches to their social interaction.

So if a grown-up man acts like a 'yob' after a football match it is not because he is acting out predetermined behaviour ingrained in him from birth. Just because he acts like a big kid, it does not mean he thinks like a 10-year old. In 'letting himself go' he is merely responding to the excitement of the moment. You will probably find the same bloke changing his baby's nappy the next day, a picture of caring and conscientious fatherhood.

Let's Hear It for the Boys! proposes that sex education should 'support boys' emotional and sexual health to help them communicate more effectively, access help and advice and reduce the rising suicide rate amongst young men'. Yet do boys (or girls) need this kind of help in growing up? Aren't they better off doing what they have always done - learning from their friends and peers and working things out as they go along?

In doing the research for this article I came across a paper written in 1986, 'The dirty play of little boys' by Gary Alan Fine. He points out that 'the dirty play of children seems to be a natural outpouring of some of the developmental imperatives of growing up'. He describes the crude sexual talk and posturing of pre-adolescent boys, usually conducted well away from adults, as being part of a process whereby boys 'act mature' - live up to what they perceive to be adult standards of behaviour and address adult issues from which they are generally excluded.

Of course, when adults do catch a glimpse of this closeted activity we might well be shocked: but what we see is boys' immaturity, their crude attempts to act out their maleness, in which they pick up on and caricature all kinds of images and information, most of which will be discarded in their interactions beyond their circles of friends and peers. The last thing we should do is take this kind of behaviour seriously: it is not a particularly prevalent feature of boys' activity and they will grow out of it. Attempts by adults to suppress or control this behaviour are likely to do more harm than good, denying children opportunities to strike out on their own and play out their free-ranging fantasies of adulthood before they have to buckle down in the real world.

The moral pressures of wider society eventually kick in and boys learn to behave in socially acceptable ways. Yet whereas in the past socially acceptable adult behaviour meant acting as an independent, competent individual, capable of controlling and expressing one's thoughts and feelings more or less appropriately as situations and relationships demanded, now it is becoming increasingly common to consider this kind of behaviour as problematic. Let's Hear It for the Boys! asserts that 'nationally, the percentage of young male users of young people's sexual health services is worryingly low, with estimates ranging from three to 20 per cent. The potential repercussions of this are serious in terms of both young men's mental and physical health and, of course, there is a subsequent effect on their relationships'.

It used to be generally recognised that men don't use sexual health services because, unlike women, they don't need to. Women have to deal with the possibility of getting pregnant - and have to use the health services if they want effective contraceptives or if they do become pregnant. While once we thought that men were lucky for being able to get through most of life without seeing a doctor, now this 'condition' has been pathologised - they are seen as putting themselves and others at risk for not taking responsibility for their sexual health.

There is a danger that the new focus on boys' sex educational needs will simply serve as a means to play on the vulnerability of young men, when what they need is to take confidence in their strength - not as against girls, but alongside girls in shaping their role in the modern world.

Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998

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