Lessons in life
Teenagers, whether gay or straight, will not benefit from sex education, argues Stuart Waiton
'Do Scots pupils really need lessons in homosexuality?', demanded Scotland's bestselling tabloid the Daily Record in response to the government's move to repeal Section 28 of the Local Government Act - the controversial clause outlawing the promotion of homosexuality in schools. But as the row went on, nobody asked the more basic question: do kids need lessons in any type of sexuality?
Whatever prejudices people may have about classroom discussions of homosexuality, the idea that lessons in sex and relationships are as important as maths and history is accepted pretty much across the board. The Scottish Executive has promised that new guidelines on social and sex education will be in place by the time members of the Scottish Parliament have to vote on the repeal of Section 28. Meanwhile, Donald Dewar, Scotland's first minister, has explained that he wants to see 'proper safeguards, good support and good counselling' not only for children in schools, but for the whole community, 'who may have problems with their sexuality'. Why is he so concerned?
Developing a sexual identity and negotiating relationships are seen as things that young people can no longer cope with - at least not by themselves. The Health Education Board for Scotland (HEBS) recently found that young people get most of their information about sex and relationships from magazines, TV soaps and friends. Concerned about 'lad mags' in particular, which do little to encourage boys to think about the emotional and physical consequences of sex, HEBS has argued for 'sex forums' for pupils aged 16 and over to be included in the curriculum, to help them voice their fears about future relationships.
One argument increasingly used to justify teaching young people about sexual relationships, as well as about the basics of reproduction, is that adolescent couplings are not only tricky - they are potentially abusive. For health minister Tessa Jowell, one priority of sex education is to help teenagers avoid being 'browbeaten by their peers into having sex too young'. After a study of 2000 youngsters by the anti-domestic violence campaign Zero Tolerance found that young women find negotiating relationships excruciatingly difficult, Zero Tolerance is pioneering resources to help schools, youth groups and parents to encourage discussions on the nitty gritty of sexual negotiation.
There is a rather patronising assumption here that young women cannot cope with the attention of young men without the support and backup of the government. And it is the same assumption that lies at the heart of New Labour's desire to repeal Section 28. In place of the clause the government wants to develop a framework for 'those who have problems with their sexuality' to come forward and accept the 'proper safeguards, support and counselling'. Isn't this a rather caricatured image of young lesbians and gays as confused, emotional, sensitive and defenceless?
It could be argued that problems with your sexuality are more effectively resolved out and about with your peers, than in the cosy framework of the classroom. Yet part of the motivation for repealing Section 28 is a sense that young people's friends are actually their biggest problem, and peer-group attitudes need to undergo a dramatic transformation. So as well as giving support to confused youngsters, this initiative is an onslaught on the prejudices of the 'lad' - the brutish, homophobic, emotionally illiterate ape, who without the support of Donald Dewar's counselling, it is assumed, will grow up unable to express his feelings or admit his vulnerabilities. In an attempt to train these lads to be tolerant, anti-bullying initiatives and research projects have been set up in Scotland, focusing their attention on 'sex taunts' in schools. One such report has led to a booklet being distributed to all schools, recently reported under headlines like 'Children as young as seven are victims of homophobic bullying'. Whether or not these seven-year-old children themselves are aware that they are either the victims or perpetrators of 'homophobic bullying' is unclear. What is clear, however, is that if the criteria of intolerance and abuse is based on calling somebody a poof, then every child in Scotland I have ever worked with must be a homophobe.
The notion that homophobia and homophobic bullying are among the biggest problems facing schoolchildren today is particularly strange when you consider that, while a majority of Scots have come out in opposition to the 'promotion' of homosexuality in schools, over 80 percent of adults believe that tolerance of homosexuality should be taught in schools. And there is no doubt that tolerance of homosexuality is greatest among the younger generation - 18- to 34-year olds, who are capable of a relaxed attitude towards homosexuality without ever having had it lectured to them by teacher.
The overriding problem with the emphasis on sex and relationships education, whether it deals with homosexuality or not, is that informal relationships once developed by young people themselves are made into an emotional framework laid down by schools, counsellors and government ministers. Friendships developed by young people are often the best way for them to learn about issues they don't fully understand or feel comfortable with. Through gossip or mickey taking, as well as the intimate discussions had by all teenagers (even lads), young people are able to explore how they and others feel about areas of life they often feel unable to discuss with adults. Now, this spontaneous process is perceived as the problem of young people being 'browbeaten' by peers, and sex and relationships are treated as formal subjects that can only be taught by experts and regulated by laws. How approaching this aspect of growing up as a GCSE in the making, with right answers and scripted forms of behaviour, will actually help young people improve their confidence or decide their sexuality is anybody's guess.
As a bit of a boy at school myself, with no formal training in tolerance or sexual awareness, I still managed somehow to go to university and campaign against the introduction of Section 28. I could never have imagined then that the move to repeal it would have its own, more powerful moral agenda - dressed up in the language of tolerance.
Stuart Waiton is a community worker and a researcher for Generation: Youth Issues (www.generation.clara.net)
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000