Sex education is changing. And the Girl Guides are helping to force the pace. Samantha Laurie on why it could still be better for girls
Feminism, writes the Times columnist and author, Caitlin Moran, is not the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme: you don’t have to do all the ‘gnarly bits’ to get the badge.
“If the things that concern you are the bewildering rise of the Brazilian, pressure to have a baby and the unfairness of the Daily Mail constantly printing pictures of Christina Aguilera where she looks a bit fat, then your feminism starts right there,” she insists.
It’s the approach at the heart of a new look Girl Guides, transformed from an organization of itchy uniforms and sewing badges into an army of bold activists.
First came a campaign against airbrushing, prompted by the findings of a Guides survey that half of girls would consider plastic surgery to look more like celebrity role models. Then, earlier this year, the Advocate panel – a group of 14-26 year old girls who decide what issues matter to their fellow guides – turned the heat onto topless models by joining the ‘No More Page 3’ online campaign. How could it be, they asked, that in the
21st Century the most prominent image of a woman in a British newspaper was a teenager posing in her pants?
It’s a young and fresh take on feminism, eschewing the polemic and focusing on the everyday issues that torque up the pressure on girls: body image, media manipulation, the pressure to fit in.
“We’re the ultimate feminist organization,” declared Julia Bentley on her recent appointment as head of the Guides. “Everything we do is about supporting girls, developing their confidence, ambition and aspirations. We’ve just never associated the word feminist with it before.”
Now the movement is calling for a fresh look at sex and relationship education (SRE) in the classroom. For Julia Bentley, previously head of the Family Planning Association, this is familiar terrain. The current teaching guidelines for SRE have not been updated for 13 years and make no mention of the web or pornography. PSHE – personal, social and health education – is not mandatory and many academies and free schools have opted out of it.
Even those that do teach it often fail to do it well: last year Ofsted found PSHE inadequate in 40% of schools. Secondary pupils, it said, want more information on pornography, relationships, sexuality and issues of consent and staying safe, rather than on the mechanics of reproduction. Yet with too many teachers ill-equipped to handle sensitive and controversial areas, these topics are often omitted.
Such lack of realistic discussion of sex in school – or at home, where parents feel out of their depth in a world markedly different from their own – is a fervent breeding ground for more menacing social changes. Especially disquieting is this year’s survey on girl guide attitudes. Two fifths of the 16-21 year olds interviewed considered it normal for a partner to know their whereabouts at all times; one fifth thought it fine for a partner to shout at them and tell them what to wear; many younger girls in focus groups found the idea of controlling behaviour “endearing”.
The warping effect of porn, combined with an online culture of ‘following’, is having a worrying impact on what teenagers believe to be normal relationships, says Esther Hardy, whose company AllAboutSRE runs sessions for parents and SRE lessons for students at a number of South-West London schools. Parents want to help, she says, but feel all at sea assisting teenagers to navigate the darker corridors of online life.
Begin, advises Esther, by encouraging your children to be more critical of just where their messages are coming from.
“Talk about sexual imagery on TV; never assume that they are making discerning judgements about the sexualised imagery that is the wallpaper of their lives.”
SRE advisor Gill Hines, from Twickenham, runs parenting courses and is the author of Whatever! A Down to Earth Guide to Parenting Teenagers.
“It’s all about the asking, not the telling,” she says. “Ask them why they think someone would do a particular thing. Help them make up their own minds about right and wrong. This is for all parents, even if they can’t talk about the pipes and plumbing aspect of sex.”
For schools, there are signs of change ahead. Having led the debate on porn filters, David Cameron has called for an update on SRE guidelines to emphasise relationships, cyberbullying and porn. A feather in the cap for the Guides, whose record levels of membership – a girl joins every hour – hint that its newfound feistiness is what girls want.
As a national body half a million strong – the largest all-female organisation in the UK – it offers great potential for social change. It’s perhaps the brightest sign yet of a reclamation of feminism for a new generation.