Too little, too late

Sex education must be comprehensive, clear, and compulsory, writes James Turley

Nothing gets up the back of hard-line reactionaries like sex - and, more importantly, under-18s getting anywhere near it without asking their mothers.

One particularly well known point of contention in all this is sex education - who should get it, what they should get and when. �Sex education is an ideological battlefield,� no less, �on which a war is being waged for the hearts and minds of children. Behind the innocuous-sounding words used by the sex education lobby, there is a definite agenda at work to undermine the role of parents and to tear down traditional moral standards. The need for parents to be alert and vigilant has never been greater.� Crikey.

This is the web introduction to a report published by the Family Education Trust, under the title Too much, too soon.1 The title serves as a basic plot summary for this publication, which is a commentary on and polemic against the proposals of schools minister Ed Balls to - among other things - introduce compulsory sex education for primary school children.

This is couched in a general commitment to making personal, social and health education (PSHE) obligatory, putting it �on a statutory footing alongside traditional academic subjects�.2 PSHE (or PSME at some schools, the M standing for �moral�) is widely implemented, but currently non-compulsory, and standards vary drastically. This is a fortiori the case for sex education - and why the FET intends to make it a �battlefield�.

The FET report has only just been published, but has propelled Balls� proposals into the harsh glare of the reactionary media more sharply even than when they were first made in April. The Daily Mail is certainly not happy - �Draft plans suggest children aged five would learn to name parts of the body, while seven-year-olds will learn about physical changes linked to puberty. Nine-year-olds would begin to learn about the facts of life� (July 20). Apparently our correspondent cannot even bring herself to type S-E-X.

The primary concern, both for the Mail and for the FET report, is that parents are going to be cut out of the equation. The FET, for its part, was explicitly set up in 1971 to defend the traditional family from the moral decay of the new, post-60s permissive age. Parents, says the FET�s �About us� FAQ, �are the natural protectors of their children, and, other than in exceptional cases, should always be involved in decisions about their welfare.�3

Of course, parents are in no sense the natural protectors of their children - in both human and social animal communities, it is far from unprecedented for young to be raised in common (what would it mean for a queen bee to �protect� a million worker-drones, anyway?). Instead of giving serious credence to the notion that the very fabric of the natural world somehow demands particular forms of generational succession (the short answer: that only makes sense if the world is the intentional design of a rather whimsical Creator), we should ask: what is this rhetorical obsession with parenthood actually trying to do?

In the case of sex education, it is on one level perfectly clear. Children being given �value-free� (read secular) sex education as a matter of course will allegedly result in more adolescents having sex. This is a bad thing, as it is realistically impossible, given the age structure of political and economic life in this country, for the young lovers to get married and formalise their relationships according to the strictures of the family model. As long as parents have the veto over this, then there is a chance that any given child will not enter what the ultra-right Mail columnist calls the �cycle of abandonment, emotional chaos and harm� that results from �premature� sexual activity. In other words, it is the logic of anti-abortionists supporting incremental reductions in the time limit for terminations, even quoting �the science� around foetal �viability�.

There is another side to this, however, which is the naive extent to which organisations like the FET genuinely identify with the �traditional family�. The nuclear family remains, at present, the basic unit of economic life in society - a low-level division of labour that sends a �detachment� (usually the father-patriarch) into the industrial process, and saddles another �detachment� (the mother-wife) with the physical and sexual reproduction required to send people to work every day. A society which finds it useful on one level to treat individuals as completely atomised and on another level is faced with the brute fact of its sociality as such inevitably gives rise to and supports entities like the nuclear family, which lump biological individuals into corporate units.

Another perfectly obvious consequence is that relations within the family unit take on the same form as relations within society as a whole - that is, the family effectively becomes the private property of the father, his wife a chattel slave and his children a promising investment in the future. The former relation has begun to break down, the social contradictions around it being simply too sharp. The women�s movement won the vote, and has achieved major advances since - abortion rights, formal legal equality in employment; a politically active layer of second-class citizens is simply unsustainable.

Yet children are still the property of their parents - and the reality of �family values� is precisely that it is privative, that the natural result is enclosing children in the suffocating grip of their progenitors, who will �protect� them from the �harmful� influences all around them. The logic of leaving �moral education� to parent-owners is precisely that it will be opposed to sex, and to forms of social life that cannot be vetted by parents. Nobody ever took their children out of class because sex-ed was not explicit enough. And for all the Mail�s horror of paedophile sex predators, the fact remains that most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by close family members of the victim. This should not surprise us - incest is a perfectly typical excrescence of this pathological fixation on blood relations.

What of the Balls proposals, then? It is pretty hard to see what the reactionary press is so terrified of, really. Balls insists he wants to keep the parents� veto in place, and will allow the precise contents of sex-ed lessons to be determined by particular schools (a concession obviously enough targeted at religious schools).

The esteemed minister seems as painfully conscious of offending middle-English sentiments as any New Labourite. If schools can still opt out of teaching the gory details of contraception, then sex education will remain highly uneven and in places painfully inadequate. Once again, New Labour ducks the question of secular education, refusing to challenge the integration of church and state, and the obscene subsidies (in the form of �charity� tax breaks) to faith schools.

In fact, the most direct consequence of these plans coming to fruition (unlikely, given the prospect of a very dramatic recomposition of parliament in under a year) is yet another bureaucratic hoop for schools to jump through, already buckling under the weight of targets, league tables and the ever-looming threat of the Ofsted inspection. From the perspective of parents - at least those who are not in any case ultra-paranoid about sex education - what is at issue is not the appropriation of their rights as parent-owners by society at large, but appropriation by the state bureaucracy. Parents are already �bad� if they feed their children fatty foods, and liable for prosecution if their kids play truant too consistently. Now they are to be ostracised over sex education.

To draw attention to this is not to justify the �claim� of parent-owners to their children, any more than it is to root for truancy or dietary problems. Part of the objective basis for �family values� ideology, as we have seen, is the reality of the family itself. But another part consists in precisely the �alternative� - that every attempt by social democracy to chisel it away takes the form of a bureaucratic imposition, a police action. This drives people into the arms of reactionary demagogues, who promise to defend or restore their patriarchal rights.

Communists are unambiguous - sex education must be comprehensive, clear and every bit as compulsory as the rest of the education system. It is not only the matter of welfare - preventing diseases and unwanted pregnancies - but that of autonomy. Knowledge, as conventional wisdom has it, is power. An adolescent who knows how to wear a condom safely is thereby able to have relaxed and enjoyable sex. By contrast, depriving young people of this knowledge makes them continually reliant on their parents, and thus sexually stunted and neurotic, and all but doomed to continue the logic of patriarchal succession. In a choice between assertive and autonomous teenagers and the emotionally underdeveloped offerings from neurotic reactionary households, the decision is obvious.

Still, sex education cannot be separated from the broader democratic questions in society. This is obvious when we consider the question of non-heterosexual sex education, but applies with equal force to the fight for secularism in education and society at large, and the fight for political power to be transferred from the bourgeoisie to the masses.