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The phallic panic: how sex ed became the right’s latest culture war issue

The Tories want everyone to freak out because there isn’t a ‘straight pride’ flag and kids are being taught sick filth in schools, such as the concept of bisexuality

In service of their inspiring vision for a nation where everyone is gripped in a constant state of spluttering outrage, the Tories have turned their attention towards a new target: sex education. The subject has been raised in Parliament and pored over in opinion pieces, while the government recently announced that it will be launching a review into how it is being taught in schools – a move denounced by teaching unions as “politically motivated”. Last week, the New Social Covenant – a conservative think-tank founded by Tory MPs Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates – published a 100-page report on the state of relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE). While being somewhat deranged, the document neatly lays out the right’s overriding preoccupations: drag story hour, intersectionality, critical race theory and, above all, trans-inclusive education.

At first glance, the right’s objection to RSHE is based on the concern that young people are being exposed to materials deemed inappropriate and explicit – in practice, this typically refers to anything outside of heterosexual, ‘penis-in-vagina’ sex. But whether or not you approve of a more progressive approach, most of the reporting on sex education vastly exaggerates how radical it actually is. “Mostly young people are getting very little,” says Justin Hancock, a RSHE educator and founder of the sex education website BISH. “What they are getting is too biological, and they keep saying they don’t get enough about relationships.”

Those attacking the current state of RSHE point to a handful of examples that might sound shocking, provided you don’t know the context. But this approach depends on a cynical sleight of hand, where materials published by RSHE on different platforms are conflated with the lessons being taught in schools. A blog post titled How to Choke Someone Safely in Bed has repeatedly come under fire, but while it was written by a RSHE practitioner, it has nothing to do with what’s being taught in schools – never mind to ten-year-olds, as one article alleged.

Most of the material being taught in schools sounds fairly wholesome: one lesson plan – recounted in a tone of prim horror – suggests creating a TikTok explainer about asexuality inspired by the TV series Sex Education, which is hardly suggestive of DeCadian excess. Also singled out for condemnation is an exercise where teenage girls were invited to draw cartoons of dick pics they’d received: “There was a solidarity among the girls in their experience as they discussed the pictures they had received from ‘random old men’ on Snapchat. The ability to recreate what they had received in somewhat comical drawings seemed to empower the girls.” This sounds like a worthwhile exercise and, if nothing else, I’d be willing to bet a million pounds that the participants considered it a good laugh.

Across the attacks on RSHE, there is a consistent insinuation: sex education puts young people at greater risk of abuse, because it normalises scenarios where they are talking about sex with adults, thus making it harder for them to discern when this is inappropriate. But this argument is directly contradicted by the available evidence, which suggests that RSHE helps to prevent both sexual abuse and intimate-partner violence. “When abusers encounter a young person who can talk about sex and relationships, there’s research which shows that they are less likely to target them,” says Hancock. Similarly, when young people have the vocabulary and confidence to talk about sex, they will likely find it easier to speak out if they do experience abuse. The idea that restricting sex education to the bare minimum will make young people less vulnerable is a delusion, and arguably a wilful one. The right is explicitly concerned with positioning the nuclear family as innately superior, but statistics show that a significant proportion of abuse takes place within that setting. It’s easier to blame the spectre of predatory strangers – or drag queens reading children’s stories – than to confront the reality that the institutions which they value, such as the family, are often unsafe.

“It’s easier to blame the spectre of predatory strangers – or drag queens reading children’s stories – than to confront the reality that the institutions which they value, such as the family, are often unsafe”

Above all, the moral panic over sex education is being driven by anxieties around the LGBTQ+ community. The right’s primary point of contention is RSHE which includes a “whole smorgasbord of niche sexual activities and gender identities” and “promotes trans identification”. The report features a glossary of new-fangled buzzwords including ‘non-binary’, ‘gender-fluid’ and, uh, ‘bisexual’ – this is the sick filth they’re teaching your kids! While sceptical of the notion that being trans is even a real thing, the latest report suggests that trans people account for such a small minority of the population that their lives are unworthy of attention: the idea that schools should consider commemorating the Trans Day of Remembrance is dismissed as ludicrous nonsense. Likewise, the authors argue that not enough is being done to accommodate the needs of transphobic parents, pointing to examples where schools have failed to ask permission before using a pupil’s preferred pronouns. Essentially, they believe that trans children are property, whose feelings are only legitimate insofar as they are authorised by their parents.

It’s no surprise that the attack on sex education is driven by transphobia, which is the moral panic du jour. But this comes alongside instances of homophobia which are so blatant they almost seem quaint. While these people claim that indoctrination has no place in education, what they’re really objecting to is the failure to indoctrinate children on their terms; the failure to position heterosexual marriage and the nuclear family as singularly important. One LGBTQ+ charity comes under fire for failing to provide a straight pride flag, thus ‘demoting’ heterosexuality from its natural dominance. It’s like a random internet troll screaming “when’s straight pride day??’ but as proposed government policy.

At a time when the alt-right ‘manosphere’ and figures like Andrew Tate enjoy such a large platform among teenage boys, it seems doubly myopic to attack a mode of sex education that foregrounds healthy boundaries and consent. While Tate’s influence on young men can’t be discounted, Hancock suggests that media reporting on this is occasionally “overwrought”, conflating the size of Tate’s audience which the impact this is actually having: teenage boys are watching his content, to be sure, but they’re not all looking to him as a role model or imbibing his message uncritically. Still, Tate is providing sex education of a kind – one which suggests that women should ‘bear responsibility’ for being raped – and it’s striking that conservative attacks on RSHE rarely deign to mention that. It’s not difficult to imagine the mainstream right is sanguine about Tate’s popularity, viewing him as a distasteful but necessary corrective to the greater danger of ‘wokeness’.

Even though the Tories are entirely sincere in their hostility towards progressive education, this latest moral panic helps to obscure the real problem – there is a chronic lack of funding for RHSE. “Youth services in general have been decimated by cuts and several charities which used to provide sex education for free have shut down. There has been a dramatic drop in the level of support that teachers and schools are able to receive,” says Hancock. “Teachers are scrambling around for free resources or having to make up their own.”

As the Tories have no interest in increasing funding – for just about anything – it’s in their interests to portray RSHE as inherently corrupting. But in a society where sexual violence and intimitate-partner abuse are so common as to be almost banal, this is an absolution of responsibility. Whether the government is motivated by ideology or plain old stinginess, the real danger is that young people will be abandoned to navigate the world of sex and relationships as it already is: filled with possibilities for love and pleasure, but all too often unsatisfying, violent and cruel.