Sex: Teenagers need to be equipped with an understanding of consent

Only the Tories still refuse to protect children from pornography

Only the Tories still refuse to protect children from pornography

You cannot stop young people watching pornography. You can only equip them with the understanding of what it is. That is how to protect them from it. Currently, the Tories are the only mainstream Westminster party committed to not doing so.

The Liberal Democrats announced this morning they would be including "age-appropriate" sex education for children as young as seven in their manifesto. Labour signed up a year ago. Only the Tories remain.

Lib Dems say their coalition partners are immoveable on the subject. They subscribe to the idea that children must be protected from the mention of sex, and especially the circumstances which surround it, until adulthood.

David Laws made the Lib Dem announcement on sex education this morning

Of course, that is not a view ascribed to by pornographers, child abusers or young people themselves. Regardless of the Tories' views on sex education, children will come into contact with sex before they are adults. We must take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. 

A recent IPPR survey of young people found first contact with pornography typically comes between the ages of 13 and 15. Very quickly, accessing pornography is seen as typical. Almost half thought sending sexual or naked videos and images was an everyday part of life for teenagers.

Very worryingly, 45% of young men said "pornography helps young people learn about sex", compared to 29% of young women. Given the often aggressive, male-dominated nature of online porn, we should be seriously concerned about what this is doing to the sexual expectations of young men. Regardless of whether teachers are talking to them about sex, pornographers certainly are.

So are potential sex abusers. Lucy Faithfull Foundation research found failure to provide high quality age-appropriate sex education left young people at risk of inappropriate sexual behaviour and exploitation. Young people needed to learn appropriate language and develop confidence to describe unwanted behaviour, they needed to know where to go for help and understand that sexual exploitation is wrong. This can't be left just to parents, who are often too embarrassed to do it. We need a guarantee children are equipped with the knowledge they need in school.

That is not happening. Ofsted found sex education was inadequate in 40% of schools last year. Too much emphasis was placed on friendships and relationships in primary school, leaving pupils unprepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty. Too much emphasis was placed on the "mechanics" of reproduction in secondary schools, rather than the importance of healthy sexual relationships.

School pupils at the Bridge Learning Campus learning to use computers.

Under current rules, sex and relationship education is only compulsory in council-run secondary schools, but not for academies and free schools, or for primary school pupils.

Even children understand this is wrong. Eighty-six per cent thought "you needed to be taught these things in schools", with just two per cent disagreeing. They are quite specific about how they think this should take place. Sixty-eight per cent of 18-year-olds wanted sex and relationship classes taught by trained experts and 40% wanted it taught by an external visitor. Interestingly, just 19% were comfortable with it being taught by one of their usual teachers. It is worth following their lead on this. They will get the most from a situation they are most comfortable with.

We know this works – not just for protecting kids from the mental and emotional impact of porn, or sexual predators, or the requests of their peers – but even in their broader academic life. A recent Department for Education research report found: "Children with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social and school well-being on average have higher levels of academic achievement and are more engaged in school, both concurrently and in later years."

The Tory response to pornography and child abuse is to close the curtains and pretend it isn't happening. David Cameron's porn filter policy is actively damaging. It perpetuates the myth that there is a technological solution to porn. Not only is this false, but its implementation often ends up blocking the very websites children and young people can turn to for help and advice.

It is simply impossible to develop software which will be able to prevent 14-year-olds finding photos of naked people. There is no technological solution to teenagers sending naked photos of themselves to one another.

Instead children have to be given the intellectual, social and emotional armour with which to face sex. They need to be taught that they must only ever do what they wish to do, that certain situations – especially but not exclusively involving an adult – are dangerous and unacceptable, and that the world depicted in pornography is not the same as the one which features in real life. They must be taught that consent is the guiding principle and safeguard of a rich and healthy sexual life.

The Tory commitment to depriving children of this education is not an act of protection. It merely puts them in greater danger.