Sex (mis)education in schools

Screenshot from the ‘What is sex’ article on Bish

The UK government introduced compulsory sex and relationships education in English schools in September 2020. Many schools now outsource this to external providers and there’s been a rapid expansion in organisations offering resources and sessions. However, there’s no oversight or regulation.

A few weeks ago, The Times ran an article about sex education in British schools, which gave some disturbing examples, including external providers suggesting that “sex work” can be rewarding, and promoting BDSM practices such as flogging, beating, and slapping.

One of the providers is Justin Hancock. He runs the Bish website,[*] which describes itself as “A Guide to sex, love and you. For everyone over 14.” According to his promotional material he is “One of the leading sex and relationships educators, with over 20 years’ experience”.

Bish on consent and porn

Some of the material on the Bish website is not too bad. For example, in one of his articles about consent, he goes beyond the legal definition:

“I don’t know what you think, but I don’t think that sex should be one person doing a thing to another. I think for sex to be good, it should be about doing it together with each other – paying attention to what each other is into and trying to make it a nice thing you are both (or all) into.”

His light, unstuffy tone works well – some of the time. But sometimes I found it disturbing. For example, in the article, ‘Porn for Parents’, he says:

“[B]oys often say to me that they think women in porn are screaming because the sex is hurting them. I have to explain that this is just bad acting and that sex should feel really pleasurable, not painful.”

Let’s think about this for a minute. He seems to be denying what the boys can see very clearly with their own eyes.

It’s almost as if he is telling parents and young people that women in porn pretend to scream in pain when they are in fact enjoying it. This is such a misunderstanding of the reality that I am lost for words. It is much more common for women in porn to pretend to be enjoying something that they in fact find painful, unpleasant or, at best, tedious. When women in porn appear to be in pain, they usually are in pain.

It seems to me that Hancock is not only trivialising women’s pain but also implicitly endorsing the idea that sex should be painful for women. These are toxic messages that do not help young people understand the true nature of porn or to have good sex lives.

As Emma Lindsay wrote in her 2016 Medium article ‘Porn Makes Men Terrible in Bed’:

“[Y]our average young man is starting at worse than zero when it comes to sex with women. If he’s having sex with a girl, and she’s giving out cues that she’s in pain (through her facial expression, or the noises she makes) he’s going to think that’s how sex should be because that’s what he learned in porn. If she’s genuinely turned on, he will not know how to identify it, because he’s watched so many women pretending to be turned on that his ability to identify genuine pleasure has been scrambled. And, this is best case scenario porn. This is if he watched porn where the women were at least pretending to have a good time.”

Much online porn is not produced by commercial companies but is “user generated” meaning there is no way to know whether the participants consented to either the sex acts portrayed or to its sharing. It is not uncommon for men to film sex without their partners’ knowledge, let alone consent. There’s a whole genre of spycam porn – shot by hidden cameras in public toilets and hotel rooms. And it’s not uncommon for films of rape and child abuse to be uploaded to mainstream porn sites.

Many parents have outdated ideas of what the porn their kids may be watching on the internet is really like, thinking it’s something like the Playboy centrefolds of the 1980s.

In fact, the vast majority of the scenes (88% in one study) contain acts of physical and/or verbal violence directed at women. It’s not surprising therefore that porn consumption has been unequivocally linked to verbal, physical and sexual aggression and negative impacts on the brain.

Artist and author, Suzzan Blac, spent several years researching and documenting the free-to-view porn on PornHub. After watching numerous films of women being sexually and violently abused, humiliated, degraded, raped and tortured, she came to the conclusion that “these are not sex videos; they are crime-scene videos.”

I do not believe that Hancock is doing anything to help kids and their parents understand this – but rather is promoting the very ideas that are so dangerously embedded in most mainstream porn and that are likely – guaranteed even – to exacerbate the sexist behaviour and sexual misconduct that are already at epidemic levels in our schools.

An Ofsted report last year reported that incidents of sexual harassment are so commonplace in UK schools that many children see no point in reporting them and that the “issue is so widespread that it needs addressing for all children and young people”.

A porn survivor’s response

I caught up with Esther, who was involved in the making of pornography during her time in prostitution, and asked her what she thought of Hancock’s advice to boys who are upset by women appearing to scream in pain. This is what she said:

“What he says is ridiculous. Women grimace and scream in porn films because the pain is real.

Many, if not most, porn viewers are aroused by the sight of women experiencing pain. Your film would be less popular if it didn’t feature this.

It was commonplace in my experience, for example, for male porn actors not to use lubricant when they were engaging in anal sex. Directors didn’t insist on it either. They liked authentic grimace shots because they knew that was what viewers wanted.

This makes anal sex, which many women find painful anyway, even more of a high-risk activity in terms of risk of injury and transmission of STIs. It also translates in real life into heterosexual men being under the false impression that the anus lubricates itself.

It was the same with fisting, because vigorous, violent movement and the recipient’s reaction to it, is more stimulating to a viewer.

Punching the soft tissue of internal organs is extremely likely to cause tears, internal bruising and damage and again exposes you to the risk of what can become chronic infection.

The porn industry displays prudishness more often associated with bourgeois Victorian households in not wanting to address the extent to which women who are, or have been, in the porn industry experience chronic pain, chronic urinary tract infections and musculoskeletal problems. It’s one of many reasons why substance use is so common in women involved in the sex industry.

Recently some people on Twitter shared a report about a teenage boy accused of rape or sexual assault, whose response to being asked why the fact his victim was crying hadn’t made him think she wasn’t consenting, was to say that he took her crying as a sign that she was enjoying what was happening to her.

I’ve had a similar experience with BDSM where an ‘experienced, dominant’ man continued beating a woman who was shaking, not with pleasure but because she was in shock. I intervened because I’ve experienced that reaction myself and know that it can affect your ability to utter that ‘safe word’ which is claimed as your great protection from abusive practices.

What is ‘high quality sex education’, particularly if it sweeps risks under the carpet? I find it a puzzling term. Is ‘high quality’ a rhetorical device to disguise class issues restricting who is permitted to speak and whose experience is valued? 

How are its outcomes measured?”

It’s hard to see how Hancock could have got it more wrong.

Advice to girls who aren’t enjoying sex

I found many other examples of Hancock giving what seemed to me to be utterly wrong advice. His advice to a 19-year-old girl who wasn’t finding sex pleasurable, included the bizarre statement that “the only reason that first time sex hurts is because we tell people that first time sex hurts”. He goes on to suggest she might be able to learn to enjoy it over time.

Even though he starts by saying it’s not her fault, the overall message seems to be: it’s her fault for having the wrong expectations and for being slow to learn how to enjoy it. So, not much different from the 1950s sexologists’ advice to women they described as ‘frigid’. Just as sexist and just as inappropriate and unhelpful.

It is a throwback to the days of “Lie back and think of the Empire” – but now the empire is the porn and sexual exploitation empire. Like the higher mammals whose abuse in circuses is now rightly frowned upon, you will become conditioned to expect pain in return for reward or what passes for affection.

I found nothing on his site about how the porn culture we’re all subsumed in to one degree or another confuses and misleads and eroticises violence and aggression towards women and girls.

Might it not be helpful to suggest that if the sex she’s having is following mainstream porn scripts, it’s almost inevitable that she would experience pain and not find it pleasurable? And wouldn’t it be helpful to boys and young men to understand this?

But no, we wouldn’t want to spoil the jokey upbeat tone, would we?

Advice about “sex work”

Then there’s his advice to a young woman who is unsure whether she should continue to get paid to have sex. This advice includes the promotion of the idea that “sex work” is a normal job and the suggestion that she should just get “better clients”:

“Remember also that there are many many people doing sex work who do enjoy what they do – even if they don’t necessarily enjoy the sex. It can be a really difficult job but many people find it rewarding – just like other jobs. This is especially true if sex workers mainly have good clients, which I don’t think you do. If you did want to continue, maybe you could get better clients?” [My emphasis]

As if.

On another page about “Getting paid to have sex” he promotes the full decriminalisation of the sex industry as implemented in New Zealand and recommends two organisations that both have strong historical links with pimps: the UK Network of Sex Work Projects, a former vice president of which was a now convicted pimp called Alejandra Gil; and the International Union of Sex Workers, of which Douglas Fox was for some time the most active member. Douglas Fox claimed to be a “sex worker” but was in fact the founder and co-owner of one of England’s largest escort agencies, Christony Companions – i.e. he was a pimp.

While Hancock is obviously free to express his partisan opinions and political stance on the decriminalisation of the sex industry, should he be promoting these views to schoolchildren under the guise of sex education? In doing this, is he not implicitly condoning the sex trade? Is this a responsible approach when he is purportedly educating kids?

Sandra Norak, who was pimped into prostitution as a young woman, talks about how the notion that prostitution is a normal job makes it much easier for pimps and traffickers to groom girls and young women into the sex trade. The “sex work is real work” narrative exactly mirrors the loverboy pimps’ own narratives. And yet, here Hancock is repeating it to his schoolchildren audience.

The Telford inquiry

The independent inquiry into the child sexual exploitation of girls in Telford recently released its report. It makes harrowing reading. The first-person accounts of what happened are deeply distressing.

In the UK, there has been a move to rename the prostitution of children as “child sexual exploitation” or CSE. This was an attempt to move away from the notion that children can make a free choice to be in prostitution, that it is a “lifestyle choice”.

However, this has led to unintended consequences, including the implication that prostitution is a “lifestyle choice” for anyone over 18. The CSE terminology also obscures the fact that what is happening to these girls is in fact often prostitution – and that this is driven by the extraordinary amounts of money that can be made from pimping girls because large numbers of ordinary men will pay to sexually use and abuse not only women but children too.

The report makes it clear that it’s much easier to change the terms used than the underlying victim blaming.

Overall, the report is impressive – thorough, empathetic, outraged – practically faultless. It runs to four volumes and 1,267 pages. My main criticism is that it seems devoid of any awareness of the fact that to change this dreadful trend of thousands of girls being exploited in this heinous way (not only in Telford but all over the country), we need to change the narrative around the sex trade.

Anything that normalises prostitution, that positions it as normal work, is going to endorse the behaviour of men paying for sexual access to others, including to children – and it is going to make it easier for the pimps and traffickers to groom children and marginalised adults into accepting it.

And yet we now have leading sex educators in the UK promoting these values to schoolchildren. This is catastrophic. It will lead to more girls and marginalised young people getting drawn into the sex industry, whether that’s seen as CSE or “sex work”, and it will lead to boys and young men thinking that paying to sexually use and abuse another human being is just fine. Meaning that in the future we are likely to see many more harrowing reports into CSE in various towns and cities around the country. Unless it’s already become so normalised that they decide not to have a formal inquiry – as happened recently in Oldham.

Implications for consent

Hancock acknowledges that people selling sex may “enjoy what they do” but may not enjoy the actual sex.

This reminds me of something that Dr Vednita Carter said at an event in London in 2019. She’s a survivor of the sex trade herself and set up an NGO to help other women exit it. She talked about the group work she does with young women, some still in that life, some taking their first steps out of it. When you ask them what they like about prostitution, she said they talk about how good it feels to have money. But when asked how they feel when they get down on all fours and take his dick into their mouth, they all start to cry.

So how does normalising prostitution fit with messages about consent being about mutuality and ensuring that you are on the same page?

If someone you’re paying for sex isn’t actually enjoying the sex, what does that mean?

Doesn’t it mean that what you’re really paying for when you buy sex is for the person not to say no? You’re paying them to forfeit their sexual boundaries. You’re paying for full control. You are in fact buying their consent.

Research involving prostitution buyers demonstrates that they themselves are under no illusions about this and are well aware that what they demand in exchange for money or gifts is not simply sex, but “control of sex”.

Normalising or condoning the sex trade therefore confuses and undermines the entire message of all the sex educators everywhere.

Of course, Hancock doesn’t explore this at all – perhaps because it really does give the lie to his stated position that decriminalising the sex trade is the best way forward and his jokey approach that stays so resolutely on the surface.

As Ben Wallace, the Secretary of State for Defence, made clear when discussing the new rules that forbid British soldiers from buying sex while abroad, men buying prostitution creates a hostile environment for the women around them, including their colleagues and family.

Conclusion

The worrying thing is that Hancock is not an outlier, but rather is representative of many of the sex education providers in the UK. This urgently needs to be addressed. Children and young people deserve to be told the unequivocal truth about porn and the sex trade.

I will leave the last word to Esther:

“A notable difference between porn films, where a director would intentionally be seeking to create painful acts for extra ‘likes’ and editing those parts of the film that would have demonstrated harm caused to you, and meeting buyers to repeat the acts you had performed in films, is that buyers would mark you down in a review on a commercial website for crying, or creating an unpleasant experience for them by demonstrating that they had hurt you. 

So when meeting buyers you would keep smiling and acting as if you were enjoying a painful experience, while hiding this fact.

You would not be your authentic self or express authentic feelings to a buyer. At the same time, any real consequences of the violence and pain you experienced in porn films, other than the expression on your face or the sounds you made, would be edited out.

Consumers of porn and of prostituted women are in a state of ignorance in both situations. 

This is one of several reasons why porn is not a useful means of delivering sex education.”

[*] Hancock says that the Bish website is not designed for use in schools. He sells separate resources for use in the classroom.


London conference, Saturday 15 October 2022

This affordable conference in London on Saturday 15 October will be looking at the impact on young people in particular of the “sex work is real work” ideology that increasingly dominates universities and, as we have seen in this article, is now being promoted to schoolchildren via “sex education” classes.

Speakers include, Chelsea Geddes, Fiona Broadfoot, Dr Jessica Taylor (FRSA, PhD), Michael Conroy, Tsitsi Matekaire, Kathleen Richardson, Robert Jensen, and Shabbana Kiyani (chair).

Find out more and get tickets >>

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