The education secretary Nicky Morgan is proposing a “curriculum for life” to help young people deal with what the Guardian calls “modern social issues brought on by the internet age.” These are, we are led to believe, new issues. Brand new, never-been-seen-before, state-of-the-art sources of teenage angst, such as sexting and revenge porn.
True, there was nothing like that in my day. We just had boring, hands-on sexism – sorry, did I just say sexism? It seems we’re not supposed to mention that. It might be the driving force behind this particular misuse of communication technology but no one seems willing to say. Looking for a hierarchy? Nothing to see here. We are meant to think this stuff is just happening at random because “modern times.” There’s no link between rampant individualism and Tory policies, and absolutely no connection between a form of abuse which targets women in particular and sexism at large. It’s just that smartphones were invented before we had time to work out what to do with them. Right? Or are we just finding another way to talk around misogyny because to actually confront it would be more than we could bear?
Morgan mentions NSPCC research showing that “six in 10 teenagers have been asked for sexual images or videos online.” What she does not mention is the very clearly gendered nature of the NSPCC findings. Indeed, the researchers explicitly state that “no understanding of sexting would be complete without an appreciation of the extent to which an often completely normalised sexism constitutes the context for all relationships–both on and off-line”:
As researchers going into the schools to meet with young people, we were distressed by the levels of sexist abuse and physical harassment–even violence–to which the girls were subject on a regular basis. […] Perhaps the broadest level at which sexism operates in the young people’s lives is to be found in the deeply rooted notion that girls and young women’s bodies are somehow the property of boys and young men.
This is not some gender neutral trend. It is young men seeking to claim ownership of young women’s bodies. What’s more, this is nothing mordern at all.
It is utterly pointless to talk in vague terms, as Morgan does, about “peer pressure or coercion” (pressure from whom? who is being coerced?). Pointless, too, to suggest that “the internet and the advance of the digital age […] bring new pressures”; what they bring are new weapons for men to use in their age-old war on women. You can complain about the weapons, sure, but it’s a morally vacuous complaint if you’ve no interest in ending the actual war.
Morgan is not alone in downplaying – or even erasing – the fact that culturally sanctioned misogyny is more of a problem than technology itself. A BBC report on sexting is painstakingly gender neutral, mentioning only “teens,” “young people,” “abusers” and “a boyfriend or girlfriend” (the actual case studies focus on a boy receiving and distributing a photo, a girl sending one; I guess we’re meant to think that’s just coincidence). The Telegraph report on Morgan’s speech defines “revenge porn” as “youngsters post[ing] naked images of former boyfriends and girlfriends online,” as though this is something anyone, male or female, might do to be mean, not something done specifically by male people in order to humiliate female people. Meanwhile, the author of a Radio Times article on a sexting storyline in the soap Emmerdale argues that “it would be foolish to suggest that every teen in 2015 that takes a look at online porn is going to become a sexual predator”:
But the instant availability of adult material on tablets and smartphones really does mark the modern age out from playgrounds of the 1980s where pictures of Samantha Fox, tattered top-shelf mags and grainy VHS tapes were my only real sources of smut.
True, the eighties were a long time ago. I guess we are meant to forget that Samantha Fox was a sixteen-year-old girl and that there were no sixteen-year-old boys offered up for public consumption in a remotely similar way. Just as we’re meant to forget that in 2015, “every teen” doesn’t mean every human being in his or her teens; it just means male people, doesn’t it? We are simply expected to see the world through male eyes, regardless of whether we’re reading a Radio Times article or watching women acting out – we hope it is acting – being raped.
Why spread moral panic over sexting and revenge porn if you are not interested in the dynamics which underpin it? For Morgan this seems to be the opportunity to spread a vague – yet chilling enough – message about “values”:
Who truly can object to our schools being required to promote the very values that everyone in this room holds dear? Democracy. The rule of law. Individual liberty. Tolerance of and respect for those with different faiths and beliefs […]
I am clear that schools have a critical role to play in turning out rounded, resilient young people that can face the challenges of the modern world with confidence.
Is Morgan seeking to make PSHE more palatable to Tory voters, many of whom no doubt see it as liberal bollocks, or is she using the existence of sexism as a means to promote the “traditional” values of her own party? There seems to me little distaste for sexism itself, just tight-lipped disapproval at the current format. If only we could go back to the good old days, when it was legal for men to rape their wives and schoolgirls endured decades of silence whenever men in positions of authority – or just anyone male, really – abused them! It’s just so much more tasteful than this new-fangled sexting lark! Sexting and revenge porn are just so public! So much better when this sort of thing only takes place behind closed doors. (Morgan also fears that too many current PSHE materials “are clearly inappropriate, offensive or at odds with British values.” Since “British values” currently seem to mean “supporting racist, misogynist tossers who physically assault others, providing said tossers are rich,” I’d rather hope these materials stay right where they are.)
Young people do need to learn about consent and respect. On that we should all agree. It is, however, absurd to expect them to do so in a non-gendered context. It’s fine to teach a boy that all human beings have their own boundaries and a right to say no, but if this boy carries on excluding “female people” from his definition of “human beings” you will have achieved very little. The pain caused by sexism is there for all to see but this tactic of putting it down to something else – individualism, modern technology, irrational phobias, the youth of today – isn’t helping its victims. The problem isn’t how to “prepare young people for life in modern Britain”; it’s how to help young people face down a culture that teaches them that women are worthless. If we cannot even be bothered to describe what is happening, I don’t hold out much hope.