Sex in Class: Liekens is right to teach teenagers about sexual pleasure

Belgium’s Goedele Liekens is on a sex education crusade. Stephen Wells/Channel 4

Goedele Liekens, a Belgian UN goodwill ambassador for sexual health, has waded into the UK’s debate about whether sex education should be compulsory with a new [TV programme]((http://www.channel4.com/programmes/sex-in-class) campaigning for a mandatory GCSE in sexual health. She believes teenagers should be taught about pornography, sexual pleasure and sexual agency, issues that she argues are sadly omitted from British children’s education in contrast to some other European countries.

Liekens is seeking government support for her ideas, and spent two weeks making the documentary, Sex in Class at Hollins Technology College in Accrington, Lancashire. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted some sensational headlines.

I feared the programme would demonstrate an example of the “pornification” of culture, but I ended up being broadly supportive of Liekens’s goals to make sure pornography isn’t the only way young people are learning about sex.

Headteacher Steve Campbell permitted Liekens to make her crusading documentary in his school because of his own concerns about the sexualisation of children by pornography. Nevertheless, Campbell and his colleagues expressed some ambivalence about whether pornography should or even could be a mandatory topic of sex education. They were concerned on a number of levels: whether they have the competence and confidence to teach it, whether parents would assent to this as a curriculum subject and whether the UK is ready for such a straightforward approach to sex.

The gender agenda of pornography

The documentary demonstrates the kinds of approach to sex education which Liekens, who is a TV celebrity in Belgium, thinks Britain should adopt. Thirteen Year 11 teenagers aged 15 to 16-years-old volunteered to take part in the classes.

The issues of gender and power imbalance in pornography take centre stage. Leikens gets pupils to discuss their own use of pornography. The boys discussed how they had used pornography for some years already and masturbated to it two or more times a day. One boy clearly understood his dominance and sexual agency with regard to girls. He vociferously expressed the view that it was the duty of a girl to swallow semen and welcome ejaculate on her face (colloquially known as the “money-shot”, a prevalent pornographic trope). He implied that if a girl gave initial consent to have sex with him, it implied automatic consent to this form of male orgasm. He also said he would immediately “dump” any girl in possession of pubic hair, in contrast to the shaved genitals of pornography performers.

As part of her sex education classes, Liekens encouraged the boys to write a sexual script where girls experience sexual pleasure, and got them to draw female genitalia. She encouraged homework: shaving their pubic hair on a daily basis so that they may identify with the experiences of girls.

When it came to the girls, she was shocked at their ignorance of their anatomy, with many not aware about the shape and position of the clitoris and urethra. She gave them hand-held mirrors so that in private, if they chose, they could familiarise themselves with their own bodies. The girls became more empowered as the lessons progressed.

The final class showed the boys had become more reflective and less cocky about their own sexual entitlements and were clearly touched by the honesty of the conversations they’d had with the girls.

Moving sex education into the 21st century. marekuliasz/www.shutterstock.com

Admirable and necessary

Lieken’s educational approach to sex is premised on the belief that as teachers and parents we are failing our children. In conventional sex education, although the anatomy of genitalia is often shown, the clitoris is excised from representation. By discussing pornography, boys and girls are encouraged to open up about their feelings and critically reflect upon the narratives of pornography which currently serve as the “how-to” manual of sex for many boys.

In the documentary, Simon Blake, chief executive of the Brook charity, is sympathetic to Liekens’ aspirations but points out that resistance to discussion about pornography and sexual pleasure is based on the idea that it will cause premature sexual awareness. When approached by Liekens, the Conservative MP Graham Stuart, former head of the education select committee, clearly expressed this sentiment

In contrast to those anxieties about education, Liekens argues that children are like plants: if you don’t give good sex education at an early age they will grow in the wrong direction.

I was surprisingly heartened by Liekens’ aspirations. Whether we agree or not this should take the form of a GCSE, the broad premises of her campaign are admirable and necessary. Girls should be provided with knowledge of their own anatomy and sexual pleasure. Boys and girls should be given critical skills to reflect upon the narratives and tropes of porn. The empowerment of girls to negotiate and express their own desires and sexual boundaries will bring about healthier and less exploitative sexual relations for both sexes.

Those who argue that this kind of education sexualises young people need to confront the sexual reality for the majority of the nation’s children. The widespread availability and consumption of internet pornography is sexualising adolescents. Liekens’ ideas could be a counter-force to this. Her approach is necessary because adults both value pornography as a democratic freedom and use it in vast numbers, making its availability to children ubiquitous and inevitable.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.