Children, Sexuality and Sexualisation: a Matter of Equalities, Rights and Voice – 30th March 2012

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending an excellent event exploring young people and sexualisation in Wales. The Cardiff University event was opened by two senior policymakers for Wales, Keith Towler, the Children’s Commissioner, and  Gwenda Thomas, the Deputy Minister for Children and Social Services.

The event brought scholars, practitioners, policymakers and young people themselves together to explore issues of young people and sexuality.

What was immediately refreshing about the day was the range of voices heard.   I arrived late due to the perils of intercity train travel – but as I entered the auditorium, I was struck by the diversity of the age range of the audience and the visible presence of young people in their school uniforms who had attended from nearby schools and were listening attentively to the presentations.

The morning session involved academics providing short presentations on their research work. Claire Bale (Sheffield University) reported on her research on young people’s accounts of sexualized media. Jessica Ringrose (Institute of Education) reported back on her recent research into sexting- but noted clearly that the term ‘sexting’, whilst drawn on in public debates, was not one that the young people in her research themselves used.

This was followed by a number of video and performance pieces by young people from several schools in Wales. These included a  powerful short play involving text messaging on homophobia in schools, and a innovative video by a Girl Power school group which played on the popular BBC3  TV programme, ‘Snog, Marry Avoid?’. For those readers not  so familiar with the show, it takes the predictive format of taking a participant- most often a young woman- scrutinizing her appearance and the final ‘make over’ where the participant is scrubbed clean of her everyday (unsuitable) appearance, and remade in a more ‘respectable’ celebrity fashion. The victim’s appearance is then commented upon using voxpops from the street over whether they would snog, marry and avoid the ‘make over’ victim. In the pupils’ film parody , girls went from ‘Mutt to slut’ as the girls played with the conventions of hyperfemininity and heteronormative beauty ideals to parody and critique popular media representations and celebrity.

Post-lunch I attended two sessions. The first explored messages to policymakers around sexualisation, and speakers questioned the use of ‘sexualisation’ as a helpful tool, and the need for wider and broader rights-based sex & relationship education.

In the second workshop, Year 10 pupils then led a Personal, Social and Health Education session on issues around sexuality, including an informative interactive game of agree/disagree. Fruitful and informative discussions concerning issues of consent, desire, age and ‘healthy choices’ were the result of this.  The final part of the workshop also included an agony aunt exercise, where the participants split into groups to discuss problem page scenarios. I found myself a sole adult in a group of year 9 and 10 pupils – which allowed me insights into the nuanced and thoughtful ways that the young men in the group reflected on the posed ‘problem’ – ‘a girl fancies other girls but is not sure that she is a lesbian’. Indeed, the young men took to advice giving with gusto – which clearly highlighted the potential for thoughtful and critical peer education approaches more broadly within the Sex & Relationship curriculum. In the closing panel policymakers, teachers and pupils noted the importance of the day.  One teacher acknowledged that there remain enduring issues with the delivery and scope of Sex and Relationship Education in many schools and commented: that ‘empowerment is the most important thing that we can teach young people – be confident in yourselves, whoever you are’.

For more on the day, visit the Young Sexualities blog 

Fin Cullen