The latest attempt to scare the public about sex education is obscene

Reactionary campaigners are kicking up a storm about a tool that helps teachers identify abuse. This hinders efforts to protect children
sex education
The Family Education Trust ‘confuses materials produced for adult eyes as a guide to safeguarding children with those produced as teaching materials’. Photograph: Martin Godwin
Recent years have seen a belated and depressing but necessary unveiling of the scale and nature of child sexual exploitation in our society, whether in institutions, within criminal gangs or in private households. At last there is a sense that victims’ reports may sometimes be believed, that abusers may be tracked down and punished and that our children, whatever their backgrounds and circumstances, may have a chance of receiving the protection and safety to which every single child is entitled.
One might have imagined such developments would be welcomed by everyone, so it is deeply shocking that this week reactionary campaigners including charities, politicians and sections of the press are conniving in a grotesque attempt to squeeze the genie back into the bottle, suppressing the very information which allows teachers and other professionals to identify warning signs of sexual exploitation and therefore safeguard children in need.
The story begins in July 2012, when the sexual health charity Brook first published an online safeguarding tool called the sexual behaviours traffic light tool. Developed after two years’ expert consultation, with input from bodies such as the NSPCC and the Royal College of General Practitioners, it was designed for one purpose – to allow teachers and other adults to make an informed decision as to whether sexualised behaviour in children could be considered within the normal range of healthy sexual and relationship development and experimentation at any given age.
So for example, among “green” behaviours (that is, safe and healthy sexual development) for 13- to 17-year-olds is solitary masturbation. Among “red” behaviours (not safe and healthy) is masturbating in public. The guide lists fully consensual sexual behaviour between children over the age of 13 as a green light behaviour, that is to say not indicating that the child might be at risk.
The toolkit has been widely acclaimed and used by many professionals over the past two years to help them decide whether a child may be displaying symptoms commonly associated with sexual victimisation, or indeed whether a child should be considered a danger to others. Then on Tuesday, a hearing of the Commons education select committee took evidence from Sarah Carter of the Family Education Trust, who told the committee that the guidance was illegal, adding: “The law states that young [people] should wait until they are 16 at least … That’s awfully unlawful behaviour, and so quite often what’s taught in [sex education] isn’t always lawful.”
This is simply wrong. Not only is it untrue to suggest sex education like this might be illegal, more importantly her point – whether wilfully or inadvertently – confuses materials produced for adult eyes as a guide to safeguarding children with those produced as teaching materials. At no point was it ever suggested that the traffic light guide be used to teach children what was or was not acceptable or advisable behaviour for their age group.
One would hope that all professionals working with children would know the legal age of consent, but also know that young people can access help, advice and support as needed without fear of prosecution or judgment. Young people cannot be properly advised on the help that is available to them without an acknowledgment that not all children will wait until they are 16 to become sexually active.
Nonetheless, the trust’s argument was picked up and amplified by Tory MP Graham Stuart, who stated that “not to send out a message that it’s wrong, that it’s harmful, it’s dangerous, is in fact to almost to collude with something which we know is damaging to young people”. The rightwing press is today beside itself with outrage, claiming quite incorrectly that children are being taught that sex at 13 is normal.
This is not happening by accident. The organisation behind the mischief is the Family Education Trust, formerly known as Family and Youth Concern, perhaps Britain’s best-established group of moral conservatives. Despite insisting that they are not allied to any religion, their concerns are almost indistinguishable from those of the Christian fundamentalist belt in the US. The organisation has been a persistent and virulent opponent of abortion rights and LGBT legal rights; it actively opposed safer sex campaigns at the height of the Aids crisis, advocating chastity as an alternative. Above all, it has lobbied fiercely against the inclusion of sex education in the school curriculum.
Following last January’s disappointing failure to make sex and relationships education mandatory in schools, campaigners both inside and outside parliament have stepped up efforts to ensure all children have the education and information they need and deserve. The misleading headlines today can only be seen as the latest volley in a decades-long barrage of misinformation, smears and propaganda designed to frighten the public away from supporting sex education in schools, despite extensive evidence that the more full, frank and informative sex and relationships education we provide, the better the outcomes in terms of young people’s sexual health and safety. To mislead people about the nature and the benefits of sex and relationships education is cruel and ignorant at the best of times. To do so in such a way that it undermines efforts to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation is downright obscene.

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