Are we failing the next generation of men?
As a new report finds that more than 1 in 4 boys look for more info about sex through porn, I investigate why relationships and sex education classes are not working.
Masculinity today is a blurred line that is defined more by where boys spend their time online than the environments and classrooms they grow up in. As a new report finds boys are feeling “pressured by gendered norms” and are “turning to the internet for information about sex and relationships”, are we in danger of creating a confused and isolated generation of men?
The report published by SafeLives, a UK charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, finds relationships and sex education (RSE) is “falling seriously short” of what young people need, despite the curriculum receiving its first update in twenty years in 2019.
In that time we have seen a sea change in attitudes towards sex and masculinity. From the decline of the lad mag culture in the early noughties, providing men and boys an out-of-the-box identity rooted in cars, sport and sexualised images of women, to a growing incel community today that has spawned groups of men who seek to “reclaim” their masculinity and who feel rejected by the opposite sex. Men and boy’s exploration of their own masculinity and sex has developed the route of, if they’re not taught it, then they’ll Google it. The consequences of which lead boys to a confusing online minefield of male attitudes and opinions that lack the safe space of the classroom from which to navigate and discuss them.
The classroom however is failing to provide the learning and emotional space boys need in RSE lessons, as such they are ultimately being set up to fail. Only half (52%) of young people surveyed in the report have “been taught about gender roles and gender equality”. This leaves a staggering amount of boys ill-equipped to understand the balance between boys and girls and consequences of their attitudes and actions towards girls. Last year Ofsted launched a review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges and found that 92 per cent of girls they interviewed had experience of sexist name calling and 80 per cent had been pressured to provide sexual images of themselves.
Bristol charity, Integrate UK, who deliver workshops in schools around gender and racial inequality said last month that they are concerned over the “normalisation” of sexual harassment and “toxic” relationships among young people. Fahma Mohamed who began volunteering with Integrate UK as a secondary school student, made a name for herself when she became the face of a Guardian backed campaign to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), resulting in compulsory training over the issue which had previously been a taboo subject. Ms Mohamed said that one child told her that when a boy she liked asked her for a nude image she would make an excuse because she felt unable to say no. Ms Mohamed said: “Asking for nudes has become a huge issue and then pressuring or threatening girls when they don’t comply has become very common. We’ve had young girls tell us how they’ve said no and then they get pressured even more.”
Ofsted’s report found that children and young people were rarely positive about the RSE lessons that they had received, noting “that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives.” As such and because of these gaps they said “they turned to social media or their peers to educate each other, which understandably made some feel resentful. As one girl put it, ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys’.”
The compounding failure of RSE to support and educate boys is not only apparent in the abusive actions towards girls at school, but towards boys themselves and the men they will ultimately become. SafeLives’ findings found that boys said they are facing pressures to ‘man up,’ to conceal emotions and to refrain from asking for support. These are all aspects of “The Man Box”, a term coined by Tony Porter, CEO of A Call to Men, an organisation promoting “healthy, respectful manhood”. ‘The Man Box’ is a fictional box that expects men and boys to be strong, successful, powerful, dominating, fearless, in control, and emotionless. It is societal reflection of the harmful attitudes of masculinity towards men today.
This abusive form of masculinity puts power and control at the centre of men’s lives. Tackling the abusive nature of these traits must be a priority in RSE, especially in healthy relationship education. Currently “only 24% of students reported being taught about coercive control, and only 13% thought it was taught well”. Coercive control remains the foundation of domestic abuse, a non-physical patterns of acts designed to control and abuse a victim, it was added to the statute book and made an offence in 2015 but is still widely lacking awareness and understanding.
Research from SafeLives and others has also shown that young people are most likely to go to their friends for help if they are experiencing abuse in relationships (Barter et al., 2009; Daw, 2021), therefore, it is vital that young people have a good understanding of abusive and healthy relationships, how to identify them, and how to signpost to support.
Boys using pornography to look for more information about sex is indicative of the failure to deliver the new RSE guidance. A new US study finds 58% of female college students have been choked during sex, further suggesting that this “kink” is becoming increasingly common in younger age demographics. Without the safe space of RSE boys are likely to normalise behaviour they watch in pornography, when in reality there is no safe way to engage in this act.
Suzanne Jacob OBE, chief executive of SafeLives: “Our team has found some glaring gaps in the delivery of this new guidance. RSE should be equipping young people, often engaging in their first intimate relationships, with the support, knowledge and confidence to navigate relationships safely and healthily. Instead, students feel let down and that they should be getting much more out of these classes - leaving many, especially boys, looking online for answers. “We want to see schools across the country embedding a whole-school approach to RSE, where all members of a school community - students, staff, parents and governors - ensure RSE is prioritised and teachers are provided with the resources and time they need to build trust with their students.”
Our failure to use RSE as an opportunity to help educate boys further fails and constrains them within harmful forms of masculinity, in turn this can arguably leave boys left feeling isolated and confused. When left unchecked those feelings can lead to a online world to educate and in some cases recruit boys and young men to harmful forms of masculinity and dangerous perceptions of sex. Incel communities actively target and foster young men to their abusive ideologies that promote power, control and miosgyny. The more questions we leave boys asking, the more we are failing them.
Providing boys a space to tackle the societal expectations and pressures of ‘the Man Box’, through the exploration and discussion of their emotions to it, has the power to disarm the abusive qualities of masculinity that exist to confine and abuse both men and women. In turn we can help create less defensive attitudes towards societal systems we collectively need to challenge today such as patriarchy and men’s violence against women. Space to teach and discuss empathy for the lived experiences of both boys and girls can be instilled in RSE and help create the mentally healthy, educated and compassionate men our future needs.
The internet will always remain a readily available tool for boys to learn and find out more, nothing will change that. What RSE must achieve however, is to deliver lessons that provide comprehensive education and safe spaces for boys to learn and discuss.
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