MESMAC Blog: Sex education is inherently political – and here’s why
posted by Erin Marsh
on 08th November 2023
This latest blog post comes from Rotherham volunteer Eve. She's been exploring the intersection between RSE and politics...
Politics may not immediately spring to mind when you’re asked to think about sex ed. However, Politics isn’t just a bunch of men arguing back and forth about the economy in the House of Commons (although, sadly, it is that too).
In essence, everything can be, and is political. Sex education is no exception to this. In fact, politics and sex education are interwoven. In other words, they both exist in relation to one another. Let me explain…
But first, who am I and why am I writing this blog post?
My name is Eve and I’m a MESMAC volunteer of just over 1 year now! I am a Politics graduate from Newcastle University where I studied Sex, Gender and Power, amongst a range of other things.
One huge take away I got from my studies is that ‘the personal is political’. This term is used to explain how personal experiences (especially those of women and other marginalised genders) often have roots in systems of power in society.
An example of this may be domestic violence – this happens in the home, but is influenced by wider, structural forces in society. This includes gender inequality, patriarchy and a lack of resources/services available to aid the problem. These are all political concerns. For me, this highlights that politics is rarely ever ‘black and white’. It is much more nuanced and is present in everyday, ‘ordinary’ circumstances.
This brings me back to sex education. Whilst school may have given you the impression that sex ed is little more than an awkward condom-on-banana demonstration given to you by your RE teacher – it is actually much more than that.
Sex education extends to healthcare, education, mental health/wellbeing, LGBTQ+ issues, race-related issues, relationships, worker’s rights, campaigning, community work and helping those most vulnerable in society. All of these topics are influenced by political dynamics to a certain extent.
Through some personal negative experiences in the world of sex and relationships and my education in politics, I was drawn to volunteer for MESMAC. I felt the charity’s values reflected my own, and I could see the role sex education played in all aspects of life. I think it is important to recognise the connection between sex and politics and how this affects us in different areas of our lives – not just in the bedroom.
Here are 4 examples of where sex education and politics intersect:
The school curriculum
The school curriculum in the UK is created by the Secretary of State for Education (AKA the government). Historically, this has been influenced by the political climate and the politics of the party in power at that time. For example, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher introduced a law (s.28) which prohibited the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities, including schools. This was largely influenced by the AIDS crisis in the 80s, in a poor attempt to prevent the spread of the virus.
This had countless negative effects on the LQBTQ+ community and did little to help the spread of HIV, only creating fear and demonising queer people. For over two decades, only heterosexual relationships were taught about in schools, LGBTQ+ support groups had to self-censor or disband and LGBTQ+ literature was removed from UK libraries.
Inevitably, this just created more homophobia and misinformation. This meant that access to sexual healthcare and education for gay people became restricted. This is an example of where politics and the law has directly affected sex education, based on the agendas of those in power. Although s.28 no longer exists, this is should be something we are still wary of today as the law and politics are ever-changing.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court in the US overturned ‘Roe V Wade’, which gave individual states the power to change abortion laws. Following this, 14 US states have made abortion illegal, and others have placed restrictions which makes abortions harder to access. This isn’t just a political problem in the US, but all over the world.
A lot of this is influenced by religious and conservative political ideas. This politicises the bodies, rights and autonomy of women and anyone with a uterus, and strips them of access to basic medical care. This means that the state, government and politicians are making decisions about a person’s health, life and future.
Illegal or not, abortions still take place. If abortions take place illegally, they are more likely to become unsafe and put those involved in danger. This demonstrates how politics has a direct influence over access to sexual healthcare access as well as people’s bodies/autonomy.
Healthcare is an important political topic all around the globe. In the UK, the National Health Service means we have free access to healthcare; including sexual healthcare. For example, MESMAC is partially funded by the NHS. This means MESMAC can offer free services, products and testing for the public. Likewise, in our hospitals, abortion access and treatment for STIs are free. This makes sexual healthcare more accessible for everybody.
However, this is not true of other countries who have a more a more privatised model of healthcare. Of course, the existence of the NHS is not forever guaranteed. Unfortunately, the NHS faces regular budget cuts from the government, threatening its future. This puts free and accessible sexual healthcare at risk.
Healthcare is a huge part of party politics and is regularly debated amongst politicians. It is important to recognise that the healthcare system is directly affected by those in power. Therefore, so is our sexual healthcare and the services available to us. This is something to consider when voting in general elections.
Sex work and employment rights
Employment rights are your rights as a worker which are protected by the government and the law. In the UK, this guarantees that you have a minimum wage, holidays and protects you from unlawful discrimination, amongst other things. Likewise, there are multiple health and safety laws which ensures your safety and wellbeing in the workplace.
The law around sex work in the UK is complicated. Whilst technically legal, there a several rules which make it harder to practice within the law. As a result, sex workers are often not protected by such laws.
For example, a sex worker cannot openly solicit or advertise their services (street work). This gives the police the power to arrest sex workers. Due to this, sex work often happens in people’s homes, which can put sex workers in dangerous situations and at risk of violence.
As a result of these rules, sex work is often unregulated, meaning that the law doesn’t protect sex workers in the same way it works to protects other workers.
It is a big political debate whether sex work should be de-criminalised in the UK, as it is in other countries, such as the Netherlands. The argument behind this is that when sex work becomes more regulated, it becomes safer. This means that the law can work to protect sex workers’ rights, and it decreases the opportunity for danger to occur.
Ultimately, sex work is still work, and the law should not discriminate over which workers have more or less rights than others.