So, I’m sure I need to tell precisely no one that Brexit happened this weekend; it’s all over the world news, and I’m almost certain it’s the first time in history that the whole world is laughing except the British. But I’m not going to go into the ins and outs (no pun intended) of that result or the aftermath. What I want to address is a far older complaint.
One thing that those within the UK know that perhaps those outside don’t know is that the UK’s young overwhelmingly supported remaining within the EU, but were outvoted by gran and grandad, much to the anger and disappointment of the voting youth. I can see why they’re angry – whilst I’m not suggesting that the older vote is in any way diminished or even unanimous, it’s a bit odd that the young people that voted to remain will be the ones living with the decision for so long and yet can do nothing to affect the change they wanted to see. It’s kinda sad.
But almost as soon as they were published, the voices of the young people who did vote were dismissed entirely because “if they really cared, why did so few young people vote?”.
I would like to point out that the survey was conducted on young people who did actually vote, so it’s unfair to dismiss their opinion for something so totally out of their control. As someone who voted and is under 24, I’d like to say that I don’t appreciate that. I’d also like to point out that I share the frustration of the whole nation that so few young people in this country engage with politics of any kind – not just this referendum but all of the previous general elections in my lifetime in which the youth vote has continually declined.
But, perhaps more importantly, as a young person I TOTALLY understand why they don’t engage with politics. In fact I openly admit that I feel that pull towards not voting at each point that it’s offered to me. My main motivator for voting, if I’m honest, is the knowledge that so many died to give me the chance to do it.
The motivation not to vote is something I picked up on before I was even eligible. When I was 16, still doing my GCSEs and totally unable to have a say in the country, the 2010 General Election was a popular a talking point for me and my friends than that shitty movie Twilight and it’s never ending sequels. We quickly found that when the country goes to the polls, politicians come out in force to tell the young how much their vote matters, and to make sexy promises like the one Nick Clegg made. You remember, don’t you? The one he immediately backtracked on, issued a non-apology for two years later, and effectively ruined his career over. But I guess we at least got a cool song from it… Not much of a silver lining when I look at my £46,500+ of student debt but it’s something I suppose.
But there you go – I’d learned already not to trust the promises that politicians make when we go to the polls. Over the years that followed, as I passed into voting eligibility, I quickly learned other things too. Mainly that politicians only care about the young voters when we’re at the polls – the rest of the time they honestly couldn’t give a shit what we think, even if we are disproportionately affected by their policies. Take for example the proposed policy to cut various benefits for under 25s in order to save money. Sure, they work shit jobs in a shit economy where they aren’t guaranteed any hours at all, but that just means they don’t pay enough in as far as we’re concerned so fuck ’em. They should go back to living with mum and dad, even if there aren’t any jobs with mum and dad and mum and dad both live in a cemetary or something. What about the so-called-but-not-actually-accurate ‘Living Wage’? I personally thought the idea of a Living Wage was fabulous, signing numerous petitions to see it. I don’t recall having ever said “WOW, this is so fab, please keep me out of it!” Sure, I appreciate that maybe they can’t otherwise afford to do it (and I know they certainly can’t now the economy is up shit creek), but voting it in anyway is basically a declaration that MPs are more than willing to sacrifice living standards for under 25s to suit basically everyone else. Cheers, guys.
None of this was stuff I’d voted for, but I believed in democracy and I’d naively hoped that politicians would spare a thought for us before plowing ahead with their various policies. But every policy that was announced since I became eligible to vote seemed to have a small print that excluded us as a demographic. It’s hard not to wonder what the point is in voting when you sort of know that’s going to be the case.
The point is, politicians can’t ignore the young and throw them under the bus continually and then turn around and ask them to trust them or even help them when it’s time to make a decision about running the country. If you want young people to get involved, involve them or at least acknowledge they exist more than once every 5 years. And when you want to know why under 25s didn’t vote en masse to stop Brexit, remind yourself that they’d been taught from before they could even vote that their opinion didn’t really matter anyway.
TW: This post touches on topics around sex and sexuality (e.g. consent and abuse) which might be sensitive for some readers.
Usually when people are calling for some kind of compulsory teaching of health information, they make reference to sex education. For example, some students at my university started a petition for compulsory lessons on mental health as part of the curriculum. Because if we do it with sex ed., they argue, why not do it with mental health too?
Personally, I have higher hopes for mental health education than that. Not everyone will agree, but I think sex ed. is actually pretty shocking. Not in the sense that they teach sex ed. – right on! – more in what they teach and how they teach it.
Sex education is the source of continuous debate, which is understandable in a world where people still think sex can be evil. They have arguments about where it should happen, when it should happen, who should teach it, what they should teach, how they should teach it, you name it. So what do they actually have to teach in schools in the UK?
Well, from the key stage one it is compulsory to teach about anatomy, puberty, fertility, and sexual reproduction in state schools. In secondary school, you have to have specific sex education, which has to contain as a minimum information about STIs and HIV/AIDS. Some people would still object to some of these topics being taught in schools. But never fear nay-sayers! You are legally able to teach these within your school ethos. So an ultra religious school that maybe thinks condoms cause HIV could totally say so, provided they state that it’s their belief.
I disagree with that. Kids need to be told facts as well as a variety of beliefs, so they can be fully equipped to make decisions about their own sexual health. Plus it leads to some frankly patchy provision – every school ends up doing something differently.
Everything else? It’s non-statutory. Some schools won’t teach anything extra, and some pupils can be removed from those lessons by parents. Some schools, like those academies that now make up over half our education system, don’t have to teach anything. And literally anyone can teach this stuff. No offence to virgins – you are totally welcome to do as you please with your own body – but I’m not sure they are the best people to tell me about what’s happens to me when getting jiggy, so I’d really like it if they had some training or something!
This is not to say the only thing kids learn is boobs and diseases. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 requires that our little folk also learn about the importance of marriage in relationships and bringing up children. Now, obviously, I have a huge objection right there too. Because getting married has fuck all to do with bringing up kids. You can be an unmarried couple, or two seperated people, bringing up your kids excellently. A lot of the kids that will go through sex ed. will be coming from those families. Are we really going to tell them that their parents totally suck as parents because they broke up?
Not to mention that marriage wasn’t legal between same sex couples until March. Which means that for the past 14 years, we have been telling kids that gay people suck at parenting. I think that runs counter to that whole ‘not favouring any sexual orientation’ thing governments keep banging on about!
One of the things they’re supposed to do is give you a basic understanding of sexuality. Now, when I was in school, this was covered almost exclusively by an educational video from decades ago. There were two options presented – you were gay, or you were straight. There was no asexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality, bicuriousity, questioning, and so on. It was a binary view of sexuality, with all the colour sucked straight out.
Which led to me basically relying on my friends, family, and the internet to learn about my sexuality. I was basically led to believe that I was a greedy bitch for years. That sounds so… healthy. I’m not the only one either; I know plenty of asexual people who were completely traumatized growing up, after being led to believe that we are all deeply sexual beings, so they must just be broken or something.
Allow me to say fuck that shit. We need to make sure that every damn school is teaching the broadness and fluidity of sexuality. If anything for the self-esteem of a barrel full of kids!
We were fortunate enough to have a nurse come into school to give us all a demonstration on contraception, the first such lesson we had on the subject… which just so happened to take place when I was 15 and half the class had already started boning. Anyway, can you guess what this hour long demonstration was?
Yep. It was an ode to male condoms. She had a huge collection of novelty ones which she systematically showed us, before doing a demonstration of putting a condom on (which we weren’t allowed to do ourselves), and then passing around a book of STIs.
It’s not a big deal; my mum had taken the time to tell me about the pill, and I had heard from a doctor about implants. So I was pretty covered on the heterosexual contraception side. But not everyone is. Not everyone is aware of their ridiculously broad range of options. Certainly the lesbian in me learned nothing about protecting myself from disease – at least not until I looked up types of contraception some time later. And I’m pretty sure no one left that class knowing how to put a johnny on, or where to even get them from. (You can get them from the supermarket, pharmacies and doctors, kids!)
Pornography and masturbation
Porn is a complicated thing, but something that kids increasingly have access to. It’s everywhere. It’s also something the government won’t touch with a barge pole. No sir, that’s not for us thank you!
So then you get kids that are uncertain of sex, learning about it by watching Alotta Vagina having an orgy. That sounds so accurate. It totally doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that if left unchecked would screw up a person’s expectations about sex, or make them feel self-conscious about their body, or cause them to make others self-conscious due to their unrealistic expectations about that person’s body.
Then there’s masturbation in general. In school we were always taught that it was okay to masturbate (I went to a secular school, after all)… if you are a boy at least. There was nothing on the subject for girls. People out there genuinely think girls don’t do it. Maybe they don’t have an Ann Summers near by or something…
Literally nothing is covered about relationships accept the “look how awesome marriage is!” bit. Kids don’t have to be told what a healthy relationship looks like, how to fix their relationships, alternative options to marriage, different kinds of relationships and so on.
They don’t get told about domestic abuse either, even though it happens to them. It’s not like the government is blissfully unaware of that fact, since they just changed the definition of domestic abuse so it includes 16 – 17 year olds (I’d like to point out that I was 15 when I was in an abusive relationship, Clegg).
“There are adverts, though!” you might scream. Sure, there are adverts, but those are generally of women being physically abused by men. What about the young men getting abused by young women? What about emotional abuse? How are kids supposed to spot it and be aware something is horrendously wrong if they don’t know about it?
Yeah this one doesn’t even need explaining. We just don’t teach kids what consent looks like, about peer pressure and sex, or situations in which consent can’t happen. I know it seems like you might instinctively know, but people genuinely don’t. Heaven forbid the first time they learn about consent is from The LAD Bible or Robin Thicke.
Sex is different for disabled people, but that actually isn’t covered in sex education much at all. In fact, not at all. Even though being able-bodied as a young person doesn’t mean at all you will be able-bodied forever, and despite the fact that you might totally want to bang a person with a disability. Come on, sex ed., be cool already.
If you do want to know about sex with disabilities there’s a really awesome video on it here. Seriously, if you aren’t regularly watching Laci Green and co. you should just kick yourself. You’re missing out.
So, in schools they have to cover sexual reproduction. We’ve mentioned that. But yet again they miss out some vital information. Like, for example, what do you do if you struggle to conceive? What if you can’t have children? What if you are in a same sex relationship? Adoption is just one of many options for those situations, but it’s the only one that has been mentioned to me in school. That doesn’t feel right.
Plus, there’s this massive emphasis on sex for children rather than pleasure. A total bummer if you are a person who just doesn’t want kids. Instead of approaching this like everyone is going to have kids because that’s totally what every normal person wants, why don’t we approach having kids more realistically – it’s an option, not a requirement for being a human being.
Can’t the parents do it?
I know some people will be reading this thinking that parents should be the ones teaching kids about all of these things. They should, totally – parents have a responsibility when it comes to sex education too. Yet schools should be teaching a broader version of sex education as well.
I mean, consider this: what if parents don’t know about something that they are expected to teach? If you’re a heterosexual, conservative couple with a pansexual child, for example, what advice do you actually have to give them about same-sex relationships and intercourse? If you’ve had no fertility problems, what can you teach your kid about them? The same goes for porn, and disabilities, and the broad range of relationship types.
Sometimes you have to concede that parents don’t have all the answers. That’s where sex education is supposed to intervene.
So no, sex ed. is full of gaping holes. It’s letting loads of people down. Let’s fix it soon, please, so that whole swathes of young people don’t have to get their important health information from a dodgy internet source written before broadband by someone’s grandparent. Reliable? I don’t think so…
I recently read a fantastic article by Anniseed, and I just wanted to quickly say something about it.
It was about the BBC Three documentary that featured a series of young men in American prisons, each of whom had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole prior to turning 18. Each of the men talked about their crimes – all of them had committed murder – and their experiences of prison and rehabilitation (which not all of them had achieved). Viewers were left to form their own opinions of the men, and whether it was just that they remained in prison forever for a crime committed before they are legally old enough to make independent decisions.
Scary, scary shit – I couldn’t even begin to imagine being judged on my actions as a teenager, or spending the rest of my long, long life in prison. It’s a fantastically chilling documentary and I’d recommend watching it, if you can.
Anniseed in mentioned a particular man in the documentary that struck them:
Sean Taylor was sentenced to life imprisonment for shooting dead an innocent bystander caught up in gang violence. In prison, he continued to live the life of a gang member, viewing the world through that narrow prism and getting into constant trouble with the authorities. But Sean was fortunate. An older inmate decided to look out for him, and every day would approach him and ask him a particular question. Here Sean leans forward and shares the question that was to save him:
“What have you read today?”
So Sean started reading. And it opened up his eyes to whole new worlds, made him delve into his own inner self, and make the tremendously brave decision to change his life. Through reading, he discovered Islam, and this showed him another path. He gathered his fellow inmates together and told them he was no longer going to be a gang member – he was going to live a better life, even though he was incarcerated, and he would help anyone else who wished to do the same. His transformation was to change not only his life, but the lives of many others. And the State Governor was moved to commute his sentence to parole.
Now Sean lives back in his home community, working with young people to try and stop them from getting involved with gangs, and to steer them away from lives of violence. It’s impossible to know how many lives his actions have actually saved, but his brave effort to pay back society for his own crimes were admirable. He spoke as an intelligent, committed and articulate man, and his story moved me greatly. I am inspired.
Proof, if any be needed, that reading can change lives.
That last sentence, that really grabbed me. It’s hard not to take away a message about the importance of books, and education in general, in the process of rehabilitation when faced with inspiring stories such as those of Sean Taylor.
Yet in the UK, a blanket ban has been introduced on the sending of books to prisoners. Sure, they still have access to books in the prison library, but the supply is somewhat limited. And sure, there are some prisoners that have used books to smuggle drugs and other items into prison in the past. Does that really mean that we should deny the entire prison population the opportunity of self-improvement, or the important moral lessons books often contain? I doubt it. When you see these case studies of people who have turned their whole lives around on the basis of important influences in prison, like particular texts, can you really deny prisoners that opportunity?
Most of these people have not had access to the things we take for granted – a quality education, books, a stable home environment – and prison represents an ideal opportunity to introduce them to these things, in an effort toward their rehabilitation and their reintegration into society. We shouldn’t punish people for the sake of punishing them.
So, the other day UN Special Rapporteur Rashida Manjoo said that the UK was the sexist country in the world, in her opinion, and everyone got their knickers in a right twist over it. Understandably, I suppose – it’s hardly a judgement that’s going to help British tourism or anything.
Her reasoning is that the UK has a “boys’ club sexist culture”, and that government measures like austerity tend to have a disproportionate impact on women. She also criticized the media’s negative and sexualised portrayals of women – she argued they created negative and damaging perceptions of women and girls, and lead to the “marketisation” of their bodies – and was miffed that she wasn’t allowed into Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre, where their have been some controversial complaints from women in the past.
Now, I’m not going to argue that Britain is actually the most sexist country in the world, because that statement is utterly ridiculous. I don’t have to worry about being prosecuted for ‘promiscuity’ if I’m sexually assaulted, I can have a job, I’ve been educated. If I had a husband and he hit me, that would be a crime here, not his ‘right’ as my ‘owner’. So being a woman in Britain could be worse – much, much worse.
But the counter argument I’ve heard, about Britain being the best place in the world to be a woman, is equally stupid. Where does this even come from?!
First off, just because the lady made a silly hyperbolic statement, doesn’t mean the stuff she’s talking about isn’t an accurate reflection of what it’s like to be a woman in Britain. The “boys’ club” is a real thing – it’s most apparent in Parliament where there are only 147 female MPs, compared to 503 male MPs. There are currently only 3 women in cabinet (though two more of those are allowed to attend. Equality, right?!). To put this into perspective, 45% of Sweden’s national parliament is female. It’s not a competition, but I think it’s obvious who’s winning.
I couldn’t find any figures on transgender or androgynous individuals in politics, unfortunately.
The figures rather accurately reflect leadership positions all over the country. Although more women go to university than men now, there are startlingly few female lecturers, professors, and researchers in general. Research presented by female lead researchers is more likely to be rejected. Likewise, even though women dominate education, but more headteachers are male. Don’t even get me started on leadership in other industries…
So, men make all the decisions. Not surprising, then, that you have ridiculous outdated rules governing women. Like, you literally have to have two doctors ‘satisfy the criteria’ for the Abortion Act 1967. Which are, by the way:
continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the woman’s life than ending the pregnancy
continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the woman’s physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy
continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman’s existing children
there is a significant risk that if the child is born s/he would have a serious physical or mental disability.
Yeah, because you’d have to be mad not to want a child.
I’m not even going to talk about domestic violence, or portrayals of women in the media, catcalling, the division of domestic labour, women in science and engineering, austerity measures – I don’t need to. It’s all pretty obvious stuff to anyone who isn’t willfully blind, and it would be patronizing to you.
What I will say is this – just because one turd has a bow on it, and the other has gone white and stinky, doesn’t mean the first isn’t a turd. Stop excusing our existing cultural problems with pathetic stuff like “oh but it’s so much worse elsewhere”, because all you are doing is making Manjoo look right.
Before I begin on this, I’d like to make it clear where I’m approaching this from, because it seems relevant to the debate.
Most people when you talk about the justice system cry “but what about the victims?!” constantly. Totally justifiable; after all, they are the ones whose lives have changed, often drastically, as a result of the crime. Victims should get a say. I too have been a victim of crime in my lifetime; interestingly not once have I been asked what I’d like to see in the justice system in light of that fact, though I have been berated for my opinions as a general hater of all victims of crime. So let me make this clear – as a victim of crime, the thing I would most like to see in our justice system is rehabilitation and a reduction in offending. I don’t want to go through those things again, or see others go through them. This is the standpoint from which I am writing this piece.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s address the prison system in the UK right now.
Currently, there are 85,338 in offender institutions in England and Wales (Howard League, 2014). Most of those are male – 81,426 compared to 3,912 – which is pretty striking in itself. This isn’t the highest prison population in the world, granted, but it’s still pretty large, especially when you consider that in 2013 had a population of approximately 4,500 (The Guardian, 2013).
For years, the rhetoric around prisons has been that they simply aren’t tough enough – that they’re like holiday institutions, and all these fun and games make people want to re-offend to go back to prison. Prison, they argue, is just not a strong enough deterrent from crime. That much, I agree with, but we’ll get back to that later. More pressing is how utterly ridiculous the idea that prisons can be a “soft” option actually is. Going to prison doesn’t simply involve a loss of freedom, as people think; there’s the loss of autonomy, human connection, safety, privacy, even the very essence of who you are. Think about it – they strip you of all your personal belongs, issue you a standard bland room, a standard uniform, and to them you are just another statistic. You cease to be you. It’s a well documented phenomenon called deindividuation, and has been linked to not only increases in your own aggressive tendencies, but increases the chances of people being violent to you (I’d recommend a casual Google search on it!).
Can you say ‘prison riot’?
So, you’re living in fear, you’ve lost your identity and your freedom. Well, maybe you kind of deserved it? If you don’t want to do the crime, maybe you shouldn’t do the crime?! Oh, how terribly cute this idea is. It entirely overlooks the frankly incredibly complicated causes of crime. For example, did you know that an amazingly high number of offenders suffer from personality disorders and other mental health problems? People think the mentally ill are housed separately from other offenders, but this only happens in extreme causes – prisons are required to have mental health professionals on staff to take care of these lower-risk offenders while they’re in the mainstream population. It’s questionable, therefore, if they can even be held responsible for their actions. They go to prison nonetheless. Then there are those homeless offenders that have a choice between starving and going to prison, where they at least get meals. These are trapped in the cycle of hunger, poverty and crime.
These are just a few reasons why crime might happen, I’d absolutely encourage you to seek out the literature and see what you make of it.
Let’s say, however, you just committed a crime and you end up in prison. Why is it that the punishment – going to prison and losing all of this important stuff – doesn’t reduce crime? After all, the re-offending rate for short-stay prison sentences is 56%, reducing to 26% for longer sentences, which is pretty high (The Independent, 2013). Well, the idea of punishing people for bad behaviour is linked to the popular (and widely misunderstood) theory of conditioning. This is where punishment (not to be confused with negative reinforcement) is thought to reduce socially unacceptable behaviours like crime, and reinforcement increases socially acceptable behaviours like obeying the law. A lot of research into the effects of conditioning has been done by B. F Skinner – who was also largely against the use of punishment as a singular method of changing socially unacceptable behaviours. Yup. Skinner argued that punishment was not sufficient to create a lasting change in behaviour, merely creating a temporary change that was limited to the context in which punishment occurs – so in this case the effects of prison would be limited to… er… prison. When the threat of punishment is removed, Skinner said that people would return to their previous behaviours, because at no point during punishment did anyone teach them alternative, positive behaviours. In fact, he went as far as to say that punishment is only maintained as a mainstream method of dealing with poor behaviour because it reinforces the behaviours of those doing the punishing – but that’s where this all gets a bit complicated.
Therein lies one of the many secret of the success in Sweden’s prisons; far from being ‘holiday camps’, they attempt to integrate prisoners into a community and teach them how to go about daily life without falling into the trap of crime. They focus on what our prisons have long since forgotten – rehabilitation.
This is a complex debate, so for now I am going to leave it there but I will return to it later!