Sex and Relationships Education – making the difference to difference

University of Roehampton

Catherine MacKinnon has famously argued that feminist claims based on either the ‘difference’ between or the ‘sameness’ of the genders are flawed. Rather, she suggests, what is important is dominance (MacKinnon 1987) – in the case of gender, male dominance. Gender, she says, is a matter of dominance, not difference. Feminists have noticed that women and men are equally different but not equally powerful. Explaining the subordination of women to men, a political condition, has nothing to do with difference, in any fundamental sense. Consequentially, it has a lot to do with difference, because the ideology of difference has been so central to its enforcement. … I mean to suggest that the social meaning of difference—in this I included différance—is gender-based (MacKinnon 1987: 51).

Others in this series of blogs have written or are writing about questions of class, race and gender. Here I focus on sexuality and sex education, though of course there are intersections with other inequalities, including that between children and adults.

Following MacKinnon’s lead, in Schooling Sexualities, Richard Johnson and I coined the phrase ‘differences that make a difference’ (Epstein & Johnson 1998: 4) to talk about the various social differences, differences in power, that make a difference to people’s lived experience. In doing so, we were concerned with two things. First, there is the fact that people are not just one thing: women/men; black/white; heterosexual/queer. The need for understanding the intersectional nature of people’s lives is important here (Crenshaw 1989). But our second concern was to recognise that which particular social differences make the difference is not transhistorical or translocational, but very much to do with temporality and location.

This means that neither researchers nor policy makers can, or should, assume that a policy once established can stand for all time without revision in light of current developments. Nevertheless, there are some key issues that need to be taken into account, not least Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which the UK is a signatory and which specifies that:

  1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
  2. Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.

While this refers specifically to abuse, it is applicable, also, to social and educational exclusion whether by virtue of class, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, special educational needs or any other ‘difference that makes a difference’. What this means, in effect, is that all children have a right to be educated (see, also, the Millennium Development Goals), to understand their rights and to be cared for.

There has been a wealth of research on children, sexuality and sex and relationships education (see, for example, Alldred & David 2007; Epstein 1995; 1997; 2000; Epstein & Johnson 1998; 2003; Measor et al. 1996; 2000; Renold 2000; 2002; 2005; Ringrose 2012; Ringrose et al. 2012; Ringrose & Renold 2012). These studies have investigated what currently goes on in sex and relationships education, what children make of it, and what their needs in this respect are.

The evidence provided in all this research, and in research currently underway, strongly suggests that children in primary and secondary schools need access to an age appropriate SRE curriculum and that the contents of such a curriculum should be informed by, and be able to, respond to the reality of their day to day experiences. The research shows that children’s experiences of relationships, sex and sexuality are affected, intersectionally, and in different ways for different children and groups of children by their age, gender, race, nationality, country of origin, religion and so on. Not all children have bad experiences, but all children need to be equipped to understand both good and bad experiences.

Recent events in the UK concerning abuse by celebrities such as Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris have shown us the extent to which sexual (and other forms of) abuse have historically been neglected. It would be comforting to think that this no longer happened but we know that it does. Good sex and relationships education would not solve the problem in and of itself – it is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. And perhaps these events have put the development of good SRE on the political agenda, in spite of the rejection of compulsory SRE first in the Commons and then in the Lords earlier this year.

A rights-based approach to Sex and Relationships Education would go some way towards providing for the development of appropriate SRE material for children, which should aim to promote an understanding of every child’s right to be safe[1] (Article 19, UNCRC) and promote cultural change that challenges gender stereotypes and prejudice and practices in line with a human rights approach and the Public Sector Equalities Duty. Such an approach would sit comfortably within the Rights Respecting Schools’ Award, in which many schools across the UK participate. This award is run by UNICEF in the UK.

The rights of children to safety include the right to appropriate information and the right not to be bullied and or harassed through gender or sexual name-calling, bullying or harassment of any kind as well as the right to respect for their bodily integrity and to identify and refuse unwarranted and unwelcome touching or other interference. The necessity for this is clearly demonstrated in the demonstrable and extensively expressed misogyny on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and in research with teenagers both about the acceptability of misogyny by many boys and the acceptance of it as inevitable by many girls (Ringrose 2012; Ringrose et al. 2012; Ringrose & Renold 2012). Indeed, the Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) association have drawn on the report by Ringrose et al. (2012) for the NSPCC in developing their own recommendations concerning the need to deal with the ways in which young people communicate using internet technology. Their advice can be found here and here.

Thus, in brief, SRE at the different key stages would move away from an approach based entirely on protection and moral values to an approach based on equalities and rights. Curriculum content might be developed from the existing excellent work by Sex Education Forum and from further ideas currently under development by a range or researchers in this area. This curriculum should clearly be personalised and adapted to suit the particular needs of pupils at different schools and should be developed with special care for those young people attending special schools. In view of the seriousness of the safeguarding incidents which occurred at Stanbridge Earls School and which led to that school being closed down by the Secretary of State for Education earlier this year, it is vitally important that any SRE curriculum not have an opt out clause for independent schools or special schools or settings.

For more information on what a rights based approach to SRE might look like, please see the IPPF document, “Young People’s Guide to Sexual Rights”.




Alldred, P. & David, M. E. (2007) Get Real about Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Crenshaw, K. (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989): 139-67.

Epstein, D. (1995) Gender and Sexuality in the Early Years. OMEP(UK) Research Update.

Epstein, D. (1997) Boyz’ Own Stories: Masculinities and Sexualities in Schools. Gender and Education, 9(1): 105-115.

Epstein, D. (2000) Reading Gender, Reading Sexualities: Children and the Negotiation of Meaning in “Alternative” Texts, in: W. J. Spurlin (Ed.) Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Teaching of English: Positions, Pedagogies, and Cultural Politics. Urbana, IL. National Council for the Teaching of English

Epstein, D. & Johnson, R. (1998) Schooling Sexualities. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Epstein, D., O’flynn, S. & Telford, D. (2003) Silenced Sexualities in Schools and Universities. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

Mackinnon, C. A. (1987) Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Measor, L., Tiffin, C. & Fry, K. (1996) Gender and Sex Education: a study of adolescent responses. Gender and Education, 8(3): 275-88.

Measor, L., Tiffin, C. & Miller, K. (2000) Young People’s Views on Sex Education: Education, Attitudes and Behaviour. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Renold, E. (2000) “Coming Out”: gender, (hetero)sexuality and the primary school. Gender and Education, 12(3): 309-26.

Renold, E. (2002) Presumed Innocence: (Hetero)sexual, heterosexist and homophobic harassment among primary school girls and boys. Childhood, 9(4): 415-34.

Renold, E. (2005) Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities: Exploring Children’s Gender and Sexual Relations in the Primary School. London: RoutlegeFalmer.

Ringrose, J. (2012) Post-Feminist Education? Girls and the sexual politics of schooling. London: Routledge.

Ringrose, J., Gill, R., Livingstone, S. & Harvey, L. (2012) A Qualitative Study of Children, Young People and ‘Sexting’. Report for NSPCC (London)

Ringrose, J. & Renold, E. (2012) Teen girls, working class femininity and resistance: Re-theorizing fantasy and desire in educational contexts of heterosexualized violence. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(4): 461-77.

[1] General obligation contained in Article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women in terms of (1. Parties shall take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men).