It has been announced this week that the Department for Education will be reviewing the guidance it provides to schools on Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), with the intention of updating it for the 21st Century. Current guidelines have remained unchanged for 14 years, and consequently make no reference to the impact that recent technology can have on the sex lives and relationships of young people - as well as containing a significant lack of quality information on the issue of violence against women. Rightly, this announcement has been welcomed; better SRE is desperately needed in the UK, and it is vital that this be comprehensive and relevant.
It isn't a victory yet, though. Whether it ever will be depends on exactly how the guidance will tackle the issues at hand, particularly those of online porn and 'sexting', the sending and receiving of sexual texts or photos. It is well-documented by now that there are a host of dangers associated with both activities, ranging from the implications of teens getting the bulk of their sex education from porn that is unrealistic, to the repercussions of sexts falling into untrustworthy hands. It is absolutely right that young people be made aware of these whilst they are in school, because the chances of them being introduced to porn or sexting are undoubtedly high.
But they also need to know that this is only one side to it. Porn and sexting are consistently portrayed in our media, and treated by our politicians, as problems that need eliminating in and of themselves; David Cameron revealed intentions last year to instigate a 'porn block' that every household in the country would have to opt out of, and reports on sexting and the rates of teenagers said to be doing it - four in ten now, according to the NSPCC - are forever framing it as a matter of public concern.
The truth is, though, that there is nothing inherently wrong with either. Porn is just the depiction of sex; sexting is just the exploration of bodies and the sharing of desires over a virtual medium. If young people consensually wish to engage with either, and are able to respect the consent of their sexual partners whilst they do, then they have every right to be advised that they can form part of a healthy sex life.
Yes, porn doesn't always give the best representation of sex and isn't always appropriate for younger audiences, and yes, people have had their sexts used for blackmail, spread without their consent, or felt pressured into sending them in the first place. These things are problems, and they need to be tackled. But they are not inevitable. It is funny that the glaring omission from the Department of Education's press release is one that would actually help alleviate the negative aspects of both porn and sexting: consent.
Instilling in young people a thorough understanding and respect for enthusiastic and informed consent might not be a magical cure-all, but it is a necessary start. It would help them to realise that porn should not be treated as a how-to guide, and that they need to get enthusiastic consent from their sexual partners before they do anything with them; likewise, it might make it clearer exactly how unacceptable it is to breach the trust of someone who chooses to exchange intimate messages or photos with you, or to make them feel like it is something that they have to do.
Regardless, any discussion about the dangers of porn and sexting clearly needs to be focusing on condemning those who cause harm when they partake in them, and into discouraging them from doing so, rather than focusing on discouraging those young people who simply wish to explore their sexualities and their bodies in a consensual, healthy way. It is absolutely not news that teenagers become sexually curious and sexually active; the last thing they need is to feel shame for it.
If the government is really committed to giving teens the SRE that they deserve, then it should recognise that this aspect of sex and relationships - the pleasurable part - is just as important as the potential dangers. There is nothing wrong with young people wanting to watch porn, wanting to sext, and wanting to have sex - and everything in between, and nothing. The advice they receive at school needs to reflect that, and help them to be as safe and as informed as possible when they do.