You may have heard about the gender neutral toilet referendum passing. Eleanor Gray looks at why it was so important, and makes the case for sex education for university students. 

In early March, the government announced the introduction of compulsory sex education in all primary and secondary schools, representing significant progress towards an increasingly effective and comprehensive sex education system in this country.

However, this does not account for the lack of sex education experienced by those who have already transitioned through the school system. On 20th March 2017, the University of Nottingham Student’s Union passed a resolution declaring that gender neutral toilets will be introduced on campus. Although this vote should be commended for its promotion of inclusion and tolerance, sadly, it included a significant ‘no’ vote (with 2568 votes ‘for’ and 1733 votes ‘against’), revealing the need for greater sex education.

“A number of people simply don’t understand the need for gender neutral toilets”

Normally, in circumstances such as this, the ‘no’ vote could be attributed to, and to a large part nullified as, the prejudice of a small minority. However, the extent of this particular ‘no’ vote ensures it is important to acknowledge that it may be the result of something more, specifically an ignorance and a lack of understanding. I am not an expert on gender and sexuality, but I am interested and actively pursue information. However, I am aware that if I did not pursue this information, it would not be provided to me. Accordingly, following the vote, I have spoken to a number of people who simply don’t understand the need for gender neutral toilets or feel uncomfortable with the idea precisely because they don’t understand it.

A lack of knowledge about something or someone is the simplest way to detach yourself from it; a person, not imagined fully or complexly, becomes an object or a problem. They become dehumanised and easier to fear or hate. This suggests why transgender students don’t feel a part of the university community. According to research by NUS one in three transgender students experience bullying or harassment at university and half consider dropping out of university entirely. Accordingly, although sex education in primary and secondary schools can provide the basics, it does nothing to protect the most vulnerable students through acknowledging their existence. It fails to make them visible and, if anything, promotes their invisibility.

Therefore the more nuanced aspects of sex and sexuality should be considered at university, such as the importance of recognising sexuality and gender as a spectrum. Conversations about gender neutral toilets are an important step in the discussion, even in simply forcing those who have never considered such issues to recognise their existence. These conversations provoke debate and encourage understanding.

“When consent becomes a punchline, it becomes optional”

Although the average British teenager loses their virginity at the age of 16, the problem of sex education extends beyond the need to understand the physicality of sex into a wider issue of ‘lad culture’ and the heteronormative environment this creates. Lad culture is defined by the National Union of Students as a “competitive male chauvinism disguising itself as ‘harmless banter’”. Lad culture is dangerous precisely because it disguises itself as harmless. When consent becomes a punchline, it becomes optional.

This ‘lad culture’ is ingrained in university life throughout sports teams, societies and university nightlife and it is infectious – in a room where everyone is laughing at a sexist joke, you don’t want to be the only one sat in silence. Sexual assault, a product of this culture, is unfortunately a prominent issue in many universities; one in three students experience sexual assault at some point during their university life.

Hopefully, introducing sex education on campus will begin to dismantle this culture and to ameliorate the problem of sexism and sexual assault in universities. Sex education will create a dialogue, allowing students to feel more comfortable in challenging these issues, be aware that a conversation already exists and know that their fellow students are at least aware of the issues in need of discussion. The University of York, for example, recently introduced compulsory talks on consent, rape and sexual assault during freshers week. Although sex education may not cure the issue of sexual assault on campus or the isolation experienced by LGBTQ students, as a microcosm of society, higher education institutions have a significant role to play in dismantling problematic attitudes beyond the boundaries of university.

Eleanor Gray

image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

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2 Comments

  1. Anon
    April 27, 2017 at 12:55 — Reply

    Whilst an interesting article raising many big issues, sadly it makes a few dangerous assumptions that I wanted to comment on, plus some of the statistics quoted are to say the least misleading, if not downright wrong.

    I completely agree there is an issue with the way our transgender students are being treated, ‘lad culture’ still being a problem, the high levels of sexual assault taking place at university and that a debate might be useful into sex education for students, but this article fails to explore why people voted in the way they did.

    I would be interested in writing a follow up article, if this is a possibility?

    • W. W.
      May 1, 2017 at 23:27 — Reply

      I’m sure it would be – just email [email protected] or message the fb page and they’ll sort you out from there (y)

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