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Understanding sexual ethics in school

Image of a sad teenage girl

Press release issued: 23 June 2014

A public panic about sexualisation assumes the next generation is in moral crisis, however, new research from the University of Bristol on young peoples’ everyday experiences, tells a different story.

Social anthropologist, Dr Sarah Winkler Reid of Bristol's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, found that ethical judgement about sex is a common subject in the playground when she conducted ethnographic fieldwork with 15 to 16 year olds in school.

"The young people I encountered had really clear ideas about what’s right and wrong when it comes to sex.  They definitely weren’t the passive sponges adults often imagine," she said.

School is a key time where sexuality and gender develop and young people are defining and policing rules on appropriate sexuality.

These rules differ for boys and girls and the sexual double standard remains: if a girl has sex she’s a slag, if a boy does the same he can brag.

Dr Winkler Reid highlights the many factors young people take into consideration when labelling someone a 'slag'.  Relationship status, the frequency of encounters and appearance all play a part in peer judgements.  In fact, girls are labelled 'slags’ for a whole range of reasons that don’t include sex.

But young people are reflective: they are also critical of double standards.

As Dr Winkler Reid concludes: "Being called a slag is very hurtful. If we want to work effectively with young people we need to recognise it is not just an insult but an important part of their peer sexual ethics."


'She’s not a slag because she only had sex once: Sexual ethics in a London secondary school' by Sarah Winkler Reid in Journal of Moral Education

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