The Tories Want You to Panic About Sex Education

Evangelical MPs are launching a new crusade in their ongoing ‘groomer’ panic.

by Moya Lothian-McLean

10 March 2023

The government is bringing forward a review of the way sex education is taught in schools. Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Wake up folx, a new moral panic just dropped. Not content with concurrent outrages around asylum seekers or transgender people, an evangelical faction of the Tory party is leading a fresh attack on sex education. 

Head of the charge is Miriam Cates, a Sheffield MP and one of the 2019 intake – coincidentally (or not) the year it was announced sex and relationships education would become compulsory for primary and secondary school students in England (Wales followed suit in 2022; Scotland and Northern Ireland have yet to make it a statutory requirement, despite moves in that direction). 

Cates is a committed social conservative and evangelical Christian who believes that schoolchildren are being exposed to “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and 72 genders”. In a question posed during Prime Minister’s Questions this week, she added that “children are being subjected to lessons that are age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents”. Prime minister Rishi Sunak picked up the thread and ran with it, assuring Cates that he “shared” her concerns and, as a result, had brought forward a review of RSHE statutory guidance, with the consultation to launch “as soon as possible”. 

Sunak isn’t just taking a politically-expedient bait. He seeded this particular offensive in his (failed) 2022 leadership bid, with promises to crack down on “inappropriate material” presented alongside a rebuke of “woke nonsense” and accusations of “brainwashing”. He’s in full agreement with Cates; a letter she organised last week – signed by over 40 Tory MPs – asking him to “honour” his commitment to “end[ing] inappropriate sex education” isn’t a headache for the prime minister, but a timely invitation. It allows Sunak to once more lead his party in taking up arms in the culture war on which they plan to fight the next election, but with an effective shield from rightful critique: the supposed ‘protection’ of children.

Of course, when you examine Cates and co’s claims of exactly what schoolchildren need protecting from, the true object of their ire becomes clear. Her assertions come from a report she commissioned under the guise of the New Social Covenant Unit (NSCU), a think tank (despite its professions that it isn’t) she founded in 2021 with fellow Tory MP Danny Kruger – also an evangelical Christian. Its website gives a clue as to its interests – browsers are directed to tabs titled ‘Family’, ‘Community’ and ‘Nation’. 

The NSCU is extremely socially conservative. In its 2021 manifesto, Kruger denounced “cultural Marxism” and “globalism”, and argued that heterosexual marriage must enjoy “legal privileges, social status and financial assistance [for] couples who commit to staying together and staying faithful”. Unsurprisingly, the NSCU’s latest report on sex education doesn’t stray from these values. The introduction alleges there is “strong evidence that actors with a radical ideological position on sex, gender and sexuality are monopolising the RSE third sector, putting the nation’s children at risk of […] being politically indoctrinated with ideas that are destructive to a sense of self, of family and even of nationhood”. Ok! 

Evidence that would support such charges is threadbare. Of the claims made by Cates in PMQs, the NSCU report cites only two references to oral sex made in material that could potentially be taught to children. One, from a book called ‘Great Relationships and Sex Education’, reads as follows:

“The key learning here is that it doesn’t make sense to talk about ‘gay sex’ or ‘straight sex’ as there are many different ways that two bodies can come together to have sex. It may involve mutual masturbation, oral sex, penetrative sex (vaginal or anal), using sex toys and having orgasms together. These activities can be enjoyed (or not) by people of any sex, gender or sexuality.”

The second, from a resource for teenagers aged 16 or above, says:

“But actually sex isn’t just intercourse, it’s outercourse too! Sexual touching, oral, kissing, massaging – anything on the outside of the body counts as sex too. Anal sex and oral sex on the penis are also types of intercourse sex. Further, there are lots of different types of relationships, whether that’s to do with sexuality (pansexual, bisexual, homosexual etc) or formation (polygamous, open etc). All types of sex and relationships are valid, as long as their [sic] consensual.”

Very graphic. Tellingly, what the NSCU report chooses to take umbrage with is the apparently banal way penis-in-vagina sex is described. “Why,” the report asks, “[is] only heterosexual intercourse […] described as if it is a perfunctory or mechanical act?”. Projection, thy name is… 

As for Cates’ declaration that children are being taught to “choke their partner[s] safely”, the evidence is nil. Journalist Paul Waugh deduced the only connection to it might be on a sex positive blog for adults, the content of which is definitely not being taught in UK schools.

Ditto the claim around ‘72 genders’, that likely comes from a misreported story in The Telegraph that took place on the Isle of Man. Not only does the Isle of Man have its own parliament, which directs its education policy, the headteacher of the school in question said “there could be a number of inaccuracies with the information being shared” on social media. But who needs facts when you have furore? 

This vein of moral outrage isn’t a standalone trend. It’s another strand of an ongoing wider panic that has swept up scapegoats including drag queens and transgender people and is resulting in renewed hostility towards the wider LGBTQ+ community. This panic is exported straight from America’s evangelical right and centres children as the potential targets of ‘groomers’, a shadowy threat that’s construed as both sexual and ideological (also not new: see Section 28). It’s been taken up by true believers – like the Miriam Cates’ of this world, and far-right groups like Patriotic Alternative – but also by politicians who see it as a means to an end. Sunak seems to be built in this mould: a technocrat who only full-throatedly joined the ‘war on woke’ as his run at the Tory leadership was flatlining.

Panics like this have several functions. They allow a public ‘blood-letting’ against minority scapegoats, a channelling of anger that could otherwise be wielded against elites. They also offer those in power the opportunity to take action against an imagined threat, thus framing themselves as both active politicians and saviours of Britain’s moral fabric. The Tories, faced with the task of explaining why the country has suffered abject decline after 13 years under their governance, are pivoting to a narrative whereby social decay isn’t the result of economic neglect, but moral decay: the fraying of community is the fault of the gays, the girls, the gay girls, and so on. 

This account falls apart under the vaguest of scrutiny. But on emotions-led issues, particularly those involving children, scrutiny is in short supply. There’s been cheering pushback to aspects of this panic – protests against drag queens in south London have been repelled by community counter demonstrations – yet a sharp rise in recorded LGBTQ+ hate crimes nonetheless illustrates its impact. The Tories are unlikely to realise electoral victory via these means, yes – but the miasma of their moral manipulation will linger long after they have departed government. 

Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.

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