Sex Ed: Are We Doing Enough?

(Originally posted on LinkedIn for the EdTech Lobby, but still written by me.)

Children and young people across the world are returning to their classrooms.  Over the past five months, many will have learnt how to make pasta from scratch, re-read all the Harry Potter books or completed their favourite video game twice over.  Other children will have smoked their first spliff in the park with friends or been plonked in front of the TV or iPad whilst their parents drink or row, and some children won’t have had a decent meal.  Teenagers over the world will have connected with friends via social media and new friendships will have blossomed.  Yet, for other young people, they will have developed self-esteem issues after being inundated with slim models and muscly men on Instagram, they may have experienced cyberbullying for the first time and others might have come across pornography online, intentionally or otherwise.

Virus or not, this is the world we live in.  It seems that the UK Government has finally acknowledged that the kids of today are living in a Digital Age and that this affects their adolescent development.  For the first time in 18 years, the British Sex Education curriculum is being updated.  18 years.  (18 years ago, it was 2002 and I was 10.  As a planet, we were nervously waking up to the new millennium and still in our neon-90s haze.  Western music boasted of girl-power and many schools had a handful of chunky computers supporting floppy disks.  Now, most teenagers have a computer in their pockets and sex is everywhere.)

Teenage girl with rainbow colours across her face and the wall behind her.(Photo by Isi Parente on Unsplash)

From this September, children’s learning in British primary schools will centre around relationships.  All at an ‘age-appropriate’ time and manner, they will be taught about healthy relationships, rooted in family and friendships in all contexts.  Crucially, this reflects different family structures such as single-parent households, LGBT parents, families with grandparents as their heads as well as adoptive and foster parent families.  They will also learn about emotional and physical changes in puberty and learn about the importance of safety online and that sometimes people pretend they’re someone else over the Internet.  This will cover caution surrounding image sharing and cyberbullying, which is sadly a reality for many children.  Reflecting the possibility that children can be unsafe at the hands of an adult, primary school children will be taught how to recognise and report feelings of unsafety and occurrences of abuse. 

In secondary schools, when children are 11-18 years old, the learning expands to topics such as contraception, consent, sexual harassment and rape, FGM and violence against women and girls, the choices available around pregnancy, in accordance to the law.  Sex and Relationships Education will also cover the usage of data on social media and pornography and online behaviours.  Same-sex relationships are taught, and there is education around sexual orientation and gender identity.  (This should be embedded into the curriculum rather than a standalone, ‘token’ LGBT lesson.)  It is a delight to read that not only will young people be taught about how to resist pressure to have unwanted sex but also how to not apply pressure.  This feels like a response to the well-known rhetoric about teaching men not to rape rather than telling women not to dress in a way that might elicit unwanted sexual attention.  Our teenagers will also be educated on lifestyle influences on fertility as well as drugs and alcohol, and the impact these have on risky sexual behaviour.

Two teenagers; one female lying on a bench, clothed, with her head in a teenage boy's lap.(Photo by Griet Dewijngaert from Pexels)

Sex ed. has long needed an overhaul.  Whilst the how-to’s of the birds and the bees remain the same, teaching that sex is between a man and a woman, ideally after marriage and only to procreate is antiquated.  America’s abstinence-based curriculum throws a dust-sheet over what adolescents do as if ignorance and avoiding the subject matter will somehow make it go away.  (Somewhat similar to Trump’s initial reaction to the pandemic.)  Biological teaching of sex is, of course, essential but to solely teach the mechanics of sex ignores the facets of sexual identity, self-pleasure, acceptance of others, emotion, desire, energy…  It also ignores the shame and stigma and by addressing this, we can teach our young people to challenge and question negative attitudes that permeate discussions of sex and sexuality around the world.  If young people are growing up believing there is something ‘wrong’ with their desires or sexual preferences, we have done them a disservice. 

It feels like a step in the right direction.  Educating young people about Internet safety, safe sex and consent is much needed.  Firewalls and parental blocks will not stop teenage inquisitive behaviour, so we should equip them with the facts and reality of sex (of which mainstream porn is not an accurate depiction).  But my God is there a big leap to make.  It is 2020 and nowhere in the curriculum is there the mention of ‘pleasure’ or ‘desire’.  Searching for synonyms in the document, ‘interests’ is in the context of hobbies and there’s a reference to teaching students that they can ‘enjoy’ intimacy without sex.  Can’t we teach older teenagers that sex can be enjoyed without intimacy and that everyone has desires and fantasies; these can evolve over our lifetime and this is okay? 

Sex education needs to be as compulsory as learning about nouns, eating a balanced diet and the nine times-table.  Under the new guidance, parents have the right to remove their child from primary school sex education (except sex ed. lessons as part of the science curriculum), but relationships education is compulsory.  In secondary schools, if a young person’s parent wishes for them to be removed from sex ed. lessons, discussions will be held between parents and the headteacher about the benefits of sexual education.  Does the young person have a say in this?  Yes, if they are over the age of 16 years old (the age of consent in the UK), their school is encouraged to provide a term’s worth of sex education.  But some young people do not have the luxury to wait until they are 16 before they have sex.  Some are coerced by an older boyfriend, a creepy uncle or the group of bitchy girls at the party.  Sex education needs to be compulsory for our teenagers.

Student looking surprised and amazed at the computer.(Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash)

Adults criticise proposals for teaching sex ed. to young children for fear that it will encourage children to have sex younger.  But in reality, the opposite is true; education affords children and young people the ability to make informed decisions. 

A comprehensive report by UNESCO (2018) found that ‘curriculum-based sexuality education programmes’ lead to:

  • delayed initiation of sexual intercourse
  • decreased frequency of sexual intercourse
  • decreased number of sexual partners
  • reduced risk-taking
  • increased use of condoms
  • increased use of contraception.

By default, this means fewer cases of STIs, fewer unwanted pregnancies, reduced risk of teenage mental health issues as a result of uninformed sexual decisions, misunderstandings and judgement of sexuality.  So why aren’t we doing more?  And why has it taken 18 years for a re-vamp?

I would be foolish to ignore that dilemmas and debates surrounding sex education are often entrenched in religion.  But I would also be foolish to argue about religion here.  Under the new British guidance, schools are permitted to teach about faith perspectives and faith schools can adopt their faith perspectives when teaching about relationships.  The government guidance notes a balanced debate surrounding ‘contentious’ issues may take place.  ‘May’ not ‘should’.  As a teacher and a sex writer, it is painfully clear that this statutory guidance protects the parents with staunch religious beliefs.  Not wanting to upset faith communities, the government has taken an overly-cautious approach to sex ed., at the detriment of children’s health, wellbeing and futures.  All young people should be entitled to accurate sex education, regardless of their parents’ beliefs. 

Teenagers in the road, chatting.(Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash)

What concerns me the most is that the UK is a liberal, progressive country and we still cannot forge the way with sex education.  Will it be another 18 years before we teach young people that sex can be pleasurable and that masturbation isn’t sinful?  Will the sex robots have overtaken us by 2038 in being able to communicate their desires?

Come on educators, let’s sort this out.

For more information on sex education around the world, see The Guardian’s article, here.

Featured image by: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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