Opinion: Is Sex Education Too Focused On Telling Us What Not To Do?

“Do you like it like that?” Is Sex Education Too Focused On Telling Us What Not To Do?

Yesterday saw the release of a piece of research, covered on the VoicED Education website, which suggests that sex education in English schools is not up to scratch. Not enough teenagers, according to the research, are being taught about consent, what to do about sexual abuse and the availability of confidential advice and resources from GPs to young people – even those under the age of consent.

These are all key issues – there is no getting away from that – and children and young people need to know where they stand in terms of the law, and in terms of the practicalities of what sex can mean in the long term. They need to learn about them in order to make informed and sensible sexual decisions, and to have fulfilling, equal and pleasurable relationships in the future.

However, one line from Lucy Emmerson, Coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, the body which published the research, struck me, and I have quoted it below:

“Young people are telling us very clearly that teaching is often too theoretical and fails to deal with the real-life practicalities of getting help and advice or building the skills for pleasurable, equal and safe relationships.”

As it happens, I happen to agree with Lucy in that sex education can often be very stale, very theoretical and very focused, in my (fairly recent) experience, on the most basic physiological level and on the negative associations and aspects of sex.

As I’ve said above, it is vitally important to try and educate young people about sexual equality, the enormous difference between pornography and the real world, and issues such as consent. Still though, we must ensure that this is done in an atmosphere that encourages both expression of sexuality in the future, and encourages the act itself when the time (and that encompasses age, maturity, situation etc.) is right.

What I am not suggesting is that we teach 12 year old boys and girls sexual technique, and nor am I starting a petition for the Kama Sutra to be included on a revamped GCSE curriculum. What I am saying though, is that sex is an incredibly large part of life (it’s pretty much 100% from some perspectives) and should be covered as such. This is even more true in a country in which young people are being bombarded with an increasing amount of sexualised imagery every day, and in which pornography is available for anyone with a smartphone – around 81% of UK 12-17 year olds according to this research from 2013.

Still, before I get ahead of myself, sex education does seem to have come on a great deal in terms of the topics which are covered. Little more than a decade ago, I remember asking a teacher why condoms were flavoured, and was greeted with a retort about ‘disgusting people doing disgusting things’. Now, however, I know that a personal friend who teaches PSHE discusses oral sex (the risks and precautions  as well as any perceived benefits) regularly – with students who are genuinely interested and, in all fairness, generally far more exposed to sexual imagery than I was even as little as 12 years ago.  She also mentions the clitoris.

When whilst I was at high school the highlight of a year 8 Sex Education class was the one lesson a year in which we were allowed to put condoms on a carrot, the research cited above suggests that a third of children now know that 14 year olds can get contraception confidentially. Again, a third is not enough, but that is still one in three young people who know that someone of that age can get the help they might need. Their knowledge is, without a doubt, a far cry from ripping latex on root vegetables.

Is Sex Education Too Focused On Telling Us What Not To Do?

Is Sex Education Too Focused On Telling Us What Not To Do?

Regardless, as important and as developed as sex education is, it is never going to totally prepare you for the real deal. It’s like sky diving in a vertical wind tunnel – you can learn the potential issues and make sure you’re as prepared as you can be – but when the time comes there will still be that 32,000ft drop which no amount of training can prepare you for. Perhaps I speak from experience, and in all seriousness people need to know that there is support there for any physical issues you might encounter, and – perhaps more importantly – that there is emotional support available from any number of sources; but, this needs to be tempered with genuine positivity about sexual relationships and also some appreciation that sex is actually a beneficial part of a committed and working relationship and something which can be deeply intimate and meaningful.

We live in a country where many young males expect girls to look (and behave) like those they see on the internet, where as many as 10% of girls aged 13 are ‘terrified’ of putting on weight and I now write only a few days after Eton has banned the SnapChat application due to fears that it will increase the amount of ‘sexting’ among teenagers. Perhaps if more of us – teachers in part, but parents and carers must be at least equally accountable – talked openly and honestly about sex, and gave young people the self-esteem and self-belief that comes from understanding, rather than the doubt and misunderstanding that comes from playground mythology about sex-in-the-bath-stopping-you-getting-pregnant, fewer would feel the need to hide behind a smartphone screen.

This page is open for comment.

Elliot Simmonds was schooled in a state comprehensive in rural Derbyshire, England. The carrots may or may not have been organic. The views and opinions expressed in the above article are personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of other members of the VoicED team, or any affiliated organisations, individuals or entities.

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