Sex ed not good enough: Complaining not doing

Sex education is a much talked about topic. We’ve known for many years that sex and relationships education (SRE) is inconsistent and not good enough in schools and that young people feel that it is too little, too late and too biological. It is also highly heteronormative with little or no consideration of other sexualities. LGBT young people report feeling excluded by language or use of sexual activities that render ‘same sex’ activities invisible. The portrayal of stereotypical normal sex (see only penis in vanina is proper sex) is also suggested by some researchers to regulate young peoples sexuality and limiting sex education’s effectiveness.

Some media reports support the idea that SRE can lead to sexual permissiveness. There is also no evidence to support the claims that the teaching of contraception leads to increased sexual activity. Research suggests that education and strategies that promote abstinence but withhold information about contraception and the diversity of possible sexual practices can actually place young people at higher risk of pregnancy and STIs.

Highlighting inadequacies in SRE provision in the media is welcome, however it misses opportunities to help make it better.

Evidence shows that SRE works best if it starts before a young person has their first experience of sex and if it responds to the needs of young people as they mature. SRE should start in primary school and be taught in an age-appropriate manner, starting with topics such as personal safety and friendships. Both primary and secondary school pupils, particularly girls, have said they need SRE to start earlier1. Some writers argue that education should be based on a framework of ethical sexual decision-making as promoting safer, and consensual, sexual decision making is an important aspect of advancing mutual sexual pleasure and rejects universalised assumptions about male and female sexuality which predominates in current SRE.

Successive governments have failed to give priority to SRE despite anxieties about adolescent sexualities and behaviours. Many teachers feel under-skilled, under-trained and under-resourced to deliver it and many parents struggle to find resources and the expertise to help them to talk to their kids about sex. The media seems to prefer to play these people off against each other in a narrative which focuses on ‘where should kids learn about sex.’ Actually young people learn about sex and relationships from everywhere (we all do) and many say that they would like to learn more from TV, radio and magazines.

Sadly there is also a lack of nuance around this subject. There are many teachers, schools, youth workers, support workers and therapists that are committed to delivering very high quality SRE. There are also a number of charities and organisations dedicated to providing (and campaigning for) better SRE who deserve championing. These organisations could also be used to inform more informative and educational content.

In relation to recent calls to include discussions about pornography in sex education, it is important to start from a position that allows young people and workers to discuss such a seismically sensitive subject. This means starting from a point where children and young people are not made to feel bad for exploring their sexuality (even if it is through pornography).It is also essential that educational resources reflect diversity of porn production and consumption (see square all porn is bad).

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