As Michael Gove redrafts what 12-16 year olds will be taught and how they will be graded in future, there is also a debate about how sexuality should be taught in schools. With high teenage pregnancy rates, there are those who think schoolchildren should be shielded from information about sexuality and those who think that more advice on contraception would be beneficial. How we are taught sex education (either by the family or in schools) varies from person to person with factors such as location, religion and ethnic background affecting what we learn when.
MP Nadine Dorries has been an advocate of the virtues of promoting abstinence alongside sex education to young girls, teaching them that there is nothing wrong with holding back their sexual feelings. Dorries is concerned that today’s sex education pushes young, impressionable people towards having sex too early and was glamorising sexuality at an early age, saying “Teenagers should be taught that it was as ‘cool’ to say no to sex as to know how to put a condom on their boyfriend.” Dorries’ bill met with stern resistance in the House of Commons and with feminist groups and the bill was soon dropped. By putting the emphasis on girls to be the ones rejecting sex at such an early age, we risk stigmatising girls who become sexually active or dress provocatively as “slags” and further demonising young, single mothers who are already an easy target.
To try and discover what sex education is like across the UK, GBC went to our readership to share their experiences of sex education, finding out how people were taught about sex in schools and the way in which we first found out about sex. We asked people to tell us how they were first taught sex education, where they first got their information and how their schools and families treated them as young teenagers going through puberty.
Most people, it seems, received their first information about sex before they were 12 but where this information came from is more varied. The majority of people said they were their first given sex education by a school teacher rather than from their parents. This suggests that many families have been reluctant to talk to their children about sex but leaving sex education to the school does not mean it will be any better. The peer group is another important avenue for young people to find out about sex but, all too often, any information is exaggerated and unclear.
When asked to describe “how you were first taught about the birds and the bees?” people’s experiences were mostly of teachers awkwardly explaining the mechanics or, as one person put it “via chilling videos”. Girls seemed to be more comfortable talking to their mothers about sex but one male respondent says “My mum explained the workings when I was about 5…my reaction was mostly ewwww!” A large number of people surveyed remember bananas playing a part in being taught how to use condoms, one man admitting that whilst it was a useful exercise, “this left me feeling more inadequate than informed!”
There is a big split in how girls and boys were taught about sex at school with, as one female put it, “that sex was for when we were older and in love.” Another respondent remembers that “Boys were taught that it’s normal, girls were taught it’s dirty,” whilst another female respondent said “I think the focus on not getting pregnant was placed more on girls,” which is the type of sex education Nadine Dorries seems to want more of. When it comes to the subject of periods, most people recall a gender separation with girls being given a special class whilst boys were kept in the dark.
The main area where there is a gap in sex education is with homosexuality. Section 28, a piece of legislation that stated local authorities…“shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” was brought in as part of the Local Government Act of 1988 to appease scaremongers afraid that gay sex was going to become a part of the national curriculum. Clause 28 prevented teachers from passing on any advice to pupils who asked questions about homosexuality but it was overturned in 2003 and, in 2009, David Cameron apologised for the Tory led policy, despite the fact he had been a vocal supporter of the clause up to that point.
When we asked what advice people had been given on homosexuality at school the majority of people said they received no information. One person answered that she has briefly been given some information but “just about how you still need to use protection.” Meanwhile, someone else remembers how one teacher recognised she might be gay and says “She was quite brave to discuss it with me as at the time it was not only frowned upon but cause for disciplinary action.”
The main feeling coming out of people’s experiences of sex education at school is that they didn’t think it prepared them for the realities of sex in the adult world. Whilst contraception and protection from STDs was rightly stressed, few people feel that they ‘learnt’ anything about sex with an almost blanket ignorance of gay or lesbian sexuality. The awkward “Birds and Bees” conversation between parents and children is always an uncomfortable moment for both parties but by ignoring young people’s questions about sexuality when hormones are flying about their bodies and tall stories passed around the playground, we are doing them a disservice. No-one is envisaging teaching schoolchildren how to have sex and giving them a qualification but by being more open about all elements of sexuality instead of treating it as a taboo, perhaps future generations may be less repressed and sexuality can be something to be cherished rather than hidden away and fought for.