The sexual education in schools today is outdated. It doesn’t provide young people with the information they need in an encouraging way and therefore does not to cater to the needs of young people. If young people are to have safe and positive sexual encounters, we need to do more than remind them to use contraception or abstain from sex all together. Only then will young people be able to approach sexual encounters in a healthy way and know what to do if they find themselves in a situation they don’t feel safe in, or how they can work with their partner to make sex more enjoyable. Inadequate sexual education fails to prepare young people for sexual encounters in both the immediate and distant future.
The problem within most schools’ Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is that it only scratches the surface of what sex is from a heteronormative biological point of view, ignoring the emotion and recreational aspects of it. Social stigmas mean that talking about sex as anything but biological is a taboo, especially when it comes to young people. Sex education has always been a fairly taboo subject, so much so that in school we’re not even taught the most basic things. I know for a fact that in my sex education classes I was never told I had to wee after every time I had sex, that I shouldn’t use scented soaps to wash my vagina, how to make my first time less painful, or the number of things that could cause infections such as BV and thrush. Why did I have to teach myself all of this and so much more just because it was a bit awkward for someone to tell me?
In Get Real About Sex: The Politics and Practice of Sex Education, Pam Alldred and Miriam David state how “In the case of sex education, the discourse of protection has argued against provision, lest it ‘corrupts’ ‘innocent minds’ and makes sexual activity more likely.” It would seem that teachers are scared that informing young people is encouraging them to have sex. I understand that it can be uncomfortable for teachers to talk openly about sex but if this is the case we need more resources and access to non-judgemental services to provide this information. Not teaching young people that it is natural to have an interest in sex automatically creates a stigma around it, and ultimately does them more harm than good because they’re going to explore sexuality blindly.
So, refusing to teach young people about sex doesn’t stop them from exploring their sexuality. It just sets them up for poor or dangerous sexual encounters, and stigmatises being open about it because they feel guilt or shame for having sex in the first place. Last year the Sex Education Forum posted results from young people about their experiences of SRE, some of these showing that over half had not been taught how to spot the signs of sexual grooming, more than 4 in 10 had not been taught how to spot the signs of a healthy or abusive relationship, and a third had been taught nothing about sexual consent. Only 10% said their SRE was ‘very good’, with over 1 in 5 saying it was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.
When we refuse to teach young people about things they are interested to learn they will look for answers elsewhere such as online. Young people who use things like porn (which is easily accessible) to learn about sex can become misinformed and this misinformation can be more harmful to their perceptions on relationships than adequate sex education would ever be. I believe that this is particularly damaging for girls. A lack of emotional understanding and fear of social judgement can make young girls vulnerable when it comes to approaching sexual encounters that they are naturally curious about. For boys it can desensitise them and make them disassociate from the emotional side of sex and relationships as well as pressuring them into engaging in sexual acts before they’re ready to. In both instances poor SRE can cause sex and relationship problems.
Sex is natural and teaching young people that they don’t have to feel guilty about wanting to learn about their sexuality, and that they should embrace who they are and what they like confidently, would mean that the shame and stigma around it could slowly disappear. Once I started educating myself, getting to know my body and what works for me, and opening up and talking to people about sex and sexual health, I became so much more confident when having these discussions, and would recommend that anyone should do as much research as they can! Blogs, videos and sexual health websites are great places to start doing your research and educate yourself on things you may never have known.
Written by Ella Townsend