Sex education needs to be thought about at a much more detailed level
Daniele Harford, acting deputy head at Solihull School, discusses the current provision of sex education and argues that young people need to know more than the biological facts of sex.
This month is the anniversary of Section 28. As a teenager of the 90s, I remember the tension this created - including an intimidating moment in Year 8 when I was loudly reprimanded by a teacher for advocating for gay rights. Even jumping forward to 2013, a panel of politicians, bishops and journalists, who had been invited to a large scale panel discussion at my school, revealed their indecision about gay marriage. In stark contrast, all but a handful of the 700 strong student audience were very sure, and had no hesitation in supporting the move towards equality. It was clear the tide was turning, and turned it now has.
As of September, it will be compulsory to deliver more comprehensive sex education in schools and whilst we might not know the exact details of what the government wants, I know what I believe we should be doing.
We have to start talking on a deeper level about sex.
I know. It makes us quiver in our comfortable, yet repressed, English shoes, but young people need to know more than the biological facts of sex. They need to know more than a romantic ideal where two people’s eyes meet and - without a word - they kiss, have sex and live happily ever after. We have to talk about emotions other than love. We have to talk about confusion, mixed signals, about the right to change your mind. We have to talk about diversity and communication and the ability to explain how you feel and what you want. And we have to have these conversations outside of a culture of shame.
And before we start to become concerned that talking about sex will increase sexual or risky behaviour, the research shows the opposite effect. In fact, in-depth comprehensive sex education is related to reduced teenage pregnancies and STI rates (unlike abstinence programmes) and countries like the Netherlands, who weave sex education into their general teaching, have some of the older ages for first sexual experiences. And it’s not just about STIs and safe sex. We have to talk about consent. As the #MeToo campaign highlighted, sexual harassment and even rape is much more common than we think. A terrifying study came out of the University of North Dakota in 2015. Students were asked if they might force a woman to have sexual intercourse if they were confident they could get away with it and 31.7% said yes. When they were asked if they would rape a woman in the same circumstances, the % dropped to a still sizeable 13.6%. This highlights not just the terrifying levels of sexual entitlement in some people, but also that clearly a large group of these young men don’t know (or care) what rape is.
At Solihull, we take this seriously. We have appointed a fantastic head of wellbeing and personal development, who is not only weaving sex education into our weekly PSHE sessions, but also providing straightforward and pragmatic sessions for parents and teachers on what healthy relationships looks like. With the sixth form, our sex, sexism and sexual ethics programme begins by looking at gender, objectification and agency and from there builds, step by step, to how that leads to the dehumanisation of women and the pressure on men to be predatory. We talk about pornography; we talk about every horrible word and thought we have seen; we talk about sexting and harassment and sexuality and homophobia. And we talk about positive consent - step by step - from meeting someone in a bar, to being in bed with someone: we discuss in practical terms what signals people might give to indicate they are consenting or not consenting.
But mostly we talk about kindness and communication, because at the heart of all things - from celebrating sexual and gender diversity through to ensuring we only have sexual relationships with those who want to have sex with us - being kind and being able to truly and honestly communicate go a long way to making a healthier and happier world.