Back to the drawing board: Why sex education just isn’t good enough

TW: This post touches on topics around sex and sexuality (e.g. consent and abuse) which might be sensitive for some readers. 

Usually when people are calling for some kind of compulsory teaching of health information, they make reference to sex education. For example, some students at my university started a petition for compulsory lessons on mental health as part of the curriculum. Because if we do it with sex ed., they argue, why not do it with mental health too?

Personally, I have higher hopes for mental health education than that. Not everyone will agree, but I think sex ed. is actually pretty shocking. Not in the sense that they teach sex ed. – right on! – more in what they teach and how they teach it.

The rules

Sex education is the source of continuous debate, which is understandable in a world where people still think sex can be evil. They have arguments about where it should happen, when it should happen, who should teach it, what they should teach, how they should teach it, you name it. So what do they actually have to teach in schools in the UK?

Well, from the key stage one it is compulsory to teach about anatomy, puberty, fertility, and sexual reproduction in state schools. In secondary school, you have to have specific sex education, which has to contain as a minimum information about STIs and HIV/AIDS. Some people would still object to some of these topics being taught in schools. But never fear nay-sayers! You are legally able to teach these within your school ethos. So an ultra religious school that maybe thinks condoms cause HIV could totally say so, provided they state that it’s their belief.

I disagree with that. Kids need to be told facts as well as a variety of beliefs, so they can be fully equipped to make decisions about their own sexual health. Plus it leads to some frankly patchy provision – every school ends up doing something differently.

Coming soon to a school near you: Racial diversity by Donald Sterling
That’s basically like letting Donald Sterling do racial diversity

Everything else? It’s non-statutory. Some schools won’t teach anything extra, and some pupils can be removed from those lessons by parents. Some schools, like those academies that now make up over half our education system, don’t have to teach anything. And literally anyone can teach this stuff. No offence to virgins – you are totally welcome to do as you please with your own body – but I’m not sure they are the best people to tell me about what’s happens to me when getting jiggy, so I’d really like it if they had some training or something!

This is not to say the only thing kids learn is boobs and diseases. The Learning and Skills Act 2000 requires that our little folk also learn about the importance of marriage in relationships and bringing up children. Now, obviously, I have a huge objection right there too. Because getting married has fuck all to do with bringing up kids. You can be an unmarried couple, or two seperated people, bringing up your kids excellently. A lot of the kids that will go through sex ed. will be coming from those families. Are we really going to tell them that their parents totally suck as parents because they broke up?

Meet the winners of Parents of the Year 2014, folks!
Meet the winners of Parents of the Year 2014, folks!

Not to mention that marriage wasn’t legal between same sex couples until March. Which means that for the past 14 years, we have been telling kids that gay people suck at parenting. I think that runs counter to that whole ‘not favouring any sexual orientation’ thing governments keep banging on about!

Sexuality

One of the things they’re supposed to do is give you a basic understanding of sexuality. Now, when I was in school, this was covered almost exclusively by an educational video from decades ago. There were two options presented – you were gay, or you were straight. There was no asexuality, pansexuality, bisexuality, bicuriousity, questioning, and so on. It was a binary view of sexuality, with all the colour sucked straight out.

Which led to me basically relying on my friends, family, and the internet to learn about my sexuality. I was basically led to believe that I was a greedy bitch for years. That sounds so… healthy. I’m not the only one either; I know plenty of asexual people who were completely traumatized growing up, after being led to believe that we are all deeply sexual beings, so they must just be broken or something.

Allow me to say fuck that shit. We need to make sure that every damn school is teaching the broadness and fluidity of sexuality. If anything for the self-esteem of a barrel full of kids!

Contraception

We were fortunate enough to have a nurse come into school to give us all a demonstration on contraception, the first such lesson we had on the subject… which just so happened to take place when I was 15 and half the class had already started boning. Anyway, can you guess what this hour long demonstration was?

Yep. It was an ode to male condoms. She had a huge collection of novelty ones which she systematically showed us, before doing a demonstration of putting a condom on (which we weren’t allowed to do ourselves), and then passing around a book of STIs.

OKjcq

It’s not a big deal; my mum had taken the time to tell me about the pill, and I had heard from a doctor about implants. So I was pretty covered on the heterosexual contraception side. But not everyone is. Not everyone is aware of their ridiculously broad range of options. Certainly the lesbian in me learned nothing about protecting myself from disease – at least not until I looked up types of contraception some time later. And I’m pretty sure no one left that class knowing how to put a johnny on, or where to even get them from. (You can get them from the supermarket, pharmacies and doctors, kids!)

Pornography and masturbation

Porn is a complicated thing, but something that kids increasingly have access to. It’s everywhere. It’s also something the government won’t touch with a barge pole. No sir, that’s not for us thank you!

So then you get kids that are uncertain of sex, learning about it by watching Alotta Vagina having an orgy. That sounds so accurate. It totally doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that if left unchecked would screw up a person’s expectations about sex, or make them feel self-conscious about their body, or cause them to make others self-conscious due to their unrealistic expectations about that person’s body.

Dear girls and boys - shave or don't shave at your own pleasure, not for someone else's!
Dear girls and boys – shave or don’t shave at your own pleasure, not for someone else’s!

Mind fuck.

Then there’s masturbation in general. In school we were always taught that it was okay to masturbate (I went to a secular school, after all)… if you are a boy at least. There was nothing on the subject for girls. People out there genuinely think girls don’t do it. Maybe they don’t have an Ann Summers near by or something…

Relationships

Literally nothing is covered about relationships accept the “look how awesome marriage is!” bit. Kids don’t have to be told what a healthy relationship looks like, how to fix their relationships, alternative options to marriage, different kinds of relationships and so on.

Top tip: This is an UNHEALTHY approach to a relationship.
Top tip: This is an UNHEALTHY approach to a relationship.

 

They don’t get told about domestic abuse either, even though it happens to them. It’s not like the government is blissfully unaware of that fact, since they just changed the definition of domestic abuse so it includes 16 – 17 year olds (I’d like to point out that I was 15 when I was in an abusive relationship, Clegg).

“There are adverts, though!” you might scream. Sure, there are adverts, but those are generally of women being physically abused by men. What about the young men getting abused by young women? What about emotional abuse? How are kids supposed to spot it and be aware something is horrendously wrong if they don’t know about it?

Consent

Yeah this one doesn’t even need explaining. We just don’t teach kids what consent looks like, about peer pressure and sex, or situations in which consent can’t happen. I know it seems like you might instinctively know, but people genuinely don’t. Heaven forbid the first time they learn about consent is from The LAD Bible or Robin Thicke.

Top tip: This is a HEALTHY approach to sex, kids!
Top tip: This is a HEALTHY approach to sex, kids!

Disability

Sex is different for disabled people, but that actually isn’t covered in sex education much at all. In fact, not at all. Even though being able-bodied as a young person doesn’t mean at all you will be able-bodied forever, and despite the fact that you might totally want to bang a person with a disability. Come on, sex ed., be cool already.

If you do want to know about sex with disabilities there’s a really awesome video on it here. Seriously, if you aren’t regularly watching Laci Green and co. you should just kick yourself. You’re missing out.

Fertility Issues

So, in schools they have to cover sexual reproduction. We’ve mentioned that. But yet again they miss out some vital information. Like, for example, what do you do if you struggle to conceive? What if you can’t have children? What if you are in a same sex relationship? Adoption is just one of many options for those situations, but it’s the only one that has been mentioned to me in school. That doesn’t feel right.

Plus, there’s this massive emphasis on sex for children rather than pleasure. A total bummer if you are a person who just doesn’t want kids. Instead of approaching this like everyone is going to have kids because that’s totally what every normal person wants, why don’t we approach having kids more realistically – it’s an option, not a requirement for being a human being.

Can’t the parents do it?

I know some people will be reading this thinking that parents should be the ones teaching kids about all of these things. They should, totally – parents have a responsibility when it comes to sex education too. Yet schools should be teaching a broader version of sex education as well.

I mean, consider this: what if parents don’t know about something that they are expected to teach? If you’re a heterosexual, conservative couple with a pansexual child, for example, what advice do you actually have to give them about same-sex relationships and intercourse? If you’ve had no fertility problems, what can you teach your kid about them? The same goes for porn, and disabilities, and the broad range of relationship types.

Sometimes you have to concede that parents don’t have all the answers. That’s where sex education is supposed to intervene.

"Why is my son spending so much time looking at pens on pen island?"
“Why is my son spending so much time looking at pens on pen island?”

So no, sex ed. is full of gaping holes. It’s letting loads of people down. Let’s fix it soon, please, so that whole swathes of young people don’t have to get their important health information from a dodgy internet source written before broadband by someone’s grandparent. Reliable? I don’t think so…

Back to the drawing board: Why sex education just isn’t good enough

We need to talk to kids about self-harm

Recently self-harm made national news once again, only this time it was the results of an online survey that was of concern. The poll had found that bullying was the primary cause of self-harm for most of the under-25s surveyed, closely followed by family relationships, pressure to do well at school, emotional abuse and friendships.

This is nothing new to those who have had contact with self-harmers, perhaps, but it was refreshing nonetheless to see the national media focusing on the experiences of those who self-harm and promoting awareness of a growing issue.  Yet it made me reflect on my own experiences of school and self-harm, and raised an important question – why do we not educate young people about self-harm?

I never really understood self-harm and knew so little about it, until I started doing it myself when I was 13 in response to years and years of bullying. I’d never meant to, but it kinda made me feel normal; I felt better able to cope through the day-to-day bullying, and it made me feel like a nicer person because I was calmer. Swiftly I found self-harm become almost an addiction – I had to do it every day, just to face the world – and my friends, teachers, and eventually my family, found out.

What surprised me was that at no point did we have a class talk about mental health and self-harm in school. Not even when students were being taken to A&E for self-harming, or placed in therapy, and frequently came in with scars and marks. The first and only time it was even acknowledged was in a GCSE history lesson, in a causal reference to the sense of euphoria that comes with blood loss. When the teachers discovered someone had been self-harming, their only response was a look of pity or disgust; it’s highly questionable if they had a clue what they were supposed to do.

Alright, I went to a very bad school, so my experiences might not be that representative. Except research by mental health charities such as Rethink Mental Illness seem to agree that not enough is being done to spot emerging mental health problems in young people, or educate young people about issues of mental health in schools. This is pretty striking considering that self-harm appears to be on the rise, and that the earlier problems are spotted and dealt with the greater the chances of recovery for individuals.

In my opinion a greater coordinated effort should be made by media outlets, the Department of Education, and health services to educate the general public about self-harm and wider mental health issues, in a positive, non-judgemental way. Young people shouldn’t have to suffer for so long in silence.

We need to talk to kids about self-harm