When asked by The Daily Telegraph to submit memories of ‘sex ed’ the result was depressingly familiar, and familiarly depressing. “The teacher was…walking on eggshells”, reads one submission, the teachers were “…very uncomfortable and awkward”, and “all I remember was a teacher putting a tampon in a jug of water, LOL.” (Do Telegraph readers use ‘LOL’ in everyday life, I ask myself? Maybe they think it means something else.)
Rewind to the mid-1990s and a High School in suburban Preston, surrounded by rows of post-war and 90s housing boom estates and old folks’ bungalows. My recollection of ‘sex ed’ at that school is just as damning; we watched a cartoon featuring a man dressed as an Arab walking backwards to represent the withdrawal method of contraception. In another video, children’s television presenters explained what was meant by the phrase ‘wet dream’. The sum total of all this was the kind of lesson you always marked down as being for dossing about and having a laugh – there was nothing beyond the basic and rudimentary biology of the act of sex; barely anything on life choices, and nothing at all on gender. This was “sex education” as a textbook regurgitating onto the science lab benches, and nothing more.
Whilst most Governments and opposition parties tend to fight over each and every line of national curricula (oh fine, curriculums), there is nothing more contentious than the content of ‘sex ed’. The hubris from both Left and Right, Christian and Secular, open-minded and conservative, produce a terrible, potentially dangerous, sludge of biology and handouts. Badly prepared maths lessons might leave gaps in the knowledge of parallel equations, but it’s the gaps in personal, social and sexual education where the problems really start, particularly at an impressionable age. Fighting over ‘sex ed’ is like trying to push-pull a revolving door, and it appears nobody in a position of power (elected at least) is willing to accept that change has to be made.
That last sentence was going to read “accept that something must be done”, but of course that mindset has been the cause of many problems within years of personal, social and sexual education. “Won’t somebody think of the children” usually means “won’t somebody protect my child from something with which I disagree”, and rarely for good or productive reasons. What we have ended up with is an ugly compromise between social conservatives, religious traditionalists and teachers, with the input pretty much in that order.
The current Department for Education guidance on what they call “Sex and Relationships Education” runs to 62-pages. It’s notable, and somewhat depressing, that the structure of sex education appears so rigid and academic, including the requirement by way of the 1996 Education Act and 2000 Learning and Skills Act ensuring pupils learn about the “nature of marriage” and “its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. (That’s page six if you’re reading along). Little wonder opponents of gay marriage began to flap around like pigeons at Charing Cross station. “Well children, the nature of marriage has changed, AND IT’S THE NATURE OF THE DEVIL!”
In my day, the lack of Internet……at all….meant additional or supplementary questions came in the playground, or the walk home, or not at all. You wouldn’t want to be the child spotted staying after lessons to ask Mrs Sutcliffe about condoms or puberty or anything like that. To help with the awkward factor all children go through, on-line help is a…well, not Godsend, but fair darn useful, and of course the wisdom of parents, carers and friends will always help.
Of course Schools must have a role in teaching the scaffolding and foundations of both the act of sex and the biological realities of adolescent life. They should have, also, the freedom to go further into sexuality and gender if it’s felt possible to do so, and either within or outside offer help and assistance to pupils who wish to talk about specific problems or questions. Leave “the nature of marriage” to religious education, if it has to be discussed at all; don’t allow young people to become muddled up with the idea of having sex and being married as some kind of token system to qualify through life.
Inevitably we must look at pornography on the Internet (dramatic music, etc.). So much worry and woe about porn makes the debate impossible to hold: no, XTube, PornHub and the rest do not host ‘extreme’ material, whatever that might mean, and yes, quite a lot of material uploaded onto XHamster is actually quite dull/vanilla/out of focus. Children are always going to explore the Internet if parents have chosen not to install locks, just as children of my generation chose to (attempt to) steal copies of “Razzle” from the top shelf. The solution to ‘extreme’ porn can be found in those acts of legislation that already outlaw images of rape, abuse and injury; the solution should not be to potentially force vulnerable young girls into asking their parents if they can be allowed to look at something because the search-term “vagina, discharge” has been blocked on obscenity grounds.
Being mammals and occasionally horny ones at that, humans will always strive to fashion real life around biological urges. Sex education is just another example of that, grown adults trying to pass on the rules of the jungle in appropriate ways. It needs to be a lot better than the by-rote examples of my youth, and far more responsive and responsible to a generation brought up on Internet videos and the influence of sexual imagery on television and magazines. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to hijack sex education with something else entirely, however it might be tenuously related, such as the concept of marriage or the dangers of watching anal sex on a smartphone. It’s not going to be easy, or pretty, to teach young children today about pregnancy, the dangers of trying to make Internet porn into “reality”, or the ongoing fight against sexually transmitted diseases, if it remains impossible to untangle the conflicting arguments from ‘on high’. Let’s try and produce a suitable sex education structure for both digital Britain and the naturally curious/awkward/embarrassed minds of children.
And no cartoons.