Skip to content

Who’s Afraid of Sex Education?

2011 November 30

I’ve moaned about shoddy sex education on BadRep before, but it’s back on my mind thanks to a recent survey by Brook which showed that nearly half of secondary school pupils don’t think their sex and relationships education is fit for purpose. This has prompted a brace of new anti-sex education stories in the news (a typical example appeared in the Daily Mail last week1 and Education For Choice have responded here) including one that caught me totally by surprise: a BNP protest outside a primary school in Sheffield that had dared to extend SRE to all age groups. The what now? Are racism and xenophobia passé?

Innocence and Sexualisation

The vigour with which some people are prepared to attack moves towards more open, honest and comprehensive sex and relationships education is baffling. What are they so afraid of? Educating young people about safer sex doesn’t lead to an increased sexual activity (that’s from this great Avert resource, by the way). Two words that pop up fairly regularly in the fog of general objection are ‘innocence’ and ‘sexualisation’. I think they’re masking other, simpler causes for so much reactionary guff, but let’s have a look at them anyway.

Close up of a red Converse sneaker with 'Love' written on the toe, image from www.morguefile.comThe idea that the ‘innocence’ of children must be protected at all costs is absurd. Innocence in the criminal sense is a good thing to hold on to, of course. But innocence in the wafty Victorian lamblike sense (aka “freedom from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil”)?.  I fail to see the value of being ‘unacquainted with evil’. Knowing about sex isn’t the same as having sex. And also: SEX ISN’T EVIL, GUYS. Besides, it’s a bit of a risk, if you ask me, turning someone loose in the world if they have no concept of evil. They’re in for a nasty shock and quite possibly some dangerous or exploitative situations. Likewise someone who has been kept in the dark about pregnancy, STIs or abuse. Even if you’re working with some kind of arcane points-based system of morality, how can you get your approval for being without sin just because you don’t know what sin is? That’s like congratulating someone on not eating the cookies they didn’t know were there.

Anyway, that’s enough poptheology. Next: ‘sexualisation’, on which I basically agree with Laurie Penny that the word is a “troubling piece of cultural shorthand” which

suggests that sexuality is something that is done to young women, rather than something that they can own and control: that they can never be sexual, only sexualised. This is not a helpful message to send to girls as they begin to explore their sexuality.

The moral panic over “sexualisation” assumes instead that sex is only ever damaging to young women, and that having sex or behaving sexually must be resisted for as long as possible. The problem is not, however, that young women are “growing up too fast” – rather it is that they are growing up to understand that they are erotic commodities, there to be used and abused, shamed if they express legitimate desires of their own, and taught to fear their own bodies.

Child sexual behaviour is complex and difficult to discuss, but it exists. Children have this weird habit of growing up. And it doesn’t work the way the Sun would have it – every girl is an innocent princess until a few moments past midnight on her 16th birthday, at which point it’s A-OK to start slavering over her. Seriously, until 2004 plenty of Page Three girls were 16. There were even 16th birthday specials in some other tabloids. Your, er… your double standard is poking out, by the way.

Ewwww Isn’t Good Enough

Critics of broader sex education have done a pretty good job of cosying up to some quarters of the feminist movement, and I’d love to believe that concern over women or children’s wellbeing lay at the heart of the Bailey Review and the media outrage. But it doesn’t. Sexual conservatism is shorthand for a certain kind of morality, and this is a holier-than-thou contest fuelled by the crippling shame and squeamishness about sex that is our shared cultural inheritance. That’s why we feel the need to keep any notion of sex away from children for as long as possible, because on some level, we do think there’s something bad about sex. What other explanation can there be? An otherwise sensible, right-on and feminist former manager of mine once insisted we end a teabreak conversation about how often you should have a sexual health checkup, saying “Can you just stop talking about it please? It makes me feel all ewwww.”

Well, feeling ‘ewwww’ has created a dangerous situation. Without giving children and teenagers a safe space in which to discuss and learn about sex, relationships and sexuality we are creating a vacuum that will be filled by three things: a) whatever their parents choose to tell them; b) all the shit teenagers talk to each other; and c) ideas about sex derived solely from cultural representations of it. Advertising and porn are the big guns here. The version of sex in most porn and advertising isn’t particularly safe, consensual, varied, respectful or even likely to be that much fun (good luck to any women planning on having an orgasm) and the additional messages it peddles about gender identity, power, race and sexual orientation are pretty unhelpful.

Some Scary Numbers

As well as the great Tory terror of teenage pregnancy *cue Hammer Horror evil laughter and lightning strike* this is a public health issue. Although last year there was a small decrease in the total number of STIs diagnosed in England, 2010 still clocked up 418,598 new diagnoses, and the under-25s experience the highest rates of STIs overall. In 2008, the UN reported that globally only 40% of young people aged 15-24 had accurate knowledge about HIV and transmission, while the same group accounted for 45% of all new HIV infections. SRE also presents an opportunity to undermine the stigma faced by people living with HIV through education about transmission without moral judgement. (Stats from here.)

This is important, big picture, long term stuff. It’s very hard to unlearn attitudes and prejudices formed in your early life, and not everyone has an Usborne Guide To Growing Up at hand (even that magnificent volume had its blind spots – Miranda reminded me of the ‘kthanxbai!’ box-out on homosexuality…2 ) But there are excellent people fighting the good fight who deserve your support. Here’s a linklist – go show them some well-informed, safe and respectful love.


Campaigns, Organisations and Events


Resources and Badass Sex Educators

  1. Ed’s note: I can’t bear linking the Mail and am still in mourning for IstyOsty, but search and ye shall find; it’s titled “Casual Sex and ‘Bad Touching’: Guess What Your Eight Year Old Is Learning At School These Days”. *facepalm* []
  2. Ed butting in again: has this been expanded yet? Anyone seen if they’ve revised it to be even slightly less heteronormative? *shuts up* []
6 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    November 30, 2011

    I’ll also add these NHS links, though how publicised they are varies from NHS Trust to NHS Trust – but they’re all on Google:

    Sex: Worth Talking About

    Chlamydia: RU Clear? – now redesigned with bonus hipster models in co-ordinated waistcoats and neon plastic specs

    Sarah’s Story – HIV and pregnancy (how women can avoid mother-to-child HIV transmission, featuring a really cool, chatty young woman – “I just followed all the guidelines”)

    • Sarah J permalink*
      December 1, 2011

      Yay thank you! Mmmmlinks…

  2. November 30, 2011

    Hiya! Awesome article, thought I’d add in one bit –

    The Onscenity Network is a relatively new collaboration of academics and activists all fighting against this idea of ‘sexualisation’ –

    They’ve just had this blogging project published in a special issue of the academic journal Psychology And Sexuality, focusing on the Bailey Review:


    • Sarah J permalink*
      December 1, 2011

      Thanks Ludi, this looks really interesting, will def have a read :-)

  3. Emily permalink
    December 1, 2011

    Out of all the things children are taught at school, how to have sex is something we as a species generally figure out on our own. How to have sex safely, how to have sex so all participants have a good time, how to avoid geting pregnant (if that’s feasible with the combination of people involved) – these are much more difficult and potentially risky to learn be trial and error.

  4. Reanna permalink
    December 3, 2011

    I really enjoyed this article mainly because I grew up in a Lutheran school from K-8 and then went to a public high school. Needless to say it was a definitely shock with all the public displays of affection on campus and I was very scared my first day of school. My sophomore year, I took Honors Bio and they lectured the norm about how everything works. Blah, blah, blah. But I don’t want to hear about how everything works, I want to know how to be save about it. Its like they figure that if they keep us in the dark, we’re not gonna do anything. WRONG. The more you don’t say, the more we go find out from not so reliable sources(aka our peers). Education is key to getting anything across to students. Without talking, nothing gets solved.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS