Britain is not unique when it comes to debating how it should educate children and young people about sex. But the country approaches the subject with a particularly British sense of embarrassment and childish glee. Look no further than the announcement that Channel 4 is planning to screen a programme purportedly proposing a prospectus for a “GSCE in sex”.
How much sex education should be provided to young people? What should it teach them and in what contexts? It’s a question that is getting political attention ahead of the next UK general election.
Debates on sex education are long-standing. And they are carried along by an undertone of what writer Ronald Persall famously termed prudish prurience – a cocktail mixing a hint of repressive moralistic concern with a pleasure in possible titillation that comes with talking about sex. This undertone was in evidence in the attention paid by the media to the background of the presenter of the Channel 4 show: Goedele Liekin has worked as a sex therapist, UN Goodwill Ambassador and former Miss Belgium.
So can Goedele succeed? There is no doubt that providing sex education through schools has an important part to play in promoting sexual health and well-being.
There is good evidence that school-based sex education works when it combines accurate, factual information about the biological and social aspects of sex and sexuality with opportunities to explore personal and social values, attitudes and communication skills. But its effectiveness is mediated by a number of factors.
Even where a sex education programme is carefully constructed, ensuring that sex education doesn’t get squeezed out by pressure on the curriculum can be difficult. Topics which are perceived as sensitive, such as sexuality, shouldn’t be passed over or omitted and the content should be delivered in ways that work, for example through role-plays rather than passive “chalk and talk”.
Programmes need to be flexible to age and needs. They should start early in primary school and go on throughout childhood and adolescence and arguably into adulthood. It should be fairly uncontentious that children need to understand puberty as a biological and social process before they experience it. We need to introduce young people to contraception before they have sex – for which the median age in the UK is now 16 years old – if we want to ensure that they know how to use it.
It is also necessary to think about how sex education in schools is supported and its impact influenced by wider activities. Research is clear on this point.
Sex education is most effective when coupled with provision of accessible sexual health services, with interventions across the community (through families, youth and other community services) and with mass media campaigns.
The ways that cultural and societal factors influence what we learn, what we believe and how we behave. Power relations between men and women represent a backdrop against which they interact and their expectations of themselves and each other.
Need to break free
There are still powerful cultural discourses about gender and sexuality circulating in our society which disempower young women and place a sense of responsibility on them for resisting the sexual advances of men. We need to continue to pull the levers around gender equality to shift these norms.
It is these same norms that in important ways continue to marginalise homo- and bi-sexuality and transgendered identities. There’s much work to be done to understand how to harness the internet, with its power to educate and inform, but also to increase accessibility to sexually explicit material.
The UK political parties are already positioning their policy on sex education ahead of the general election. Although in the past Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been in favour of making it compulsory, these have not been converted into a policy change. Both parties look set to use the issue in their campaigning.
It remains to be seen whether Goedele Liekin’s intervention into this debate is productive. But it may create an opportunity to think again about what we know, what we think we know and perhaps most importantly of all, what we feel about sex education. What’s certain is that young people are not going to stop having sex while those in charge of their education make their minds up.