Coy euphemisms, films about rabbits and a refusal to acknowledge the facts is no way to prepare young people for successful, fulfilling future relationships, argues Peter Tatchell
Millions of young people enter adulthood sexually and emotionally illiterate. Many subsequently endure disordered relationships, ranging from unfulfilling to outright abusive. The result? Much unhappiness – and sometimes mental and physical ill-health. The lack of effective – and statutory – sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools is part of the problem. It is mostly vague and euphemistic, with too little detail and not enough explicitness to be of practical benefit. Much of it concentrates on the biological facts of reproduction, often concerning other species such as rabbits. Very little teaching is actually about sex – or relationships. And it starts too late; usually after young people have become sexually active and adopted bad habits such as unsafe sex.
While SRE should not encourage early sex (it is best if young people wait), it should prepare them for a satisfying, safe adult sexual and emotional life. The government’s education watchdog, Ofsted, says the amount of time spent on SRE in schools is inadequate and that much of it is poor quality. The Social Exclusion Unit notes: “The universal message received from young people is that the sex and relationship education they receive falls far short of what they would like.” What, then, needs to change in order to make SRE more effective? I have some suggestions for Nicky Morgan regarding what I think should be taught in schools:
SEXUAL RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
It is a fundamental human right to love an adult person of either sex, to engage in any mutually consensual, harmless sexual act with them and to share a happy, healthy sex life.
THE RIGHT TO SEXUAL SELF-DETERMINATION
‘It’s my body and my right to control it’ should be promoted in every school to ensure that young people assert their right to determine what they, and others, do with their body – including the right to abstain from sex, say ‘no’ and report abusers. This ethos of sexual selfdetermination is crucial to thwart people who attempt to pressure youngsters into abusive relationships and risky sex.
A NEW ETHICAL FRAMEWORK: MUTUAL CONSENT, RESPECT & FULFILMENT
It is important that SRE acknowledges diverse sexualities and lifestyles, while also giving teenagers guidance on their rights and responsibilities – including teaching about consent and abuse issues. A positive ethical framework can be summed up in three simple principles: mutual consent, reciprocal respect and shared fulfilment. The great advantage of these principles is that they apply universally, regardless of whether people are married or single, monogamous or promiscuous or hetero, bi or homo.
PROMOTING SAFER ALTERNATIVES
Oral sex & mutual masturbation – if schools are serious about cutting the incidence of teen pregnancies, abortions and HIV infections, they should highlight safer, healthier alternatives to vaginal and anal intercourse. Oral sex and mutual masturbation carry no risk of conception and a lower risk of HIV. The most effective way to persuade teenagers to switch to these alternatives is by making them look and sound sexy, explaining that they can be sexually fulfilling and emphasising their advantages over intercourse: no worries about unwanted conceptions, reduced HIV risk and no need to use the pill or condoms (while mutual masturbation is totally safe, oral sex can transmit sexual infections; it is safer than intercourse but not risk-free).
SEX IS GOOD FOR YOU
SRE lessons should acknowledge that sex is good for us. It is natural, wholesome, fun and (with safe sex) healthy. Quality sex can have a very beneficial effect on our mental and physical well-being. Young people have a right to know that while sex is not essential for health and happiness (some people get by without it and that’s fine), most people find that regular, fulfilling sex lifts their spirits and enhances their lives and relationships.
GIVE KIDS ALL THE FACTS
Sex education ought to tell the whole truth about every kind of sex and relationship, including sexual practices that some people find distasteful, such as anal intercourse and sadomasochism. The purpose of such frankness is not to encourage these practices, but to help pupils deal with them if they encounter them in later life.
HETERO, HOMO AND BI ARE EQUALLY VALID
When based on mutual consent, respect and fulfilment between adults, both opposite-sex and same-sex relations are morally valid. While schools should not promote any particular sexual orientation, they should encourage understanding and acceptance of heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual orientations (and transgender and intersex identities) in order to ensure pupil self-acceptance – and to combat prejudice, discrimination, bullying and hate crime.
HOW TO HAVE GOOD SEX
Sexual literacy is just as important as literacy in words and numbers. Good sex isn’t obvious; it has to be learned. To ensure happier, more fulfilled relationships in adulthood, SRE for 16+ pupils should include advice on how to achieve mutually-fulfilling, high quality sex; including the emotional and erotic value of foreplay; the multitude of erogenous zones and how to excite them; and methods to achieve good orgasms for oneself and one’s partner.
LIVE AND LET LIVE
Human sexuality embraces a glorious diversity of emotions and desires. We are all unique, with our own individual erotic tastes. People are sexually fulfilled in a huge variety of different ways. Providing behaviour is consensual, between adults, harms no one and the enjoyment is reciprocal, schools should adopt a non-judgemental, ‘live and let live’ attitude.
EDUCATION FROM THE FIRST YEAR OF PRIMARY SCHOOL
SRE needs to be age-appropriate; starting from the early years of primary school by talking about body changes at puberty and, to tackle abuse, about inappropriate touching. It needs to become more detailed and explicit at secondary level. The reason for starting so young is that most children now begin puberty between the ages of eight and 12. Long beforehand, they need to know about the physical changes they will undergo and the desires they will develop. Keeping them ignorant jeopardises their happiness and welfare. Early knowledge is the key to later wise, responsible sexual behaviour.
RESPECT FOR SEXUAL DIVERSITY
Our desires and temperaments are not the same. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to sex, love and relationships. That is why teachers have a duty to validate the diversity of adult sex and relationships that fall within the ethical framework of mutual consent, respect and fulfilment.
OVERCOMING SEX SHAME TO TACKLE ABUSE
Sexual guilt causes immense human misery – not just frustrated, unhappy sex lives, but actual psychological and physical ill-health. It also helps sustain child abuse. Adults who sexually exploit youngsters often get away with it because the victims feel embarrassed or guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to report it. SRE needs to encourage young people to have more open, positive attitudes towards sexual matters. Teenagers who feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse.
MANDATORY LESSONS AND A REVISED PARENTAL ‘OPT OUT’
Sex and relationships are very important in most people’s lives. That’s why education about them should be a mandatory part of the curriculum in every school. SRE lessons should be at least monthly all throughout a child’s school life – not once a term or once a year. Moreover, we don’t let parents take their kids out of maths or history, so why should a parental ‘opt out’ be permitted for SRE? At the very least, parents who want to withdraw their children should be required to come to each lesson and physically remove their child. This way the parental ‘opt out’ option is retained but the actual ‘opt out’ rate reduced.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Tatchell is a political campaigner best known for his work with LGBT social movements. He contributed to ‘Teenage Sex: what should we teach our children?’ (Hodder & Stoughton, £5.99).