In the UK, sex education is compulsory for children aged 11 upwards, so the majority of students encounter it for the first time in a very awkward, uncomfortable year 6 classroom full of bright red pre-teens. I don’t have fond memories. I remember sitting in a room watching a video that told me how my boobs were going to grow and that blood would soon leave my vagina which, being an early bloomer, both of these things had already happened to me, like the 1 in 4 girls who start their periods before the education system gives them a heads up. They told us sex was when a penis enters a vagina, taught us how to label both of these and we all went home at 3 o’clock. So for a considerable amount of my life, I was terrified of tampons because I wasn’t sure which hole they went in, was completely oblivious to any form of sex than penis-in-vagina sex and thought it was normal for boys to call me names because I was a C-cup when all the other girls still wore training bras.
This vital part of my education thankfully brightened slightly once I got to high school where, over the course of five years, we covered topics such as consent, contraception, STIs and STDs but again, that was about it. The teachers were adamant on making sure we knew the age of consent in every country we would possibly ever travel to but made no comment on the concept of virginity or offered any remotely helpful guidance on the realistic physicality of sex and how to actually do the do to make it potentially possibly enjoyable. In the eyes of the state schools of Britain, masturbation does not exist and if it does, it’s dirty and disgusting and certainly not something we should be doing. God forbid we talk about vibrators in the corridors because that, young lady, is a sin and you should wait for a husband.
Another topic the National Curriculum omits is body positivity. This may not seem directly related to sex education but with 94% of 14 year olds viewing pornography or explicit images online, students are exposed to unrealistic body images which can lead to all kinds of mental health issues. Porn isn’t a necessarily bad thing, but it is when this is the only source of information teens are getting about sex and their bodies and not having any way of understanding how impossible these people’s bodies are. Teenagers should be taught to love their bodies without the fear of being judged for being ‘so in love with themselves’ and understand that very few people actually look that perfect.
Something I remember covering at great length was sexting and sending nude pictures, which is a very relevant topic for young people today. We were told not to send nudes which, obviously, is the best way to stop them being spread around or used against you. However, the students who will continue to take and send these pictures were not told to keep their face out of the picture or move any objects they can be identified with from the background- important ‘damage control’. This information, which could help immensely to keep teens safe, was ignored because we were simply told not to send nude images and the teachers expected everyone to stop.
The National Curriculum states sexual education should not “promote early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation,” which is perfectly fair. The age of consent is there for a reason, but this can’t be done by completely ignoring the honest truth that some people will have sex before this age and there’s nothing teachers can do to stop them, so why is sex education failing to teach us how to stay safe in a sexual relationship? We are taught little to nothing about rape and abuse within relationships which is sadly but surely happening to some students. We need to keep these people safe.
And as for not promoting “any particular sexual orientation,” again I agree that no teacher is shouting from the front of the class that heterosexuality is the only correct identity but when every single case study in class is a man and a woman and sex defined as a penis and vagina, it’s impossible to ignore the complete neglect and exclusion of each and every LGBT+ student in the room.
LGBT+ issues are simply taboo in sex education classes. There’s a lot of them. I’ve heard kids as young as about 7 or 8 calling each other ‘gay’ and laughing without having a clue what it means, because no one ever told them. There’s no way we can expect to abolish stereotypes and stigma around sexuality if students in school have no one educating them on how it’s completely normal to be attracted to those of the same gender or to not feel attraction to any genders or to feel like you aren’t the gender people say you are. Not only does this lack of teaching encourage the ignorance we are trying to lose, it also invalidates the LGBT+ students that can’t relate to half the sex education classes because that’s just not how they feel.
The National Curriculum allows pupils to be pulled out of these vital sex education classes for anything beyond the biological side of it, meaning some students are not even exposed to the little information the school provides them with. In 2013, Ofsted reported that 40% of schools needed to improve their PSHE classes, including sex education. The curriculum states the topics must be age appropriate, this is still completely possible. Perhaps the students giggle and blush when you describe how to safely put on a condom but there could easily be someone sitting at the back, who really needs to hear it.
(DISCLAIMER: This is largely based off the personal experiences I have had with sex education in a UK state school and what is actually taught in these classes likely varies between schools. Also, the Mail Online article is very heteronormative but hey, the stats are there.)