Today, we have an unprecedented level of control over our own reproduction. The invention of the Pill, and other forms of contraception, has vastly changed the way we approach sex. Young people can now have sex without pregnancy committing them to parenthood or one another; couples with enough children or no desire to have them can continue to have sex for pleasure. And the impacts have not been limited to sex, but extend to the rest of society. For example, the Pill has been credited with contributing massively to women’s liberation by freeing them from unplanned pregnancy. As well as bringing sexual liberation, safe sex contraceptives have also become crucial in the fight against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Overall, contraception is a central part of twenty-first century life, and the increased sexual freedom it has brought has opened up dialogues about sexual practises and sexual identity.
However, these are also subjects about which many young people remain poorly informed. In America the debate between advocates of safe-sex and abstinence-only education is particularly fierce, and in England education in schools is patchy, with some students reporting thorough and informative education, while others have been taught almost nothing. The quality of teaching is also varied, and some aspects of sexuality, such as homosexuality, still neglected on the curriculum. And students themselves have widely differing expectations of what should be taught.
My own sex education in secondary school was cheerful and informative, touching on the emotional side of sex as well as the mechanics. Relaxed discussion was encouraged, with students tossing a ball to each other to take it in turns to raise points about dealing with pregnancy. In the last year of primary school boys and girls were separated to hear a talk about puberty from the school nurse, while in year seven biology classes we learnt the science of reproduction. Most of the students interviewed reported a similar sort of experience, which suggests, encouragingly, that comprehensive sex education is on the increase. However, much still depends on the school.
‘At my school it was abstinence-only,’ one Hild Bede student said. ‘As a Catholic school, they wouldn’t have taught us anything else.’ There is currently no obligation for schools to provide sex education if they do not wish to, and at those schools that do, parents usually have the option to remove their children from the lessons if they wish to. Opinion varies as to whether sex education should remain optional or be made compulsory.
‘Sex education should be made compulsory,’ a third-year student argued, ‘and parents shouldn’t be able to opt out of it, any more than they would opt out of, say, English. However, I can see certain students being let off certain lessons if the content made them extremely uncomfortable.’
Another student was less accommodating.
‘Students shouldn’t be able to opt out,’ he said. ‘Religion is not a good enough excuse.’
Clearly we are a long way from compulsory and comprehensive sex education, but the majority of students I questioned said they had been fairly well-taught about the physical act of sex, and about the contraceptives available. However, some of them feel this isn’t enough. Sex, after all, isn’t all about physical bodies, and contraception isn’t the only problem to worry about.
‘The education we got was very heterosexual-oriented,’ said Phil Mullen, who is a presenter on Purple Radio’s Out in Durham. ‘We watched videos about straight sex, but then got told that if we wanted to know anything else we could go and find out about it in our own time.’ There is generally very little discussion of the complexities of emotion and attraction surrounding sex. Open and polyamorous relationships, or ones which are casual but also involve emotion, receive as little attention as non-heterosexual ones. Some students have suggested that sex education shouldn’t stop with sex, but that ‘relationships ed.’ is necessary too.
By the time they arrive at university, most students seem to have at least a basic knowledge of sex and contraception, if not from school then from other sources such as family, friends, or the internet. But how far does this knowledge extend, and how is it applied? One positive point which came out of my discussions with students is that condom use seems to be widely accepted. Some people may fear that to ask for or offer a condom may be taken by a partner as an insult, but those I asked said that they saw it as a sensible precaution. Is there any difference in attitude or level of knowledge between men and women? Most forms of contraception other than condoms affect the female rather than the male, so it is understandable that men’s knowledge should be a little sketchier on these matters than women’s, but the female students I spoke to had found that their partners were generally sufficiently well-informed and ready to learn.
‘My boyfriend has put a lot of effort into learning the details of contraception in order to help me choose,’ a female student from Grey college said, ‘and he’s also very supportive whenever I’m concerned.
Whatever their level of sex education in school, the students I surveyed seem to be coping with the complexities of sex and contraception fairly well. College welfare probably has a part to play in this. Most colleges have some system for providing contraceptives and advice. Hild Bede, for example, has a large dish of condoms outside its welfare office (though it is empty more often than not), while in Mary’s, condoms are left in convenient locations by the ‘condom fairy.’ However, colleges shouldn’t get complacent. Students always have suggestions for how things could be improved.
‘More testing for STIs in college would be good,’ Phil Mullen said. Regular chlamydia screenings are already held around the university, but more is always better, and the cheerful, communal atmosphere of these screenings, with a pair of pink underpants as the reward for getting tested, may help remove the stigma around STIs and encourage sufferers to come forwards for treatment.
Overall, it seems that we as a country are making good progress towards comprehensive education about the new birth control available to us. However, while many students are arriving at university well-adjusted and well-informed, and the university itself is helping to promote safe sex, it is important to remember that students are still slipping through the net of sex education based on the wishes of their schools or parents. Further measures need to be taken to ensure that information about contraception, which has become an inevitable part of life, also becomes a part of the education of all students.