New RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) guidelines came into effect in September 2020, and the recent Zoella scandal means that the role of sex education in the UK has come under a microscope again. So, let’s review.
To be fair to the new guidance, it is finally worded to acknowledge that relationships education should be mandatory. Kids will now be taught what constitutes a healthy relationship, the different ways of having a relationship and how to communicate with your partner effectively.
However, although sex education guidance is mandatory for all schools, the guidance allows people to teach it as per faith. For example, someone could teach ‘this is sex, but you shouldn’t have it before marriage.’ Or ‘this is sex but contraception isn’t acceptable.’ Both of which are proven to increase STI’s and teen pregnancy, because regardless of what you teach teens they will have sex. In primary school, there may be mandatory relationships education but there’s still no sex education, and no education on porn except to warn about the possible dangers of addiction (which is good, just not enough for such a nuanced discussion).
What it all comes down to is where is the line between scare mongering and genuine adult concern? And are we not having these conversations with our kids because we think they’re too young, or because we’re not equipped to have that dialogue?
It’s a fact that porn is doing most of the heavy lifting for young people’s sex education these days, and young people are going to continue to use porn to guide them as long as sex education refuses to suggest that sex is fun and pleasurable. It makes no sense to have sex education say sex is bad when all media, adverts and porn shows it’s the best thing on earth. Things are even branded with sex, you can’t have a teenage girl using ‘better than sex’ mascara and then preach to her about abstinence, that’s just mixed messaging.
The wording ‘age appropriate’ in the new guidance has a connotation of morality which can give schools a loophole to gate keep education about sexual pleasure. Lis Halgarten, the head of policy and public affairs at Brook, a young people’s sexual health charity, suggests that ‘timely’ would be better language to use. As in, we should learn about sex before we’re having it and learn about before periods before we’re having them. The average age for girls starting periods is getting younger so it’s important that this is taught at primary school level, even if that feels early for parents to be thinking about their little girl growing up.
We need to remember that information is neutral not harmful, there’s nothing scandalous about being taught. Studies have shown that people who lose their virginity later on have a much better first experience and this is because by your late teens and early twenties you’ve finally taught yourself what a teacher could have just taught you in Year 9. And it’s important for parents to remember, just because their child is learning about sex doesn’t mean they’re having it. I personally was addicted to Hannah Witton’s Youtube channel (a great place for sex education) at the age of 14, but I didn’t have sex until I was much older.
It’s important that we as adults stop being in denial about what children already know and what at the end of the day is just childhood curiosity. Parents need to know that children are googling because they’re curious – not because they’ve depraved or corrupted. Comprehensive education is the only way to avoid children stumbling upon things their parents don’t want them to find, and the only way to avoid potentially incredibly harmful ignorance in the future.