At the beginning of August Channel Four aired two programmes, “Sex in Class”, about the sorry state of Sex and Relationships Education in the UK.
Goedele Liekens, a Belgian Sex Education expert and UN Ambassador for Sexual Health, was invited to Hollins Technology College in Accrington to provide an alternative approach to Relationships and Sex Education.
How refreshing this was, and for those of us who have persistently tried to get a “sex-positive” emphasis to sex and relationships education, it felt like vindication.
Before we review the programme and consider the positive outcomes from Goedele’s work, let’s examine this phrase “Sex Positive”.
There are some who think that “sex positive” means encouraging sex or advocating it as something young people should do. This is wrong on every possible level. A good, professional and reputable sex and relationships educator would never enter a classroom and say, “Hey kids, go and have sex! It’s super cool and you have to do it as soon as possible!”
That is not being sex positive.
Goedele Liekens demonstrated precisely what being “sex positive” is all about.
“Sex positive” means that the adult/teacher in the room talks to the students about sex as a positive aspect of life WHEN we have the level of physical maturity and emotional maturity to embrace sexuality. Sex positive lessons ensure that young people know how to respect their partners and understand their own bodies and those of their partners, whilst emphasising that sex is a positive thing that shouldn’t be rushed into or taken for granted. Sex positive lessons reiterate that the sex that children may have seen on pornographic websites and on DVDs isn’t true to life and is far more gratuitous and empty than the real thing. It’s also likely to be exploitative, sexist and mysogynistic.
“Sex positive” lessons also concentrate on relationships. Being sex positive goes beyond mere consent for sexual activity. It considers how people relate to one another, how they respect one another and respect one another’s feelings, and how they talk with their partner about what they desire sexually. It’s about compromises, about sharing, about understanding another human being with their various needs and and desires.
Without these aspects, sex is far less than positive.
Sex education in the UK is poor. We know that. Those of us who are sex educators know that it’s highly likely that it’s even poorer than reports show. All too frequently we talk to young people who say that the only sex education they’ve received has been a demonstration of how to use a condom and a smattering of human biology. Many young people have asked for more – specifically about relationships.
Current sex education programmes in the UK tend to be “sex negative” – whereby there is often a message of “just say no” or “it’s not for you” or a fearful reiteration of all the contagious sexually transmitted diseases you can catch. There’s little acknowledgement of the fact that many of our young people are regularly watching pornography and there’s not enough recognition that sex is not all about penetration.
Quite frankly, our young people are savvier than we give them credit for. It’s preposterous to think that we should be negative about sex when these young people know that some sexually negative comments made in sex ed lessons are at best overstated and at worst grossly hypocritical. Young people have said that if we, the teachers, as consenting adults consider and act on all these negative aspects of sex, then why are we having sex ourselves?
A valid point.
The second of the “Sex in Class” programmes began with a couple of facts:
- 83% of 13 year olds in the UK have seen pornography on the internet
- Over 50% of young people watch pornography regularly
Consider this. If false or invalid “information” was being viewed by a large majority of young people about other subjects would we sit back as educators or parents and do nothing to refute this misinformation?
Of course we wouldn’t. So why do we do it with sex? Why do we shyly acknowledge that young people are getting frequently erroneous or misleading information from porn sites and do nothing to contradict or counteract it?
A young lad of 15 on the programme was asked to choose which photo he liked best from Lieken’s “fanny wall” – a collection of photographs of women’s “private parts”.
[NOTE: They were NOT looking at photographs of female genitalia or vaginas. They were looking at photos of the female pubis. Here’s another ridiculous misconception that even text books get wrong. Female genitals are hidden. The vagina is within, as is the clitoris. Using the right words or even having the correct words is helpful!]
The boy chose a photo of a shaved pubis because it “looked cleaner” (and because this is the image he was most familiar with). He continued to say that if his girlfriend had pubic hair and was unshaven, he would have to leave her.
The young women in the lesson demonstrated their dismay or disgust at this statement by doing nothing more than sighing. Not one young woman felt she could react verbally to this.
What an indictment!
Goedele Liekens picked up on this and said that as part of a sex positive attitude to SRE, she wanted to help the young women to be more confident about speaking out and to have a better understanding of their bodies.
She asked the boys and the girls separately to draw a diagram of female genitalia. Not one of them could do it accurately, and the boys admitted that they’d had to use a search engine and the Internet to get it right.
How is this acceptable? How can we expect our young women to know what they might actually choose to do sexually if they don’t even know the parts of their own body and their relationship to one another? And yet, in UK schools, the idea of setting homework for the girls, as Liekens did, to examine their own bodies with the help of a mirror seems so outlandish and appalling that many wouldn’t even begin to consider this as appropriate.
Through a carefully planned series of lessons, Liekens worked with these young people to the point that they did know their own bodies and they did show respect for the views of potential partners, and they presumably didn’t all rush out and have sex as soon as the cameras had finished filming.
The boy who’d chosen the hair-free female anatomy from the “fanny wall” said at the end of the course, “If we respect them they will respect us and we’ll have a proper relationship.”
Another telling conversation between two young lads was to question the legality of what was being taught and spoken about.
“Yeah, just against the rules” – replied the other.
The fact is that the current “rules” for sex and relationship education mean that individual school governing bodies ratify sex education policy and approve the content and delivery of sex and relationships education. The other “rule” is that SRE is not statutory and that Academies and Free Schools can abstain from all sex education if their governing bodies choose to. The only statutory content of SRE for state-managed (not state-funded) schools is on reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases, and is only covered in the science curriculum.
Is that really what sex is all about? Is this all that matters?
Like it or not, we are where we are and our children are regularly viewing pornography. They are never challenged about the content of what they’re watching because we’re apparently too frightened to acknowledge the reality of their viewing habits. We live in a society that persistently uses sex to sell wares. We have shops full of clothes for young women that sexualises them way before the age of consent. We have internet access in a large majority of bedrooms in the country with little or no tracking of what our young people are viewing on their PCs, tablet computers, laptops and even smartphones. We have an education system that deals with “facts”, yet we readily allow them to misinterpret information about sex because we cannot accept the reality of the internet age. And still we don’t want to talk about sex with them!
Isn’t it time that Britain, its politicians and its educators, woke up to the needs of our young people and took some very sensible advice from the likes of Geodele Liekens to provide a sex positive, relationships focused education for our children? An education based on dialogue and a Socratic form of learning that leads to empowering our youngsters so that they too can enjoy a stimulating and satisfying relationship with their future sexual partners – when they are emotionally and physically ready.……………………………………………………….
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