We’ve all heard the story about the birds and the bees, and how babies are brought by storks. Many parents are happy to answer their children’s questions honestly as and when they ask. However, for some young people, learning about babies and storks is in fact their first introduction to the vast and controversial topic that is sex and relationships education (SRE). For others, television programs, music videos or conversations in the school playground may have already played a role.
The topic has recently been brought up in the Scottish Parliament due to the lobbying of student-led organisation Sexpression:UK, who are calling for SRE to be compulsory by law. While the Scottish Executive sets out guidelines detailing how they expect SRE to be carried out, there is currently no statutory requirement in Scotland for schools to teach SRE, which means that the main decisions are made by local and denominational authorities. Meanwhile, parents maintain the right to withdraw their children from lessons. This has inspired many debates about SRE, such as the content and its effectiveness, and the role it plays in society.
Considering the amount of exposure to sex there is in the media, there are concerns about how much factual sex education young people are getting. According to Sexpression:UK, 76 per cent of denominational schools did not believe contraception should be discussed and 70.6 per cent “were unwilling to discuss STIs”. Jade Ross, a parent of five, believes that SRE is essential. “Kids need to have knowledge from quite a young age,” she said, “so they don’t hear things from others that aren’t true”. She also believes that parents shouldn’t be excluded from the debate, since “children develop in different ways, and have different maturity levels. A parent would know how their individual child would deal with [SRE] mentally.”
Brook is the UK’s largest sexual health charity for young people, providing SRE to around 300,000 people each year. Shockingly, some of the most common misconceptions they encounter amongst young people include thinking that it is impossible to get pregnant on their first time, and that the pill protects against sexually-transmitted infections. Many people argue that there is a link between our sex education practices and the fact that the UK has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Western Europe.
Chief executive of Brook, Simon Blake, makes another case for SRE: “What [young people] really want to know is: what makes a good relationship? What does sex feel like? Is this right? Is this normal?” A group of university students, when asked about sex education, mainly remembered awkward conversations and laughing about putting condoms on bananas. One thought there should be more readily available information about the different types of contraception apart from condoms and the pill. Another believed that there needed to be more focus on relationships, and making people aware of the help available for those trapped in abusive relationships. “In the UK it’s very ‘hush, hush’ […] People don’t want to go to the doctors’ because they feel embarrassed.”
As well as lobbying for SRE to be compulsory by law, Sexpression:UK believe that SRE ought to “challenge stigma and stereotypes”. While we’ve moved away from the days when biology was considered a ‘girls’ subject’, there is very little discussion in schools about different sexualities and gender identities. Talking about homophobia in particular, Jack Fletcher, advocacy representative for Sexpression:UK reminded us that these attitudes can lead to “self-harm, depression and reduced attainment in the individual’s education capabilities”.
Taking this one step further, British journalist and broadcaster, Dame Jenni Murray, believes that SRE should be abolished, not so that young people are prevented from learning, but so that it can be renamed ‘Gender Education’. Writing for an article in The Guardian, Murray says: “I want children to have a deeper understanding of the role sex and gender play in their lives – and, given that knowledge brings power, the confidence to say yes or no without ever being coerced.”
While it is unclear where the future of sex and relationships education lies, it is evident that we need more discussion about the birds and the bees.