We need to go all the way with sex education
'When it comes to grappling with sex in the nation's classrooms we have barely got its shirt off'
Monday 17 April 2000
According to a new report, sex education in Britain is stuck at the holding-hands stage. Despite the naked couplings in TV commercials for Levi jeans and bus-stop hoardings for bol.com, the advice on blowjobs that appears in teen magazines, the frank discussions on Friends about Doing It and the dramatised aftermath of homosexual rape in Hollyoaks; despite the carpet-bombing of our senses with images of sexual abandonment from all sides - when it comes to grappling with the subject in the nation's classrooms, we have barely got its shirt off.
The report, by the Aids Research and Education Trust, and the Schools Health and Education Unit at Exeter University, found that more than half the schools inspected failed to tell their charges the mechanics of sexual intercourse, more than half are still explaining to 14- and 15-year-olds about their equipment, when they are already seasoned practitioners of the blanket hornpipe; and that some schools ignore such basic topics as safe sex, the age of consent or homosexuality.
One fundamental problem, if that's the right phrase, is that schools do not give children the feeling that sex is directly and personally concerned with themselves. They're taught by diagram and picture, by warning and alarm, by prohibition and threat. What they are not taught is: how to say no to sexual overtures from someone, of either sex; how to discourage an importunate partner with tact or humour, so as not to get labelled a prude or a tease; how to talk about sex without dying of embarrassment; how to establish an understanding with your boy or girlfriend so that, the next time everything goes suddenly quiet and intense, you'll trust each other about what happens next; what to do when you realise you finally are (O happy and utterly petrifying day) going to have sex with someone; and how to make sure you get the etiquette right.
I say this with the confidence of the former blank ignoramus. When I was 12, 13 and 14, none of the above advice or information was available. Instead, Father Colliston, a nice Jesuit priest at Wimbledon College, would talk us through body parts and masturbation and wet dreams like a brigadier drilling his troops. It was probably the same boys-are-like-rutting-stags, girls-are-completely-off-limits lecture with which Lord Baden-Powell used to regale the boy scouts in 1906.
Father Colliston had a terrible stammer that could be cured, it seemed, only by rubbing his long perspex ruler very fast across the back of his neck. In mid-discussion of the male erection as representing "Nature's amber light", he would get stuck on "am-" and feverishly abuse his neck until he became, as it were, unstuck. Once he wrote the dread words "glans", "penis", "foreskin" and "testes" on a blackboard - a new kind, that you could pull down like a roller towel. By the time the science master appeared to take the next lesson, the words were out of sight, journeying up the blackboard's occluded back. When they re-appeared, 20 minutes later, in the middle of a chalked exposition of Boyle's Law, the master's eyes bulged. Instead of making a little joke of it, he rubbed the words off as though removing a lump of ordure from his shoes. Had he been in a position to see South Park, he'd have gone "Eeeeeeeuwww".
This was a curious echo of E M Forster's fictional school teacher, at the start of his 1913 homosexual fantasy Maurice, who draws pictures of genitalia in the sand to instruct the boys during a walk, then hurriedly obliterates them when other grown-ups approach. By the time I hit puberty, in the late Sixties, an air of disgust - of sex being a subject beneath serious investigation - still prevailed. Sex was basically "what you didn't do to yourself"; it hadn't yet become "what you don't do to the opposite sex".
But you can't muck about with sex education. Either you tell schoolchildren the lot, or you don't bother. You cannot begin, as my father did with me, by discussing how apples have pips and rabbits have bunnies, then expect the rest to follow by some informational legerdemain. You must tell them from an early age What Goes Where; puberty is the time to tell them what to do with this information, what to do with and about other people. "Sex education is set up to fail if it taught too late," says James Lawrence, director of the Aids Research and Education Trust. "It needs to be comprehensive and age-appropriate, basically going all the way before young people do."
A more personalised way of teaching children about sex shouldn't be just the whim of an enlightened school. Sex education has been compulsory since 1993. Discussions about contraception and oral sex have been the currency of government films and education leaflets since the Aids scare of the late Eighties. "Don't die of ignorance," the flyers used to say. "Don't ruin your life through embarrassment," is what they should be saying now. It will not ruin the life of my eight-year-old son to discover what grown-ups get up to in the sack. The best that can happen is that he may ponder, over the next few years, what it'll be like to be sexually active, how to do it or negotiate around it. The worst that can happen is, he'll go "Eeeeeeuwww..."
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