How not to teach children about sex

Too many young people have never been taught what a healthy relationship looks like


For many people, it involved a banana. For some, a courgette. Others, a cucumber - presumably leaving the boys feeling priapically-challenged and the girls facing disappointment later in life. Welcome to the sex ed classes of my school days: big on putting condoms on fruits and vegetables, short on discussions about respect and consent.

Not enough has changed. A survey commissioned by the Sex Education Forum and published this week has found that three in five 16 to 25-year-olds have never been taught what a healthy relationship looks like. According to Lucy Emmerson, the charity’s co-ordinator, the “quality of sex education children receive is a lottery.”

I don’t envy teachers having to tell squirming nine-year-olds about “Mummy and Daddy’s special hug” or sniggering 14-year-olds about chlamydia, but I do think there are good and bad ways to do it. So – using the experiences of friends and my Twitter followers - here’s how not to teach children about sex.


I used to joke that if you wanted a teenager to stay celibate, you should tell them to put the word “chancroid” into Google Images (think: sores on schlongs). In fact, recruiters for monasteries should probably start circulating those pictures now.

Unfortunately, some teachers employ a similar method. My own experience of sex ed - aged 10 – involved a woman giving birth in graphic, gory detail. That was probably when I decided never to have children. Others have worse tales: the power point presentation with pictures of oozing wounds; the teacher who warned that sex would hurt the first time and then swiftly put on a video showing genital warts being frozen off.

It is a ludicrous strategy best summed up in Mean Girls, the teen comedy by Tina Fey. The sports coach advises students: “Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die. Don’t have sex in the missionary position, don’t have sex standing up. Just don’t do it, okay, promise? Okay, everybody take some rubbers.”


Rabbits going at it like, er, rabbits; an illustrated booklet about STIs starring a pair of married hedgehogs who’d been getting their prickle on adulterously – sex ed loves a budget take on a David Attenborough documentary. But using animals doesn’t make sex less scary, it just scars people in a different way: the woman subjected to the rabbit ravishing says Watership Down still gives her the creeps.


Embarrassed educators mean students can leave the class more confused than they arrive. Consider the experience of a friend. “My biology teacher was happy to explain about sperm and eggs but too shy to say how one made contact with the other,” he says. “Until I was 14, I thought sperm could jump.” A fellow bad sex ed survivor was taught by a nun “who wouldn’t say the anatomically correct words for body parts.”

That said, you don’t want lessons from someone with no sense of shame, either. One Twitter user – probably shuddering - recalls: “I had a teacher who wore a pair of novelty breasts. She also listed ALL the possible names for key body parts...”


One of the oddest sex ed lessons I’ve been told about involved getting students to spit in cups. Apparently, it was to represent the spread of germs when you have sex.

Weirder still, though, was the approach taken at a boys’ school, where a female teacher demonstrated circumcision by making a student hold a board marker next to his groin and then knocking off the lid.


The same boys’ school responsible for pen circumcision also instructed its students to use protection because “once she’s pregnant you can’t do anything about it and thereafter you’ll be financially liable for 18 years.” A fantastic picture of fatherhood there.


Clearly, sex ed shouldn’t reflect the prejudices of teachers or schools, but often it does. Sometimes these are just odd - a friend says his biology teacher told the class that masturbation was fine but “overindulgence has a tendency to create a somewhat callow individual” - and sometimes they are heinous: one man recalls being told “AIDS is a gay plague.”


After all these horror stories, it may seem that the best approach is to keep schtum in schools. It isn’t. Friends who went to certain Roman Catholic and Jewish schools were given no sex ed except the GCSE biology syllabus, meaning they knew where the prostate is but never had a chance to discuss emotions or bodily boundaries.

Ignorance isn’t bliss here – it can mean unplanned pregnancies, STIs and unhappy relationships. So let’s stop sex ed being a lottery, while making sure no one again suffers pen circumcision or novelty breasts.

Twitter: @RosamundUrwin

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