Ellie Levenson: Sex education? Don't expect it from teachers

I was determined to lose my virginity just as soon as I could, though it took me a while

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The NSPCC, which runs the Childline helpline for children to ring with their problems, has said that nearly 50 children a day call its helpline because they feel under pressure to have sex, and has called for schools to teach the emotional side of sex alongside the biological facts.

I'm not sure that I would have been happy being taught about emotions by my teachers. I am friends with several teachers and their love lives are just as complex and emotional as anyone else's. In fact, one of my former teachers told me recently that my school offered its staff a particularly good social life, and that teachers who spent their spare time coupling up then compared notes in the staff room.

I used to joke that from all the lessons I had at school, I could only really remember acquiring two pieces of knowledge from teachers that have stuck with me. First was that pyramids are strong structures, so if someone is pushing you over you should try to place your legs shoulder width apart and make a human shaped pyramid. Second was Brownian motion which explains, amongst other things, how the smell of farts move across the room. Neither of these have saved me from any heartbreak, but both have proved useful in other ways.

But somehow we expect teachers to know the answers to all of life's problems, and to teach it in a way that will stick with us throughout our lives. I teach journalism to adults a couple of days a week at one of the University of London colleges and also have a pastoral role as a personal tutor. Sometimes students come to me with problems unconnected to their studies. They seem to think that as a teacher I may have some kind of superior knowledge about life lessons. I've lost count of the number of times in the past that they have come to me to say they were having trouble concentrating because of problems with their boyfriend or girlfriend. "Me too," I would want to say, biting my lip instead and passing them over a box of tissues.

But even if I was vested with the kind of knowledge that could help them avoid this kind of upset, I'm not sure I should be passing it on. For although it involves a lot of heartbreak, one of the joys of relationships is that you learn your own lessons and you do so the hard way. Going out with the person with rugged good looks and a motorbike but who has a reputation as a bounder and a cad – yes of course it will end in tears, but would you ever want to be denied the opportunity to find that out for yourself? Watching your phone, having given someone your number? A teacher may be able to warn their charges that it never will ring but would you ever listen? Nor should we. If we listened to people who told us someone was a no good 'un or that it would all end in tears, our lives and experiences would be far less rich. Some things you just have to find out for yourself.

There is a tendency when journalists write about young people having sex to let rip with a torrent of moral outrage and to assume they are being pressured into it. But one thing we adults often forget to attribute to children is that sometimes when they say yes, they mean yes. The children ringing Childline may feel pressurised when it comes to sex but there are plenty of teenagers having consensual sex and yes, enjoying it. In fact the only pressure I ever had as a teenager about sex was from myself, determined to lose my virginity just as soon as I could, though admittedly it took me rather a long time to find someone to do this with.

The fact is that the age of consent is a pretty arbitrary age, chosen because any later and it would be meaningless as young people become sexually mature and choose to flout the rules. Already it does a disservice to those who become sexually mature at a younger age and, in acting on their urges, end up breaking the law. And while I do of course have a problem with much older people taking advantage of young people, I am not concerned with whether they have sex or not when exploring their natural desires with people of a similar age. I know people who lost their virginity aged 14, and I know people who lost it well into their twenties and there is no correlation between length of time waited and whether you have a stable emotional and sexual life as an adult.

So sorry to the NSPCC but I'd rather schools stuck to teaching facts rather than emotions. If children are armed with biological facts about how things work, access to contraception, confidence to say no when they want to and knowledge about rectifying mistakes when they do happen, such as how to access emergency contraception, the emotions can be learnt as they go along.

ellie@levenson.net

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