Sex education needs to be about much more than sex

What is difficult is all the stuff that goes along with it: how other people want, expect and have a right to be treated

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The Independent Online

Pornography is everywhere: a couple of clicks on the internet and you can see images that most of us couldn’t have dreamt up and wouldn’t have wanted to. Nobody knows what this is doing to children. Is it making girls fret pointlessly about their size, shape and the amount of hair on their bodies? (The mons pubis has been identified as the latest target for plastic surgery; how does anyone think this is an improvable body part?). Is it making boys think that girls want to be coerced, or that “No” actually means “Yes”? Does it bear any relationship to the growing reports of erectile dysfunction among young men?

No one knows for sure – but in the fog of confusion, it is good to hear that the Commons Education Committee has called for sex and relationships education to become compulsory. Not because, as a parent, I want to be absolved of responsibility, but because I may not be very good at sex talks and I would like to be backed up by other sensible adults.

The MPs also suggested that we shouldn’t call it sex and relationships education, but relationships and sex education. This would reflect much better what it’s actually about: young people need teaching about the mechanics of sex much less than about the context. Sex is not actually very complicated, biologically speaking, and anyway it’s covered in the science curriculum. What is difficult is all the stuff that goes along with it: how other people want, expect and have a right to be treated.

According to Girlguiding, 40 per cent of girls believe that it’s acceptable for a partner to make you tell them where you are, all the time. A fifth of girls believe that it’s acceptable for them to shout at you and call you names, or to tell you what you can and cannot wear.

So relationships and sex education is (among other things) a feminist issue. A good PSHE – personal, social and health education – curriculum will include things like consent, age gaps, and predatory behaviour. If you don’t give young people the language for these issues and the ammunition to respond, it’s hardly surprising when we get cases like those in Oxford and Rotherham, where girls are preyed upon by what no doubt at first seemed to be plausible young men.


Parents still have a responsibility to talk to children about sex. But we often feel unqualified, embarrassed by our own limited knowledge. I have a gay son but I didn’t talk to him about LGBT issues because he wasn’t out at the time, and I didn’t know much about them anyway. And yet it’s vital for LGBT sexualities to be discussed and normalised: LGBT teens are frequent targets for bullies and isolation makes them potential targets for predators.

Those who object to compulsory sex and relationships education in schools often imply that it’s “teaching sex” in the abstract, when, in fact, the opposite is true. It’s not about sex; it’s about creating the understanding that enables empathy.

Given that 39 per cent of young people say that school is their main source of information about sex and relationships, it is dismaying that Ofsted rates PSHE as inadequate in 40 per cent of schools. And the schools that are neglecting sex and relationships aren’t doing so from a position of strength; Ofsted’s grades for PSHE correlate closely with a school’s grades for overall effectiveness.

Drinking, drug-taking, smoking and teen pregnancies are all down among young people in the UK, yet there is growing evidence of depression, self-harm and other mental health issues. For young people, relationships and well-being are intertwined. I want my kids to feel that they are armed with all the knowledge they need to have great relationships; that they know how to be sensitive to other people and, in the long term, that they can look forward to glorious sex rather than partner-shouting-at-you sex.


When caring matters more than curing

One of the interesting things about watching my mother adjust to Alzheimer’s has been that the process hasn’t been all horror, loss and grief. There is plenty of happiness, often involving music, movement and a feeling of being in control.

The Government has pledged £30m for dementia research at leading universities. This is very good news but, even so, a cure remains at best a very long way off. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to cope with dementia in a world that is profoundly hostile to it, in which we prize mental speed and efficiency above all else and in which a person without a memory is often made to feel like a non-person. A cure would, of course, be a very great thing: but the focus on cures to the exclusion of care only seems to confirm a 21st-century set of values that puts processing power over people.

Geraldine Bedell is a director of The Parent Zone and edits