By Sophie Bament
(Please note that this article is written from a heterosexual point of view, and I am not in a position to talk about non-heteronormative sex with any authority)
I was always aware that UK sex education was poor, but I have only really realised quite how abysmal it is, after having watched ‘Sex in Class’. This is a documentary that followed sexologist Goedele Liekens as she embarked on an attempt to take over the sex and relationships lessons of a group of fifteen and sixteen year olds at a school in Lancashire. The programme highlighted the woefully extensive gaps in the knowledge of young adults who, by law, are permitted to engage in sexual activity with other people.
The situation documented in ‘Sex in Class’ is not uncommon. Throughout my schooling, sex education was very brief. I remember one lesson in Year Six; we were told what puberty was and then had to watch a video of a cartoon couple having sex. We were then separated, and the girls made to sit in a circle whilst an old woman awkwardly passed sanitary towels around the circle. This was followed later in my education with just a couple more lessons – the classic ‘put the condom on the plastic penis’, some talk about STDs, and the biological side of reproduction. Apparently that is enough to get you and your peers through life.
Currently, the UK curriculum for sex and relationships education includes reproduction, sexuality and sexual health (1). One of the many things it does not include is consent. As evidenced in the documentary, pornography shapes a lot of children’s understanding of sex. Acts of sex on porn websites show little communication between the two or more people and there is absolutely no mention of ‘is this okay?’, ‘do you want me to?’ or ‘does this feel good?’.
The consequences of this were shown in the programme, as the 15 and 16-year-olds constructed a script for a sex act. One of the stories finished with the male character ejaculating on the woman’s face, with no prior communication between the couple. When Goedele questioned the group on it, one of the boys expressed that it was expected a woman be subjected to this, out of respect for the man. It is evident through this example that the teens had been taught by pornography that women are expected by men to partake in certain sex acts without prior consent.
With children viewing pornography as young as eleven years old, and four out of five sixteen-year-olds viewing pornography regularly(2), it is vital that schools make sure that they are teaching children about sex early and effectively, rather than allowing poorly regulated internet porn to do the job. In a society where rape culture is rife, educating young people about consent in a clear manner (including the involvement of drugs and alcohol) is essential. Elements of consent can even be taught at a young age by simply reiterating the meaning of ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
As a woman, I feel that much of the sex education that I received sent out the message that sex is a negative thing which leads to pregnancy and STDs. There was never any education on sexual pleasure; the clitoris, the pleasure centre of the female, was completely ignored. I find this bizarre, since 70% of women cannot orgasm with intercourse alone and need direct clitoral stimulation to orgasm (3). A consequence of this is that female pleasure is dismissed as secondary to male pleasure, and women are not encouraged to question this or to speak up about their sexual preferences.
Sex education in the UK also dismisses any mention of masturbation, especially female masturbation, which is viewed as a taboo issue. When I was a teenager at an all-female school, I remember a rumour going around about a girl who had ‘touched herself’ and everyone perceived it as nothing less than scandalous. Yet, male masturbation is considered completely natural and more or less a necessary, integral part of being male. Are women only allowed to be sexual beings with a partner? This is another classic double standard which feeds society’s policing of expressions of female sexuality.
The consequence of terrible sex education is a world where children are learning about sex from porn instead; a worrying scenario, as most adults would agree that porn does not correlate to real life sex and instead creates an idealised, unrealistic portrayal of sex. This leads to a point where people (often women) are forced into things they are unwilling to do, where people practice unhealthy or unsafe sex acts and where expressions of female sexuality are considered abnormal.
If you are a University student, and would like to help teach the next generation about safe and consensual sex, then become a volunteer for Sexpression, a student led body delivering lessons in schools on porn, body image and consent amongst other subjects.