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Why Comprehensive And Inclusive Sex Education Matters In The Fight Against Sexual Violence

By Erika Pearse


At heteronormative surface level, my sex education experience probably wasn’t the worst in the entire United Kingdom.


Sperm cell swims to egg cell. Women have a vagina, men have a penis. Good. Bare minimum cisgendered biology. The classic have sex to make babies and nothing else.


Then a few years down the line: use a condom. Here are some graphic images of STIs on genitals. Get one of these and your sex life is over.

The contraceptive pill is for ladies. You can also get a ladies’ condom, but they’re a bit weird and no one actually uses them.

And the IUD? Well, I know what it is, but logistics? Not a clue.


Point blank no elaboration statement that you can’t have sex until you’re 16.


And did you know, some people are…gay…and that you could be too?


Somehow, and I can't think why, I was left with many questions.


And sadly very few of the common questions that young people have are answered by the condom-on-banana demonstration.

When you think about all the details that are left out, it's no wonder why many of us are left to find things out for ourselves, either by way of a private browser three-in-the-morning google, or through equally clueless friends.

And the same is often true when we look at the nuances of consent.


21st Century Sex Education In The United Kingdom


Aside from being told why you suddenly have hairy armpits, when we think about conversations around sex education, or SRE, it tends centre around reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy. And this is often done by glossing over the basics of contraception, and by telling you all the awful things that may happen to you as a teenage mother.


The UK continues to have one of the highest rates of unwanted teenage pregnancy in Europe. And although teaching children about contraception in school is essential in response to this, alongside other aspects of SRE, the topic is often vaguely delivered and incredibly heteronormative. And, as with my experience, relates only to the possibility of baby-making.


This means there is little, if any, mention of safe sex for LGBTQ+ folks. Little, if any, mention of sex for pleasure rather than procreation, especially for women. And quite frankly, very little reassurance or guidance.


This can not only be incredibly isolating, but also fails to educate young people on issues that others or themselves may be facing, and does not properly address the significance of consent relating to intimacy and relationships in general.


And I would argue, at Secondary level, it is too late to start to introduce the concept of consent and the warning signs of abuse.


What is the significance of teaching children consent in reducing sexual violence?


To me, thorough consent education involves ensuring that young people are aware of the laws that are in place to protect them and others. It involves highlighting what is unacceptable with clarity and compassion. And importantly, it involves communicating what real consent looks like in practice.


It’s all well and good being aware that the age of consent is 16, but in my eyes, more significant is knowing how to respect partners in specific situations. Like knowing that silence, what someone is wearing or the word ‘maybe’ is not consent.


Ideally, this would be taught from a young age from parents too, before the topic of sex education in school even arises.


And in the right context, the earlier the better, according to Leesa Waters, deputy CEO at the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in Australia. In a 2021 article for the Guardian, Waters states that ‘we often teach kids you have a right to say no, but we don’t often teach them about seeking consent from other people as well.’2 We can ask children if they would like to receive affection, and we can also encourage them to ask others before they give affection.


She also emphasises combined parent and teacher effort if we are to seek real change, and building a ‘culture of respect’ beyond a singular talk about sex. This involves teaching to respect body boundaries and maintaining ‘open conversation’ about sexual health.


Primary school sex education is not compulory in the United Kingdom,3 and from my own primary school experience, I do not remember anything beyond a stereotypical split-gender talk on ‘boy’s’ and ‘girl’s’ puberty.


I was not given any specific information on the formation of healthy relationships, or respecting the boundaries of others. The current National Curriculum states that relationships education is now implemented into primary level education. However, I strongly believe that this is something, alongside the basic foundations of consent and respect, that should be consistently reinforced throughout a child’s entire time at school, both in lessons and at home.


Teaching Sex Education


On 10th June 2021, in response to Sarah Everard’s horrific murder, the Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges was published with a plethora of heartbreaking testimonies from children who had experienced sexual assault in schools.


In relation to SRE delivery from teachers, these statements were also found to be true:


  • ‘Some staff were generally not very confident to deliver the curriculum in areas related to sexual harassment and sexual violence, including online.’

  • ‘Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) teaching did not give students the right information and advice in order to make the right choices.’

  • ‘Schools and safeguarding partners were not closely aligned, did not fully understand the extent and significance of sexual harassment in schools or the local area.’4


Staff confidence when delivering sex education, especially relating to consent, is essential.


Showing signs of awkwardness or a lack of willingness to discuss a subject is communicating shame to young people about the topics that are being discussed.

For consent and sex education to be effective, teachers should be correctly informed, as well as confident about what they are teaching. They should be particularly informed about LGBTQ+ issues, as it has been found that ‘people who identify (as LGBTQ+) have been shown to be at greater risk of sexual violence,5 6 physical violence,7 teenage pregnancy,8 and STI incidence.’9 10


This is due to the heteronormative nature of current sex education, which censors LGBTQ+ issues, and demonstrates that change is needed if we are to combat sexual violence.


I am now a university student, and a sex education experience that left me sufficiently puzzled, alongside statements from others that made my learning appear to be sexual health utopia, has led me to become Social Media Secretary of my city’s university branch of Sexpression UK: a student-led charity that trains student volunteers to teach secondary school pupils comprehensive sex education, beyond the condom-on-banana setup.


And rightfully so, sex and consent is one of the core topics that Sexpression teaches, with inclusivity at its core.


Hopefully, with increasing awareness, and organisations like Sexpression advocating for inclusive and well-informed sex education, we will eventually be able to teach children to actively seek consent, respect each other, and that they are absolutely worthy of their own body autonomy.




References:


1 The Nuffield Trust. 2022. Teenage pregnancy. [online] Available at: <https://www.nuffieldtrust.org.uk/resource/teenage-pregnancy#background> [Accessed 29 June 2022].


2 The Guardian, 2022. Teaching consent to children: 'The joke is where it starts and rape is where it ends'. [online] p.pg.1. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/21/teaching-consent-to-children-the-joke-is-where-it-starts-and-is-where-it-ends> [Accessed 29 June 2022].


3GOV.UK. 2019. Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education: FAQs. [online] Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/relationships-education-relationships-and-sex-education-rse-and-health-education-faqs> [Accessed 29 June 2022].


4The Education Hub, 2022. A year on from the launch of the Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools and colleges. Available at: <https://educationhub.blog.gov.uk/2022/04/08/a-year-on-from-the-launch-of-the-ofsted-review-into-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges/> [Accessed 29 June 2022].


5 Macdowall W, Gibson LJ, Tanton C, Mercer CH, Lewis R, Clifton S, Field N, Datta J, Mitchell KR, Sonnenberg P, Erens B, Copas AJ, Phelps A, Prah P, Johnson AM, Wellings K. Lifetime prevalence, associated factors, and circumstances of non-volitional sex in women and men in Britain: findings from the third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3). Lancet. 2013 Nov 30;382(9907):1845-55. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62300-4. Epub 2013 Nov 26. PMID: 24286789; PMCID: PMC3898964.


6 Pathela P, Schillinger JA. Sexual behaviors and sexual violence: adolescents with opposite-, same-, or both-sex partners. Pediatrics. 2010 Nov;126(5):879-86. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-0396. Epub 2010 Oct 25. PMID: 20974791.


7 Barter, Christine, McCarry, Melanie, Berridge, David and Evans, Kathy (2009) Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. [London]: NSPCC.


8 Saewyc EM, Poon CS, Homma Y, Skay CL. Stigma management? The links between enacted stigma and teen pregnancy trends among gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in British Columbia. Can J Hum Sex. 2008;17(3):123-139. PMID: 19293941; PMCID: PMC2655734.


9 European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies of the Union, FitzSimons, A., Márquez, S., Priest, S., et al. (2017) Sexual and reproductive health and rights. European Parliament. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2861/100645


10 2018. Relationships and Sex Education. [ebook] Parliamentary Office Of Science And Technology, pp.1,2. Available at: <https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/POST-PN-0576/POST-PN-0576.pdf> [Accessed 29 June 2022].



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