The demand for sex education to be made compulsory, to move beyond biology and into the emotional realm, and to cover a broader, more inclusive range of topics, unites purple-haired feminists with blue-rinsed members of the House of Lords, and LGBT campaigners with Daily Telegraph readers. These diverse groups come together in the feigned astonishment that accompanies their rhetorical question: ‘Why wouldn’t we teach children not to rape?’ They share a belief that savagery is released when sexuality is allowed free reign, that an innate predatory impulse is held in check only by teachers and the correct learning outcomes.
There’s surely no better time to raise awareness of this cynical, twisted and fearful view of relationships than Valentine’s Day. Members of the National Student Pride, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National Union of Students LGBT+ campaign chose 14 February to send postcards to MPs demanding that sex education be made mandatory, that it cover the topic of consent and that it include lesbian, gay and bisexual issues. The current state of sex-and-relationships education (SRE) is presented as the cause of all problems. ‘My poor SRE contributed to body-shaming and poor mental health’, says one postcard. ‘A lack of knowledge made it more difficult for me to come out’, claims another. Yet campaigners are pushing at an open door: last week it was revealed that with 23 Conservative MPs now backing a change in the law, ‘compulsory relationship education’ will almost certainly be introduced.
The relentless campaigning around sex education is bizarre. The overwhelming majority of children already receive SRE – it stopped being simply about biological facts as far back as the 1960s (1). The Handbook of Health Education, government advice for schools published in 1968, recommended that children should learn about contraception and that sex should be presented as an emotional experience. Despite subsequent changes in the political weather, in practice, sex education has become ever more entrenched as a feature in the school curriculum, and continues to expand into new areas. In 1990, sex education became part of personal and social education (PSE) classes which, in 1996, became part of the ‘basic curriculum’. In 2010, the Department for Education reiterated that ‘children need high-quality SRE so they can make wise and informed choices’. In 2013, the Department of Health’s Sexual Health Improvement Framework also argued the need for all children to receive high-quality SRE.
Unfortunately, the ever-present clamour for more and better SRE isn’t simply a waste of time. SRE is being championed as a means of teaching children not just biology, and not just how to behave when in a relationship, but how to think and feel about sex. Sex is presented to young people as risky – not simply because of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections, but as emotionally risky. Sex, children are taught, can seriously damage your emotional wellbeing – it needs to be practised in a way that is not just physically safe, but emotionally safe. In order to protect themselves from this risk, children are encouraged to master, often through roleplay, a range of pre-approved emotional responses. Sex education has moved from biology, to PSE, to safeguarding and child protection.
Any attempt at teaching more than the biology of sex necessarily involves imparting values and moral judgements. This is precisely why campaigns around sex education are such a big deal at the moment. Timetabled lessons teach children what to think about the most private areas of their lives and how to conduct relationships with each other in the most direct and unmediated way possible. The values currently being pushed (the questioning of gender and the assumption of heterosexuality as well as the importance of asking for, and receiving, consent before every interaction) chime with an agenda being promoted by feminist campaigners.