Teenagers say no to sex and relationship education.
Sex education has long been a contentious issue in the UK. But in recent years, it is not whether schools should teach young people about sex that is controversial, but what exactly they should be teaching them.
The current government has pledged to halve the teenage pregnancy rate by the year 2010, and in doing this has launched a new set of guidelines as to what should be taught within schools.
No longer is school sex education confined to the biology classroom walls – now there is scope to consider sex and relationship education within lessons such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). This follows long-running campaigns by groups such as Brook and the FPA (Family Planning Association), arguing that sex education should not just be a case of teaching students how to prevent pregnancy and how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but that students also need to learn about the more emotional aspects of sexual relationships.
It tends to be assumed that sex and relationship education is not only something that young people need – it is something that they want. But what do the young people themselves think? I talked to a few, and discovered that young people might prefer to be taught rather less about their sex and relationships.
The young people I talked to were either currently having sex education or reflecting back on their sex education classes, and in general, they were unsure about considering emotional aspects of sexual relationships in class. Lessons were already seen to be embarrassing and left many students feeling uncomfortable when discussing the issues, with a feeling that discussing relationships would merely make the situation worse.
‘At that age it’s likely that if you tried to teach people about relationships, that they wouldn’t concentrate, because of being embarrassed’, said a young man, aged 21. ‘I know I didn’t feel comfortable in the lessons I had.’ ‘I don’t know if the teachers would be much help in discussing relationships’, said a 15-year-old girl. ‘It’d be weird if you did talk about stuff like that, it’d be well embarrassing.’
Not only was there a feeling that lessons addressing relationships would be more embarrassing, but there was also concern as to how schools could teach people to have relationships, and whether teachers are the right people to approach the subject of having a relationship.
‘I don’t know if I’d want some teacher telling me about how to have a relationship’, said a 22-year-old woman. ‘You could talk about some stuff in more detail, but it’s a very personal thing and I don’t know if I’d want to talk about it in a classroom.’ An 18-year-old man said: ‘In some ways I don’t think it’s an issue at that age, but then I don’t think you can discuss relationships in a class. How do you teach relationships?’
Although all of those asked believed that schools did have a place in teaching young people about sex and sexual health, there were concerns as to whether teaching about relationships, and trying to achieve a greater scope to the lessons, was the right thing to do.
Young people felt that discussing relationships would merely heighten the embarrassment of the lessons, with one interviewee commenting how this may increase the chances that students would not concentrate, and another commenting that students would be more inclined to ‘mess around’. ‘We just thought it was funny, it was never taken seriously and in some ways if you started to talk about love and stuff it would just make it worse’, reflected an 18-year-old man.
Other interviewees were uncertain about a teacher approaching the subject of relationships, with a few questioning whether it is possible to teach about relationships when they are such personal things.
There is a need to address young people’s sexual health in this country. Maybe before developing yet more schemes to teach young people about life, love and sex, the government should consider more carefully what those young people need to know – and what they want to learn.
Verity Campbell-Barr is studying at Goldsmiths College, London.
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