Let’s abandon sex education
We should teach kids the biological facts, not how to feel about sex.
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.
Consent has become such an important part of sex education because it expresses ideas around emotional risk in a concrete form. As such it provides a practical opportunity for children to demonstrate having mastered correct emotional responses. A 2012 national OFSTED report spells out that SRE should ‘promote equality in relationships and emphasise the importance of seeking and gaining mutual consent through positive and active communication’. This must, the report stresses, go beyond teaching children how to say ‘no’. For the youngest pupils, consent is covered as part of safeguarding legislation. Children are taught that their body belongs to them and that they can say who has access to it. This promotes unnecessary fear and teaches children suspicion and mistrust of adults. It reaches into the heart of intimate relationships and presents the family as a site of potential abuse rather than a source of love and nurturing.
Older children are taught that sexual consent is an important feature of a ‘healthy’ relationship, because it means that people have freely chosen to engage with each other in pre-determined sexual acts. They are taught that consent must not be inferred, assumed, coerced or gained by exploitation. Sex without formal consent is, by implication, unhealthy, risky and dangerous to an individual’s emotional wellbeing.
Teaching children a state-sanctioned method not just for having sex but for thinking about sex, often long before they are ready to put theory into practice, throws up a number of problems. The focus on consent teaches that sex without the incantation of pre-rehearsed scripts learnt in the safety of the classroom is rape. They are taught that they will be emotionally damaged from such an experience. The subtext here, although rarely acknowledged, is that boys will grow up to be potential rapists and girls to be victims. In order to protect themselves, both boys and girls need to be constantly vigilant and must monitor each other’s behaviour – even when in private.
Campaigners are quick to present SRE as entirely positive. We are told that SRE classes are simply a commonsense means of protecting children and young adults from physical and emotional harm. But this is to wish problems away with a cloak of simplicity. There is no correct way to behave in the context of a relationship. A disjuncture between the reality of the bedroom and the rhetoric of the classroom doesn’t equate to rape. Not only is there no correct way to behave, there is also no correct way to feel about sex. Telling children some emotional responses are better than others is worse than disingenuous, it promotes a fear and anxiety of intimate relationships that jeopardises their future private lives.
We don’t need more or better sex education – we need to abandon it altogether. Yes, let’s teach children basic biology. But let’s leave them to work out how they think, feel and behave in relationships for themselves.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.
(1) For a detailed account of this argument, see ‘Controlling Passion? A Review of Recent Developments in British Sex Education in Health’, by Sarah EH Moore, in Risk and Society, 14:1, 2012.
Picture by: World Bank Photo Collection, published under a creative commons license.