I have undoubtedly become a bit bored with part of my job: sex education and persuading people it is a positive thing. I can still pull out a convincing and persuasive passion, but I do feel a little exhausted sometimes trying to buck a huge cultural trend. My little victories of persuasion feel like I am making the odd fish turn and swim upriver and while they might swim with strength at first after my push, many often weaken and just eventually go back with the flow.
Teaching the factual element of sex education is not rocket science. Helping people to 1) realise it is a good thing, and 2) feel comfortable enough to deliver it is a little more tricky. I wrote this leaflet for work to help cover part 1. I wrote it after a particularly frustrating conversation with an anti-sex education person!
Sex – we need to start talking about it!
The idea of children and young people learning about sex and relationships appears to cause a lot of anxiety in this country. The UK has a culture where talking about sex is stigmatised and causes shame and embarrassment. Many of our children and young people pick up a very strong message early in life that you just do not talk about sex or certain body parts – and definitely not with adults. This is because most adults won’t talk to them about sex (or even body parts) and become extremely and obviously uncomfortable if the topic is brought up. This inability to communicate about sex stays with our children as they grow up.
When it comes to sex, there are a lot of potential hazards teenagers can encounter. For example:
• Being pressurised into having sex
• Sexually transmitted infections
• Unplanned pregnancy
• Having sex they regret
• Having sex too early
To avoid any of these hazards, a young person would need to be able to talk about sex (for example: be able to suggest a condom). To be responsible about sex, a person needs to be able to talk about it. In countries like the Netherlands where people do talk openly, supportively and respectfully about sex, young people are far less likely to encounter these hazards.
Without trusted adults that are prepared to give them accurate information and help them develop positive and realistic expectations about sex, our young people are floundering around with absolutely no understanding of what sex should or should not be about.
We need to be realistic and understand that the vast majority of young people will have sex at some point. We therefore need to help our children and young people to start feeling more comfortable talking about sex if they are to go on and have positive experiences. This starts with us being brave and being prepared to start conversations
“Won’t talking about it encourage my child to experiment with sex?”Research shows this is certainly not the case. Children and young people who have never learnt about sex are more likely to ‘fall prey’ to negative sexual experiences.
“Won’t this taint my child’s innocence?”Parents/carers that have told their children how babies are made at a very young age would argue their children are no less innocent for having this information. This information is not harmful. Talking openly about sex early in a child’s life teaches them that adults are prepared to talk about it and that there are people they can turn to for help and support should they need it.
“Won’t this information worry my child?”Not if it is taught sensitively with lots of opportunities to ask questions. The way most people were taught in the past did sometimes leave them worried and confused!
“I don’t know what to say”There are lots of well-written books and leaflets that cover the topics of sex and the changes of puberty. These will help.
“I just get too embarrassed.”Start conversations while doing something else (e.g. washing up) so you can avoid eye contact. Once underway, you should find the conversation gets easier.
“It just feels wrong talking to kids about sex.”Nearly everyone has a strong reaction to talking about sex with children and young people. It’s cultural. The UK is not a nation that is generally comfortable talking about sex in an open and sensitive way. However this attitude is unhelpful as it has left our young people clueless about what a positive sexual experience would be and therefore vulnerable to negative experiences.
What our children are learning anyway (often with adults not knowing)......
Children and young people are bombarded with information from a variety of sources (for example: TV adverts, graffiti, shop displays/posters, the internet, computer games, pop video images, TV programmes, their school friends, older brothers and sisters etc) about sex, relationships and gender.
Some of the messages children receive from these sources are not accurate or realistic and in the absence of adults to help them process this information, they are often left confused or with ‘unhealthy’ ideas. The media, for example, can lead children to believe:
Everyone is having sex all the time.
Sex is only ever exciting, fun, easy and uncomplicated.
You do not need to be responsible about sex.
Sex is something that is everywhere, but you do not talk about it openly or sensitively.
What you look like is the most important thing about you and there are very narrow ideas about what is considered attractive.
To be a successful man, you have to have sex with lots of women.
To be a successful woman, you must look sexy.
Sex is something we cannot be serious about.
In the absence of adults prepared to talk about sex with children and young people, these messages become their SRE. One of the jobs of Sex and Relationships Education is to challenge these messages and give children and young people accurate and realistic information.
Have I persuaded you?