The first of September 2020 saw the introduction of compulsory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in English schools, signalling a change in attitudes and shift towards more open discussions on topics previously considered taboo.
Before, some young people received no education in this area as it was seen as inappropriate or uncomfortable, but this legislation acknowledges the necessity of young people being informed.
What Is Relationship and Sex Education (RSE)?
Relationship and sex education covers a wide variety of topics including, but not limited to: puberty, menstruation, safe sex and contraceptives, portrayals of sex in the media, and healthy vs abusive relationships. Combined together, these topics ideally give young people a comprehensive understanding of how their bodies (and those of others) work on a biological and emotional level. This is essential so that young people then go on to interact with their own bodies, and those of others, in an appropriate and safe manner. It can also help to dispel existing myths about what a healthy relationship looks like, allowing people to make more informed decisions for themselves.
What happens if young people receive poor sex education?
An Ofsted report prior to this legislation change showed that many children of primary school age could not even name body parts, which is a safeguarding issue. This could lead to child sexual abuse going unidentified; reports from children using slang terminology could cause misunderstandings. This lack of education and understanding can lead to other severe consequences, with Phipps (2008) citing three of the main problems as STIs, unintended pregnancy, and sexual violence.
As well as sexual violence, general domestic abuse can become a problem for those who have not been made aware of the warning signs of unhealthy relationships. While new legislation introducing statutory RSE is a great step forward, there is a lot more work to be done to address issues and ensure that younger generations are knowledgeable about how to keep themselves and others safe in their relationships and sex lives, as some schools are still avoiding teaching certain aspects such as LGBTQ+ issues. COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation as it has given some schools an excuse to delay the delivery of their RSE curriculum.
While there needs to be focus on school-age children who are in a place where this learning can begin, the legislation can’t account for the generations of people before who didn’t get the benefit of learning these vital lessons. People who left school before this came into effect will likely remember awkward lessons that covered the absolute bare minimum, were saturated with religious messaging that urged people away from sex generally, or didn’t receive any sort of RSE, meaning they entered romantic and sexual relationships with little guide as to what is healthy and acceptable.
Education that promotes abstinence as the only acceptable form of contraception ignores the reality that many people will have sex regardless of being taught to abstain. If that is the only advice they have received, they will have no idea how to protect themselves from STIs or unwanted pregnancies. Research from the US has shown that emphasis on abstinence-based sex education positively correlates with increased teenage pregnancy and birth rates, even when accounting for other factors. This suggests that teaching abstinence as the only form of sex education is ineffective, and potentially even increases problems such as unplanned pregnancy.
The only way to remedy this is to provide comprehensive (and inclusive) education about safe sex and contraception which allows people to make informed decisions about the best way for them to avoid receiving and then transmitting STIs, and becoming pregnant before they are ready.
Years of ineffective and exclusionary sex education have certainly left their mark on society as a whole. Every child should receive an education that covers all types of gender and sexuality identity.
Exclusion of the LGBTQ+ community
Another prominent problem within school sex education (that still persists, even despite the recent legislation) is the exclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals, who often do not see themselves fully represented. This leads to confusion around how the heteronormative curriculum translates to them personally, increasing their risk of STIs and sexual violence.
For years (1988-2003), schools were specifically prohibited from discussing LGBTQ+ issues under ‘Section 28’, a law passed by Thatcher’s Conservative government. This ‘othering’ of these identities led to many LGBTQ+ young people being ruthlessly bullied in school as they were made to seem different and unusual, with teachers feeling physically unable to step in even, if they wanted to. Many LGBTQ+ adults who grew up during this time still feel the negative impact of their identity being quashed. The lack of healthy examples of LGBTQ+ relationships in any sex education that did occur meant that many people ended up in unhealthy situations that involved excessive drinking and inappropriate, and even abusive, relationships. This damage is further exacerbated by media erasure of LGBTQ+ relationships, as summed up by GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index, which are often either hidden or are tragedies with no happy ending.
How can we move forward?
While all of this sounds scary, and it may seem like people that have left school have missed out on this vital education, there are charities working to address these gaps. One of these is Fumble, an online ‘guide to sex’ which posts blogs and podcasts aiming to demystify topics surrounding relationships, sex, and even mental health. Having this resource allows young people who have left school (as well as those still there!) to re-educate and continue learning.
Years of ineffective and exclusionary sex education have certainly left their mark on society as a whole, and individuals who grew up with harmful messaging. However, there is still chance for future generations to have more guidance and be shown an inclusive and healthy education. Sex education in schools needs to have a stronger curriculum: one which allows no loopholes for individual institutions to skip subjects they dislike. Every child should receive an education that covers all types of gender and sexuality identity, and one that addresses emergent issues brought up by the world becoming increasingly digital. This is the surest way to end discrimination against those who don’t fall under traditional norms of relationships and lifestyles, and protect young people from consequences of not understanding sex and relationships.