Sex education in this country is failing, portraying girls as ‘passive’ and boys as ‘predatory’

Students want more ‘sex positive’ and modern approach

Young people find school sex education negative, heterosexist, and out of touch, a new study has found. Many students who took part in the study felt sex education was delivered too late, and taught by poorly trained, embarrassed teachers.

Participants, aged between 12 and 18, also criticised the overly ‘scientific’ approach to sex, which ignored pleasure and desire, and they felt that sex was often presented as a ‘problem’ to be managed. Stereotyping was also common, with women depicted as passive, men as predatory, and little or no discussion of gay, bisexual, or transgender sex.

The research, published in the online journal BMJ Open, was based on 55 qualitative studies done between 1990 and 2015. They explored the views and experiences of young people who had been taught sex and relationship education (SRE) in school based programmes in the UK, Ireland, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Iran, Brazil and Sweden.

And, despite the wide geographical reach of the studies, young people’s views were remarkably consistent. Researchers believe that schools’ failure to improve sex education is doing a huge disservice to young people, and missing a key opportunity to improve their sexual health.

Another challenge raised by students suggested that in mixed sex classes young men feared humiliation if they weren’t sexually experienced and said they were often disruptive to mask their anxieties; their female class mates felt harassed and judged by them.

Schools are also struggling to accept that students are sexually active, leading to content that is out of touch with the reality of many young people’s lives. An emphasis on abstinence and failure to deliver helpful and practical information, such as the availability of contraception, is also leaving students uninformed.

Young people also disliked having their teachers deliver SRE, not only because they felt teachers were poorly trained and too embarrassed, but also because of the potential for this arrangement to disrupt teacher-pupil relationships and breach boundaries.

Students themselves are keen for SRE to be taught, but using a ‘sex positive’ approach, working towards them enjoying their sexuality in a way that is safe, consensual, and healthy.

Lead author Dr Pandora Pound, of Bristol University, said: “Schools should acknowledge that sex is a special subject with unique challenges, as well as the fact and range of young people’s sexual activity.

“Otherwise they will continue to disengage from SRE, and opportunities for safeguarding and improving their sexual health will be reduced.”