To this day, I still don’t understand how tampons really work, even though part of my sex education at my Sheffield school consisted of a teacher popping a tampon into a mug of water and having all the girls watch how it expanded and moved. All whilst the boys were learning about wet dreams in the classroom opposite. Sex education and health at my primary school was heavily focused on the biological side of things, which makes sense when you’re a child. However, the minimal and limited sex education I had when I was a teenager was honestly no different.
My school didn’t exactly promote abstinence when teaching sex education, not actively anyway, but there were definitely the undertones of abstinence to the lessons being taught. We looked through blown up images of STDs and watched videos that showed the ‘negative’ consequences of sex, i.e getting pregnant. The majority of my sex education was focused on unprotected sex and pregnancy, but without being taught anything on contraception or how young people could practice safe sex. Like many others, I was left with gaping holes in my knowledge that were only filled with whispered conversations between friends and the internet.
And I’m not alone in this. Anna*, 24, also had very limited sex education at her Hampshire school. “We never talked about other forms of contraception and never did the condom-on-a-banana thing, which I really think should be the absolute bare minimum,” she explained. This lack of sex education had very real consequences for Anna when it came to her first sexual experience. When she slept with her first boyfriend, neither of them knew how to put the condom on properly, and in the process, it came off. “The next day I was panicking, and my friends and I guessed that maybe I could get the morning after pill from the school nurse, or she’d at least tell me where I could get it.” However, the visit to the school nurse instead resulted in the nurse telling Anna that, as she was underage, she legally had to call her parents. A situation that likely would have been avoided with the most basic of education.
Aside from a half-hour talk from the school nurse, 24-year-old Beth also received little to no sex education during her school days in Chester. She does remember being shown an ‘educational video’ during sixth form tutorial time, where a teenage girl gets drunk at a party, has sex with a boy, and then can’t remember if she consented the next day. “The entire thing was framed as ‘don’t get so drunk you can’t remember if you consented or not’, and the rest of the lesson consisted of ‘debate’ as to whether the girl had acted foolishly or not,” says Beth. She raised concerns about the framing of the discussion to both the teacher and the class, but she was simply seen as overreacting.
32-year-old Yousra’s sex education in London began at the age of 15 and mostly consisted of an explanation of how the male and female reproductive organs work, with a brief mention of STDs. But even this biologically-focused education was a struggle to listen to, as the boys in her class were constantly making jokes and crude noises. And like for so many of us, there was no mention of the psychological or emotional side to sex. “No one spoke about contraception, the feelings that might be involved in sex, or the importance of consent. It was all just very technical,” Yousra explains.
Some schools went even further in their teaching of abstinence and prescribed gender norms. Tatyannah, 25, attended a Christian school in Durham that split up girls and boys when it came to the teaching of sex education. Splitting up classes along (binary) gender lines wasn’t a unique situation, as my sex education was also delivered to the girls and boys in the class separately. And many of the people I spoke to also described a similar set up. However, in Tatyannah’s case, the girls received a drastically different lesson to what the boys were taught. “We received a talk about how to dress modestly and remain pure for our future husbands. We didn’t learn anything practical about sex that teenagers should know, like puberty, consent, or birth control,” she says. Curious to know about what the boys were taught, Tatyannah and the girls in the class asked them what their sex education was like. “The boys told us that they had a more open-minded lesson and talked more practically about sex than we did, without the focus on purity. They also said they were given more of a space to ask genuine questions they had about how sex.”
In 30-year-old Becky’s case, her Isle of Wight school had the idea that they would get their sixth form students to teach younger students sex education, and Becky was one of these sixth formers. “We had hideous scripts to learn, which included role play with the students so they could practice saying ‘no’ three times before removing themselves from the situation. This, they believed, was how to turn down sexual advances and practice safe sex,” she explains. These were sixth form students who hadn’t themselves received a good sex education, but were expected to teach younger students about the very topic, as well as field any questions they had. There’s one question that has stayed with Becky all these years. “One I’ll never forget is, ‘If I masturbate in the bath and my mum goes in after me, could she get pregnant?’”
There are likely countless more stories just like these which have formed the basis of so many sexual experiences and relationships. A lack of good sex education – or any sex education at all – can warp how young people, especially young girls, perceive sex and relationships. Teaching young women that they shouldn’t drink too much or dress too provocatively so that they can avoid being harmed just adds to the prevalent and dangerous rape culture we have in our society. It’s telling young men that if you find a woman in this type of situation, then you can assume that consent is implied, when that’s absolutely not the case. Understanding misogyny and sexual violence begins at school. When young people are only taught the biological component of sex education, with abstinence running through this teaching, then we’re failing to teach young people about the bare essentials.
And this is what the recent campaign, Everyone’s Invited, is attempting to shed more light on. Founded by Soma Sara in June 2020, Everyone’s Invited aims to provide a safe space for survivors to share their experiences of sexual assault and harrasment, as well as exposing the pervasive rape culture in schools and universities. Since 8th March 2021, over 51,000 anonymous testimonies have been submitted and shared on Everyone’s Invited, with the Metropolitan Police even receiving a number of reports as a result of the testimonies being shared. The schools mentioned in the Everyone’s Invited testimonies have now also been released to continue exposing the rape culture that’s embedded in our education system. A comprehensive sex education may not eradicate rape culture overnight, but it could go a long way in teaching young people about consensual sex and healthy relationships.
There has been some changes to the curriculum when it comes to relationships and sex education (RSE). In 2019, RSE was to be made compulsory in all secondary schools, and relationships education in primary schools, in September 2020, but this has now been extended to September 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The new curriculum on RSE incorporates topics such as: the importance of social media, online pornography, sexting, grooming, and the changes in attitudes towards gender and sexuality. And in light of the recent Ofsted review into sexual abuse in schools, published in June 2021, which found that sexual harassment has become normalised in schools – these changes to the RSE curriculum are clearly desperately needed.
However, as much as these changes have been welcomed by those campaigning for better RSE in schools, these changes are only the foundation. “There are still huge gaps in the curriculum: there is no mention of pleasure whatsoever and the guidance states to teach about the LGBTQIA+ community ‘when appropriate’. This leaves far too much responsibility on schools, and results in inconsistent learning,” explains a spokesperson from Split Banana, an organisation that works with young people and schools to deliver a deeper knowledge of RSE.
Lewis Ruddock, Externals and Press Director of Sexpression:UK, a near-peer independent charity that aims to empower young people by running informal RSE in the community, also believes there is more to be done. “Although the legislation has passed, it’s vital that schools and teachers are well equipped to deliver such education so young people can benefit from the new curriculum as much as possible.” He also explains that sex education needs to follow a spiral curriculum, where key concepts such as consent are introduced at a young age and revisited and built upon throughout the school journey. “Knowledge and comprehension is not gained through one-off teaching sessions, yet it is often the case that relationships and sex education is delivered through one-offs.”
It’s vital we equip all young people with a full and comprehensive sex education that will give them the knowledge and tools to navigate through different life situations and understand boundaries. As Split Banana explains, “Great RSE transforms lives. Learning about bodies, genders, sexual orientations, how to build intimacy – this is all stuff that intersects with our adult lives on a daily basis. We need to be teaching every young person a full sex education and the importance of boundaries.”
*Some names have been changed.