I couldn’t help but wonder: why has sex education been so contested throughout time?
“An American school board member wrote in 1986, ‘There’s an old saying that “there are only two things for certain in this world; death and taxes,” a third certainly might be added: disagreement about sex education” (Fiennes, 2019, p. 2).
From the Kama Sutra from 400BC – offering erotic advice for newlyweds, to the Christian church having defined when sex is appropriate, the conditions around it and our sexuality (ibid), it is safe to say that sex education, in its various forms is not a new phenomena. However, speaking about sex, particularly in schools, has not always been top of the priority list. If we are looking at the British, who are more culturally renowned for being prim and proper, rather than openly liberal like the Scandis for example (in 1959 Sweden was the first country in the world to have compulsory sex education), this is even more the case.
In the UK, sex ed in the First World War focussed on preventing STI transmission (Freetest.me, 2020), a period during which over 400,000 British men were admitted to hospital for STIs (Carlin, 2017). Unfortunately, the spread of STIs at the time was mainly placed on the shoulders of women, who were ‘unruly’ or sex workers (Fiennes, 2019). Much of these ideas contribute to the shaming of sexuality or sex positivity, and also create myths and stigma toward those who might transmit an STI (which definitely it is time to debunk, considering than a young person is diagnosed with an STI every 4 mins in the UK (PHE, 2018)). This was however, pre-COVID-19 – I expect these will be much lower at the moment.
Following changes to reproductive health services beginning in the 60s (see A Comprehensive History of Sexual Health), where contraception for unmarried women, legalised abortions and decriminalised homosexuality were being successfully campaigned for, sex education began to catch up.
Forwarding to the 80s with moral panic about a Danish sex education book that discussed gay couples, to making homosexuality illegal for local councils in the UK to promote (which only changed in 2003) (Sex Education Forum, 2020), it seemed the leaps and bounds made by those who were campaigning for better sexual health and education were cut short. However, following the HIV epidemic of the 80s (which in some places is still considered an epidemic), biological parts of sex education were properly introduced to curriculums (Freetest.me, 2020).
Backwards again, the Lib Dem – Conservative coalition in 2010 abolished statutory Sex and Relationships education, only for the Conservatives to do a U-Turn – this September (2020) will see the introduction of compulsory Sex and Relationships education for the first time, in both primary and secondary schools.
Considering the zig-zag of policy, policing identity, alongside real time shrinkage of sexual health services which often disproportionately affect marginalised communities, particularly black communities in the UK, it is evident that many have been and are left out of receiving adequate sex education.
Concerning recent events and supposed social awakening (many have expressed their dismay at it taking a global lockdown for the world to wake up to the realities of racism and police brutality), reproductive health is something that has been significantly highlighted. From experimentation on black women without their consent, to inequalities in contraception, STIs and even maternal mortality (black women in the UK are 5X more likely to die during childbirth), it imperative that sex-education going forwards incorporates anti-racist education aswell.
There are many benefits of a clear sex education, with sufficient evidence that the more you have had, the less likely you are to get pregnant, an STI, and will have first-time sex later on in life (rather than underage) etc.; all the things some are worried about in relation to sex education. To have the tools to be able to articulate yourself emotionally, physically and mentally is crucial. Determining healthy/unhealthy behaviours, having sex safely, with great communication, consent at the heart and learning how to and/or regularly orgasm are not demands that should be cast as unreasonable.
Next, I speak to women in my family: Mother (57), Big sister (33), Twin (23), Grandmother (81), to ask them about their sex education.
- What do you remember about your sex education?
- Mother: I remember getting a sort of basic biology class at school, it was just functions of reproduction really rather than anything comprehensive. My main sex education came from a book called ‘Our bodies ourselves’, which was written by an American feminist collective. It went through sex, ‘venereal’ diseases, childbirth, masturbation, sexuality, contraception, abortion, in a very pragmatic, open and liberal way. No judgement on being straight or monogamous.
- Big sister: I think I remember a banana on a condom. That’s about it, I remember lying about having sexual relations to a friend in a sex-ed class, must have been around 11; exaggerating the truth. Don’t remember having lots of them; there was a term rather than a whole year of it. Got taught about contraception and not getting STIs.
- Twin: I don’t remember it being very extensive. I don’t remember it a lot which I think shows the inefficacy of it. Did we even have any at secondary school – I have a good memory and have no recollection of it? I remember primary school, maybe the later years, learning about the minimum age you can have sex. I remember anatomy and biology. We didn’t speak about pleasure, consent, orgasms, the duration of sex, penis length, average sexual partners. The big takeaway message I guess from secondary school was about breaking your hymen, which was painful and using a condom every time.
- Grandmother: I remember three things. I had no clue when my mother was pregnant when I was 6 and half, and they didn’t tell us because my mother was slightly older. Then my big sister knew, but she knew it wasn’t to be talked about. My mother showed me a dictionary how babies develop in women. I remember starting my period when I was 12 or something, and my mother told me that was early. In sixth form when I was 16 or 17 we had a biology textbook that explained penises get erect.
- Was it any good?
- Mother: Yes and no. it didn’t cover any emotions; stuff, which I think is almost the most important part. But it covered the practical stuff. It didn’t cover consent, although I think having a feminist background I have always felt a sense of rights and autonomy toward my body through that structure.
- Big sister: No. I remember it was our tutors who would give us the classes, I remember not feeling at all connected to the teacher. I think we all felt we would have benefited from someone younger, maybe someone we felt was ‘cooler’, who we connected with more.
- Twin: no I think it was completely insufficient.
- Grandmother: no. I mean your sex education comes from friends, the wider world, its difficult to say. We knew there were things going on, although contraceptives weren’t really on the agenda. I remember a doctor not prescribing caps (a diaphragm form of contraception). I wouldn’t say it was good or bad, at some stage we learnt what we wanted to do.
- What could have made it better?
- Mother: I suppose having had someone to discuss stuff with openly, and to ask questions and address the things I was concerned about. Your age, how do you know you want to etc.? I do feel I had influence from the Danish values that meant I didn’t feel ashamed about sex.
- Big sister: Sex ed shouldn’t be too formal. Maybe talking about actual sex more, rather than prevention or the bad sides, and naturalising it more. I was also open and quite ready to have sex, so it didn’t bother me too much. It might have been interesting to see what the other girls who weren’t so open felt about it.
- Twin: I didn’t really understand what consent was to the point when I was raped in my adult life, I didn’t understand it as rape when it happened. I didn’t know that women have longer orgasms than men or can climax more times. I felt I was programmed, I was tailored to pander to the man’s experience of sex, so I might have had sex when I didn’t really want to; you have sex until the guy comes and that’s it. It’s very heteronormative, my sex ed did nothing to propagate freedom of sexual opinions or choice, or even speak about the difference between attraction and being stimulated, which don’t go hand in hand. I had no idea about the anatomy of the female body to the point where only until recently, I felt comfortable to speak about my vagina with the correct terminology, and I didn’t even know what the clitoris was until my late teens. I was afraid of masturbation because I felt like it was self-indulgent. Criminal – even something at school people got bullied for.
- Grandmother: sex was a taboo in my generation. I don’t think anybody had sex education. Schools didn’t provide it, although I did grow up in a provincial backwater. Girls got pregnant and it was always their fault. So it was common to assume that you keep your legs together. But there was a firm myth that if boys got away with it then girls might have been the ‘promiscuous’ ones. It would have been nice if it wasn’t a taboo.
- Where did you mainly learn about sex then?
- Mother: through this feminist book. Then I didn’t really learn about it until my adult years. I suppose it was something I just did, learning on the job. I don’t think I knew very much, and if I had known in my twenties about a whole pile of things, I would have had a different attitude toward sex and my body. My own pleasure didn’t come into it. As I’ve got older, there are more resources to find out things, I use Youtube, Google, as there are people out there to listen to who aren’t just talking about functions and biology, like Betty Dodson.
- Big sister: don’t know, I think you learn doing it really (laughing!). I think there might be something instinctual. I used to go to the Brook centre when I was 14. I went 2 weeks after my first time to Brook, I told mum that I’d had sex and I was on the pill, and I went there until I was too old to go (its a service for under 25s). They supported me so much throughout the years. I also went somewhere on Tottenham Court Road.
- Twin: I would actually say maybe through TV shows like Sex and the City, the rougher side of sex came to my attention from watching Girls, although I didn’t think it was that consensual. Most movies don’t show a realistic view of sex.
- I think sex education is lifelong, recent shows like Sex Education and Normal People normalise sex and make it more relatable – it’s safe, sometimes awkard, mutual and FUN. And obviously more recently my twin sister has been great, and a good friend who encouraged me to buy a vibrator.
- Grandmother: from experience. When I was in my early twenties I remember coming across books that explained relationships and sex, but that was on the other side of knowing it personally. I had never come across those books before, although I’m not sure if they would have interested me terribly.
- Is there anything you have changed your mind on concerning sex and relationships throughout time?
- Mother: there is tonnes I have changed my mind on. I have changed my mind on what kind of people I want to sleep with, why I want to sleep with them. I changed my mind on realising it is something I need to discuss, it is not just something natural that happens. Sharing and support is important. I have changed my mind on the possibility of what counts as sex. I’m a lot more open-minded and prepared to explore stuff. Attaching love and sex, I often tried to find love through sex rather than what I wanted, which was intimacy. I wish I had talked about it more. Also, being post-menopausal, I just think that women are so conditioned to think their sexuality is only valid when they are fertile. And the impact of the period cycle on your libido. I think if more women could see post-menopause at a time when their bodies come back into their own, having sex for the sheer ability of it. I was driven by something else steering, to be post-menopausal and to come through with flying colours, not resisting menopause and seeing it as a beginning rather than an end, to actually reclaim sex that is something about pleasure and sharing and closeness.
- Big sister: I think primarily my own pleasure is more important than it was. I’m aware of what I need to get to my own pleasure nowadays, more than I was when I was a teenager. I think I had squirting orgasms when I was a teenager but I didn’t know what they were. For me, because I’ve had a few long term relationships but in between those have had promiscuous moments, it doesn’t change definitively. If I ever became single again, I think I would feel more guarded about who I share my body with. I couldn’t imagine having one night stands now.
- Twin: I think now I view sex as more something to really, really enjoy rather than a rite of passage or centred around the other person emotions more than mine. I think the most crucial thing that’s changed for me is not to be afraid before and during sex and feel like you have to be this perfect version of yourself who doesn’t jiggle and wears sexy underwear or has time to shave their armpits. This should be whether you’re having sex casually or in a relationship and you are in a space to feel comfortable, sharing something that is so fun and social with another person. The bigger lesson for me over the past few years has been consent, and when or where to set your boundaries. Who cares about being ‘prudish’, ‘boring’, ‘not that sexual’ in a particular moment? It’s about your comfort.
- Grandmother: remember I grew up in a provincial place. We didn’t know homosexuality existed. A whole aspect of sexuality then we had no knowledge or experience. I certainly feel, I remember when your mum was not 4 yet, her nursery in Sweden introduced some form of sex education. I remember an Italian family withdrawing their child. I was quite, ‘ah’, things have changed. Sex has become much more out there, it was sort of hush hush for such a long time. Of course, I don’t want this to be the case. I remember children being shown to put a condom on a banana when I was working in Sheffield. I would find it quite difficult to talk about in front of a big group, maybe you need someone more detached. I’m not sure the taboo angle stops. You can uncondition yourself, but you can’t ignore its presence in your life. The roots of thinking might always be with you.
- What are your top recommendations for future young people to learn (particularly at school)?
- Mother: I would want them to learn about the emotional stuff. Connection between oxytocin and feeling in love with someone, how to not be a sex addict if you are hooked on your emotions. How to be respectful to your body. Choosing someone who really cares about you. Someone nice and cool, over someone hot and dangerous. Also to have somewhere people can speak about this whether its a friend, teacher, sexual health workers. Not just the clinic, somewhere in between. I wish I had had the verbal language, how to talk about it, ask each other what you want, a dialogue between sex, not the more ‘animal’ instinct I have experienced.
- Big sister: Sex is really fun, and it’s something you should really enjoy and know to hold respect around. Using contraception all the time should be taught as a golden rule. Sex shouldn’t be taboo, it should be something we can feel open about, it’s not a sin, not something to be hidden. If people are more open, people would have more access to information. Imagine how many girls might not have been coerced into situations to make someone ‘like’ them because they might not have had the education or confidence to understand things a bit more. The ramifications are huge. Sex is one simple act but it has so many implications on individuals and society. It is integral we keep it open. Why the fuck are we learning about animals in science but not sex education?!
- Twin: I think extracurricular TV shows should be given as compulsory homework, like Sex Education. If you’re ever getting with someone, make sure you have a friend who can offer advice and help you if there is anything you might need or want to talk about! It’s heartbreaking to find out just how many of your friends and family have been assaulted or raped, we also need to talk to each other more; don’t keep this to yourself. As awful as it is to have to drill into young people, it’s crucial for women, non-binary people and to a lesser extent, men, to know the laws regarding sexual violence, and what your rights are if you have been abused. Simply, just to understand please only have sex when you really really want to and you can’t stop yourself, because you’re so excited. That has to be mutual on both sides. I guess for men, I think there should be a greater education on focussing on female pleasure – this isn’t really in the news or represented in porn, and to think really carefully about contraception and protecting your own and your partners health, and knowing where your nearest clinic or pharmacy is where you can get condoms, pills and emergency contraception (especially if you’re travelling and having sex). YOU’RE never ever alone, always tell someone what you’re feeling and share the good, the bad and the ugly of sex. It should be celebrated, it’s not shameful. Don’t let other people silence your needs, fantasies or voice
- Grandmother: I mean the thing that struck me as a teacher was, I’ve just been watching Normal People, and I feel to some extent it has to include feelings, emotions, respect and concerns; this is something special. I remember when I was at uni in Brighton (I did a degree as a mature student) I overheard younger students discussing entitlements to having sex, rather than something more emotional. I would like to think there is something magic to it. I’m not sure how to teach respect all that well, but I think Normal People discussed it well – there is lust and respect, they weren’t that monogamous but it was there. For a long while, there was something section 28, where we weren’t meant to teach about homosexuality, and most people are on a spectrum of 100% of being heterosexual or homosexual. I think this is crucial to tackle today, where identity is more scrutinised.
And remember… Sex education doesn’t end at school. Stay curious, reading this blog and quizzing 🙂
- Sex: What Is Normal?
- The Anti-Black History Of Contraception · Daye
- The backlash against sex education in the UK will ultimately harm children
- The Quest for Inclusive Sex Ed in America
- Why Students Need Sex Education That’s Honest About Racism
- Doing It! with Hannah Witton: Bad Sex Ed vs No Sex Ed with Justin Hancock on Apple Podcasts
- Doing It! With Hannah Witton: Racism in Sexual and Reproductive Health with Dr Annabel Sowemimo
- Doing It! with Hannah Witton: The History of Vibrators, Virginity and Sex with Kate Lister
- Dr. Annabel Sowemi mo on Hannah Witton’s podcast
- Normal People
- Sex and the City
- Sex Education
- Slutever – On Demand – Alternative Sex Ed episode
- The Vagina Dispatches
- Why we need to change the way young men think about consent
Carlin, E. (2017). Sexual health – what happened 100 years ago was remarkable. Blogging 4 Bashh Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.bashh.org/news/blogging-4-bashh/sexual-health-what-happened-100-years-ago-was-remarkable/ 06/04/2020)
Fiennes, N. (2019). Behind Closed Doors : Sex Education Transformed. London: Pluto Press.
Freetest.me. (2020). Sex Education in the UK. Blog Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.freetest.me/blog/history-of-sex-ed 11/06/2020)
PHE. (2018). An STI is diagnosed in a young person every 4 minutes in England. News Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/an-sti-is-diagnosed-in-a-young-person-every-4-minutes-in-england 27/04/2020)
Sex Education Forum. (2020). Our history – 30 years of campaigning. About Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/about/our-history-30-years-campaigning 11/06/2020)