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Lessons in Love: A Manifesto for better sex education

Netflix’s drama Sex Education is a model for what schools should be teaching

Sex Education Netflix Peter Tatchell

The huge success of the Netflix teen drama series, Sex Education, is partly fuelled by the poor quality of sex ed lessons in schools. Young people are fed up with prudish, vague and incomplete information from their teachers - and parents. So they are turning to the often explicit TV series to get answers.

During my recent school talks on human rights, more than half the pupils said they had watched Sex Education, mostly because their classes about sex were, in their words, “crap, boring and out-of-touch.” 

Little wonder that millions of young people are entering adulthood emotionally and sexually ill-prepared. Too many subsequently endure disordered relationships, ranging from unfulfilling to outright abusive.

The result? Much unhappiness - and sometimes mental and physical ill-health.

A lot of relationship and sex education (RSE) still concentrates on the biological facts of reproduction and on using a condom to prevent HIV. Relatively little teaching is actually about sex – or feelings and relationships.

It frequently starts too late; after many young people have become sexually active and adopted bad habits such as unsafe sex.

While RSE should not encourage early sex (it is best if young people wait), it should prepare them for a satisfying, safe sexual and emotional life.

Young people’s health and welfare must take priority over squeamishness and embarrassment about sex.

What, then, needs to change in order to make RSE more effective?

Young people’s health and welfare must take priority over squeamishness and embarrassment about sex. Political, religious and cultural sensitivities cannot be allowed to thwart mandatory age-appropriate RSE in every school, from the first year of primary education onwards.

Based on listening to young people’s own ideas during my talks in schools, it is time that RSE is revised radically, based on the following principles: 

Mandatory Lessons In Every School

Sex and relationships are a very important part of most adult’s lives. That’s why education about them should be a legal requirement in every school, including religious schools and schools outside the state sector. The aim should be to prepare young people for adult life by ensuring they are sexually and emotionally literate. RSE lessons should be at least monthly all throughout a child’s school life - not once a term or once a year. And the lessons should be LGBT+ inclusive.

Education From The First Year Of Primary School

RSE needs to be age-appropriate; starting from the first year of primary school by talking about love and relationships, including non-traditional families (single parent, extended and same-gender families).

It should also discuss the correct names for body parts, physical changes at puberty and, to tackle abuse, grooming and inappropriate touching, in order to teach children the difference between caring and exploitative behaviours.

Lessons should acknowledge the risks and dangers of sex, but from the age of 16 should also acknowledge the pleasures – and that sex is good for us.

One reason for starting young is that many children now begin puberty between the ages of eight and 12. Long beforehand, they need to know about the physical and hormonal changes they will undergo and the feelings and desires they will develop. Keeping them ignorant threatens their happiness and welfare.

Sex Is Good For You

RSE lessons should acknowledge the risks and dangers of sex, but from the age of 16 should also acknowledge the pleasures – and that sex is good for us. It is natural, wholesome, fun and (with safe sex) healthy. Quality sex can have a beneficial effect on our mental and physical well-being.

Young people have a right to know that sex is not essential for health and happiness. Some people are asexual. They get by without sex and that’s fine. However, pupils should know that most people find that regular, fulfilling sex lifts the spirit and enhances lives and relationships.

Overcoming Sex Shame To Tackle Abuse

Sexual guilt causes immense human misery - not just frustrated, unhappy sex lives but actual psychological and physical ill-health. It also helps sustain child abuse.

Adults who sexually exploit youngsters often get away with it because the victims feel embarrassed or guilty about sex and are therefore reluctant to report it.

RSE needs to encourage young people to have more open, positive attitudes towards sexual matters and to teach them how to accurately name their body parts, in order to effectively report abuse. Pupils who are knowledgeable about their bodies and feel at ease talking about sex are more likely to disclose abuse.

How To Have Sexual Fulfilment

Good sex isn’t obvious; it has to be learned. In the absence of sufficient practical information from parents and teachers on how to achieve shared sexual pleasure, many young people are turning to pornography, with its unrealistic and often degrading images. 

To ensure happier, more fulfilled relationships in adulthood, RSE for pupils aged 16-plus should include advice on how to achieve mutually-fulfilling, high quality sex; including the emotional and erotic value of foreplay; the multitude of erogenous zones and how to excite them; and methods to achieve pleasure for one’s self and one’s partner. This is particularly important for boys who often know little about female sexual anatomy and how to give a female partner fulfilment.

A positive ethical framework for sex can be summed up in three very simple principles: mutual consent, reciprocal respect and shared fulfilment.

Ethical Framework: Mutual Consent, Respect & Fulfilment

It is important that RSE acknowledges diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and relationships, while also giving teenagers guidance on their rights and responsibilities - including teaching about consent and abuse issues.

A positive ethical framework for sex can be summed up in three very simple principles: mutual consent, reciprocal respect and shared fulfilment.

The great advantage of these three principles is that they apply universally, regardless of whether people are married or single, monogamous or promiscuous or hetero, bisexual, homo, lesbian, trans or intersex.

Promoting Safer Alternatives: Oral Sex & Mutual Masturbation

If schools are serious about cutting the incidence of teen pregnancies, abortions and HIV and other sex infections, they should highlight to pupils aged 16 and older the various safer, healthier alternatives to vaginal and anal intercourse.

Oral sex and mutual masturbation, for example, carry no risk of conception and a much lower risk of HIV.

The most effective way to persuade teenagers to switch to these alternatives is by making them look and sound appealing, glamorous and sexy; explaining that they can be sexually fulfilling and emphasising their advantages over intercourse: no worries about unwanted conceptions, reduced HIV risk and no need to use the pill or condoms.

While mutual masturbation is safe, young people should be made aware that oral sex is safer than intercourse but not risk-free.

Lessons ought to also include the advice that if young people become sexually active it is recommended that that they get vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis.

Human sexuality embraces a glorious diversity of emotions and desires. We are all unique, with our own individual tastes.

Sexual Rights Are Human Rights

RSE should be based on, and espouse, the principle that it is a fundamental human right to love an adult person of any gender, to engage in any mutually consensual, harmless sexual act with them and to share a happy, healthy sex life. These are the sexual human rights of every person.

Hetero, Homo and Bi Are Equally Valid

When based on the three principles of mutual consent, respect and fulfilment between adults, all relationships with persons of any gender are equally morally valid.

While schools should not promote any particular sexual orientation, they should encourage understanding and acceptance of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual and pansexual orientations - and transgender and intersex identities. This is vital to ensure self-acceptance by pupils with such orientations or identities and to help combat prejudice, discrimination, bullying and hate crime.

The Right To Sexual Self-Determination

‘It’s my body and my right to control it’ should be promoted in every school to ensure that young people assert their right to determine what they, and others, do with their body - including the right to abstain from sex, say ‘no’ to sex and report sexual abusers.

This ethos of sexual self-determination is crucial to thwart people who attempt to pressure youngsters into unwanted sex, abusive relationships and risky sex.

Live & Let Live

Human sexuality embraces a glorious diversity of emotions and desires. We are all unique, with our own individual tastes. People are emotionally and sexually fulfilled in a huge variety of different ways.

Providing behaviour is consensual, between adults, where no one is harmed and the enjoyment is reciprocal, schools should adopt a non-judgemental ‘live and let live’ attitude.

Advice on internet safety

Widespread access to the internet and social media has exposed many young people to pornography, sexting and the risks of grooming, abuse and online harassment. These issues, and how to stay safe online, need to be a cornerstone of RSE lessons, so that teens can be aware of the dangers and protect themselves.  

Our desires and temperaments are not the same. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to sex, love and relationships.

Respect For Sexual Diversity

Our desires and temperaments are not the same. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to sex, love and relationships. If they fall within the ethical framework of adult mutual consent, respect and fulfilment, it is not the business of RSE to endorse sexual conformity or to neglect the reality of sexual diversity.

Give Pupils All The Facts

Sex education from the age of 16 ought to tell the whole truth about every kind of sex and relationship - including sexual practices that some people may find distasteful, like rimming and bondage.

The purpose of such frankness is not to encourage these practices but to help pupils deal with them if they encounter them in later life. This includes advising them of their right to refuse to participate in sexual practices that they dislike or object to.

Restricted Parental Opt Out

We don’t let parents take their kids out of science or history classes, so why should a parental opt out be permitted for RSE? Removing pupils from such lessons jeopardises their emotional, sexual and physical health.

Parents who want to withdraw their children should be required to come to each lesson and physically remove their child and then bring them back in good time for the next lesson. This way the parental opt out option is retained but the actual opt out rate is likely to be reduced.

Conclusion

Most young people say they want earlier, more detailed and frank RSE lessons. We should listen to their concerns and ensure that schools give them the information they need to protect themselves and their partners. Over to you, Education Secretary.

If you want to hear from leading thinkers like this debating renowned philosophers, cutting edge scientists, headline-making politicians, and beloved artists, come to HowTheLightGetsIn Hay 2020 for four days of debates and talks alongside music, comedy and parties.

Peter Tatchell will be debating Sexuality, Power and Pornography with Victoria Brooks, Kate Devlin and Sally Phillips.

 

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