In a new poll by the Sex Education Forum, over 1,000 16-17 year olds were asked about their experiences of relationships and sex education (RSE).
Of those surveyed 90% felt they’d been taught everything they needed to know about bullying and 82% had been taught everything they needed to know about STIs, but as many as 30% of young people had never received any education about pleasure.
It is therefore no surprise that 39% of young people said they wanted a more sex positive approach to RSE that ‘stresses the positive side of sex and relationships’.
Something that we see a lot among girls and young women in schools is the shame they associate with their bodies. For example, when we teach young people about periods and explain that some period products are inserted into the vagina with a finger, they often they look at us as if we’re describing something truly disgusting and unthinkable.
During puberty lessons young people will learn about erections, ejaculation and wet dreams. Most boys, therefore, will have a reasonable understanding of what is happening to their bodies and what to expect when they feel aroused. Yet it is extremely rare that teachers will talk about the vagina at all outside periods, contraception and reproduction. At the appropriate age, we should be talking about what vaginal wetness is and what it means, we should also be challenging the stigma and shame associated with masturbation.
This is a gender imbalance in RSE that urgently needs to be addressed. We hoped that the new draft RSE guidance would be more forward thinking, positive and ambitious, but with no mention of sexual pleasure at all we’re concerned it’s not going to meet the needs of young people in the 21 Century.
The majority of school-based RSE has a strong focus on reproduction which immediately excludes whole groups of young people. When we talk about pleasure in RSE we should reinforce that sex is not just about penis in vagina sex but that there are lots of things people can do with their partners, or by themselves, that feel good. These conversations should be supported by highlighting the importance of communication, consent and personal / private boundaries.
Every day Brook sees hundreds of young people through our clinical services in local communities in England and Jersey. It’s not uncommon for us to meet young women in their 20s, who may even have children of their own, but who know so little about their bodies they might come to us thinking they have something wrong with them because they don’t know what healthy discharge looks like. Leaving young people with gaps in knowledge when it comes to RSE means that they are more likely to turn to unreliable, unrealistic and potentially damaging sources of information such as pornography.
Research published in the BMJ open shows that RSE is often taught by ‘poorly trained, embarrassed teachers’. Young people also criticised the way in which their education focussed on the ‘dangers of sex’ and ignored pleasure and desire, especially female pleasure.
We know through our professionals training that not only do many teachers find it uncomfortable to educate young people about female pleasure and orgasms but also some think it’s inappropriate. What people need to understand is that teaching young people about pleasure is a vital part of keeping them safe and healthy. Professionals need to be able to confidently support young people in distinguishing between healthy and harmful relationships, and empowering them to make positive choices.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child tells us that young people have a right to education which supports them to stay healthy. Where we have identified a need (either through a young person asking us a question or them having access to harmful information), it is therefore our responsibility to respond. The detail and depth of our response will depend on the individual circumstances of each young person.
Working to the rights of young people and responding to need is a much more comfortable position for teachers and provides a natural starting point for RSE.