Over a year on from attending a parliamentary briefing in Westminster on Sex and Relationships education where I represented young people, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced that sex education will be compulsory in schools. This was unexpected but unbelievably exciting. But, yes – there is a but and it’s a big one, the way the government will do this is still unknown. I can’t stress just how important it is to get this right. So here’s my story.
I’m 19 now and I still find myself answering basic sex education questions for my peers on a somewhat fairly regular basis. Why? Because they didn’t have the education they so rightly wanted and needed.
I was lucky compared to some. I had various levels of sex education from year 5 through to year 13. However, this wasn’t enough to help me make informed choices.
The only home sex education I received was brief and slightly terrifying. One evening, when I was 8 years old, my mother sat me down to talk to me about periods so I’d know what they were and wouldn’t think I was dying. The prospect of bleeding out of my ‘front bottom’ every single month seemed like the worst thing in the world. I didn’t understand what periods would really be like and wasn’t looking forward to starting them. They’re not exactly a walk in the park now. They feel like someone’s ripping out my intestines whilst hitting me on the head with a bus (please note: effects may vary). Yet despite this, they are manageable and at least I know I’m not dying.
I vaguely remember sex education in primary school. We were shown a cartoon of a naked man and woman frolicking about having a pillow fight which led to them jumping under the sheets to do the mysterious thing called sexual intercourse which magically made a baby. The lesson didn’t really make much sense to me. I lacked any prior understanding of the vocabulary used. For all I knew we were watching a species of tadpole called ‘A Sperm’ disappearing into a chicken’s egg.
Secondary school sex education was different and varied. In year 7 I received fairly well structured, age appropriate, and fun sex education. The lesson was on puberty. It came at perfect timing for me. We were given a blank outline of a body and told to add the changes girls would see throughout puberty. My group went all out, drawing hair everywhere, period blood with a red marker pen, and the biggest boobs you’ve ever seen. For once we were given the freedom to talk about the sticky outy, wobbly, and insidey parts of our bodies that were so hushed up and frowned upon normally.
Fast forward a couple of years to scaremongering young people away from sex. We were shown extreme, unusual cases of STI’s. Oh yes, my school did this. I’ve never seen a room of 14ish year olds look so horrified. It was very mean girls.
How we were expected to make educated and informed decisions about our bodies based on those photos, I’ve got no idea. Personally, I don’t believe that lesson put a stop to unsafe sex. All I feel it did was lessen the chances of us visiting a sexual health clinic out of fear of having a disease as gruesome as the images we were shown. Abstinence sex education does not work, just check out America.
STI’s were the main theme again a year later. For once it seemed like a proper scheme of work was being followed. Shropshire county council’s Respect Yourself was devised to ensure that young people are given good quality sex education.
I experienced flaws in the programme’s delivery. Our teacher spent the lesson reading off pieces of paper. She had no idea what she was talking about and was unable to identify STI’s from the descriptions on the work sheet she had provided us with. My friends and I knew more about STI’s than the teacher and it was obvious. This was a very significant moment in my life. My personal interest and care about serious need for improvement in sex education had begun.
But at that point in time my main concern was myself and those around me. My friends and I had come across an American sex positive YouTuber named Laci Green. She became my idol. Her videos were straight talking, honest, and provided us with the information we weren’t receiving at school or home. Oh how we wished our sex education lessons were taught by her. The videos revolutionised our understanding of sex education. It was the ultimate finding. I know that we were the lucky ones, not all young people strike such gold when turning to self-education via the internet.
In my final year we did the classic condom demonstration. – Yes, how to put a condom onto veiny, purple model penises. A step up from the more traditional banana. But there were ground rules seemingly set out to ensure we would not enjoy the lessons:
- No laughing.
- No whispering.
- No joking around.
I understand where they were coming from, but we were still kids and the language used had an impact on the way we viewed the lessons and our attitudes and effort towards learning. Even as adults purple plastic penises are funny. So when there’s 14 of them being wielded in a classroom by unruly teenagers it’s quite a scene. So why was it so wrong to giggle at them? or enjoy ourselves whilst learning important life skills? Which leads me to my next point of being which way inclined. At the time I was only interested in girls, whilst putting on a condom was previously and currently relevant to me, at the time I felt uncomfortable and upset that no alternative was given. Dental dams weren’t even mentioned at all, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people reading this who have no idea what I’m talking about. My friends and I repeatedly asked we would be informed of anything more sexually diverse. Each week we were met with awkwardness a snappy answer that lesson four was on sexual diversity.
Lesson four never happened.
My own experience taught me a lot about what I believe should be done to improve sex education in Britain. A statutory national curriculum being the most important thing, because along with that would (hopefully!) come properly trained teachers who want to be teaching that subject, regular lessons, and hopefully inclusive education that young people have the right to receive.
Artwork by Sally. Find out more here