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17 February 2015

Why we urgently need compulsory sex education

By failing to make proper sex and relationships education statutory, the government is failing to protect children from bullying, exploitation, and abuse.

By Rhiannon Cosslett

If you’d told me 12 years ago that sex education in the United Kingdom would still be of the same lamentable standard that I experienced, I’d have struggled to believe you. The year I turned 15, my classmates were becoming single parents. Some were the sole custodians of a single bag of Tesco value flour with a face drawn on it and an ironic given name, provided to them as part of a “parenting” experiment conducted by the school. Others would be giving birth to a real life baby, later in the year, and would not come back to take their GCSEs. It was clear to everyone that the school’s efforts were too little, too late – not to mention anything but informative. We had learned a hell of lot more from late night episodes of Eurotrash, Sexcetera, and the free three-minute previews on the adult satellite channels, than we ever had at school (and most of those shows didn’t reveal even a scrap of flange).

Now that we’ve moved beyond the dial-up era and have bid farewell to the quirks of late Nineties sexual programming (there always seemed to be a lot of bondage), teenagers are much more likely to rely on internet porn for their information, something that has forced sex education campaigners to raise their voices. Thankfully, it appears that the message is finally getting through to government. Today the Education Select Committee released its inquiry report, which recommends that age appropriate sex and relationships education be made statutory subjects in both primary and secondary schools. Much like a drunken one night-stand, it has been a long time coming.

The campaign for better sex education has been beset by difficulties, not to mention that unique brand of British prudery that seems so alien to the more straight-talking, unflustered, “this is a penis, ja, it’s no big deal” European nations. As I wrote in an essay on the topic last year that chronicled British people’s cringe-worthy experiences of sex education, no politician wants to end up being publicly regarded as the Minister of Banana Condoms, so they avoid the issue as you would the clap. You’re also up against the “sex education is corrupting my four year old” crowd, who’ll run straight to the right wing media before you can even utter the words “special cuddle”. And that’s before you even get to the hard-line conservative educationalists, with their talk of “character grit and resilience” and their belief that PSHE (personal, social and health education) means children fannying around making posters when they should be memorising all the former colonies of the British Empire on pain of a good thrashing.

Yet when you consider that in 2013 a National Association of Head Teacher survey found that 88 per cent of parents think sex and relationships education should be compulsory in schools, and 81 per cent of National Union of Teachers members believe that PSHE should be a statutory subject, it’s astonishing that it’s taken this long for so many politicians to cotton on. Parents, teachers, and above all young people, know that proper sex education is a crucial part of a person’s development, especially when the only other narrative available shows a fully-shaven teenager being bummed by three rather angry-seeming men across a flat-pack desk. What’s brilliant about the report is that the committee recognises this. It has come to the eminently sensible conclusion that sex education is not just about furnishing children with information such as the different kinds of STDs or how a penis fits inside a vagina (although, crucially, it does recommend teaching children the proper terms for their own genitalia – the sooner “winky” and “flower” are banished from the earth, the better). It needs to do so much more than that.

Forget the mechanics, for a moment, and consider sex education as a safeguarding issue crucial to the wellbeing and protection of young people, particularly those who are vulnerable. The sexual exploitation of children in Rotherham and Greater Manchester have demonstrated just how urgent it is that we teach both boys and girls what a healthy relationship looks like, what constitutes abuse, and what the meaning of consent is. To not do so is not only to fail them, but, as the report states, impinges on their rights as human beings:

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Article 17 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that ‘children and young people have a right to information that is important to their health and wellbeing’. Article 29 also refers to encouraging children to “respect others”, and Article 34 requires governments to protect children ‘from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse’.

By failing to make proper sex and relationships education statutory, the government is failing to protect children from exploitation, abuse, domestic violence, cyber-bullying, homophobic and sexual bullying, and sexual violence. This may sound strong, but it is the best and most important argument we have in favour of statutory sex education. In the report, a school nurse reflects on how difficult it is to convince young women that they have been raped because they are not aware of the issues surrounding consent. A Girl Guiding survey is quoted as saying that as many as two-fifths girls believe it is acceptable for a partner to make you tell them where you are all the time. A fifth say it is acceptable for a partner to shout at you and call you names (21 per cent) or send photos or videos of you to friends without your permission (17 per cent). One in five said it is OK for a partner to tell you what you can and cannot wear.

Teachers, who will be properly trained should PSHE become compulsory, could have a transformative impact were they properly encouraged, by law, to talk to young people about these issues. Looking back at my own sex education, the flour babies and the putting on of the plastic condoms were the last thing we needed. What we needed was to be told that you didn’t have to let him put his hand in your knickers if you didn’t want him to, or that it wasn’t OK for him to call you a slut or jizz on your tits without permission. We needed to know where to get the morning after pill on a Sunday when there were no buses, and that just because you’d had one too many vodka red bulls, it still didn’t mean that you had said yes, and that, most importantly of all, it wasn’t your fault. We needed so much, so badly. We were crying out for it, and yet instead we were handed a pack of free johnnies and some leaflets about Aids and left to get on with it. They failed us, and some of us have suffered as adults as a result. Let’s not fail the next lot too.