What do young adults really want from Sex & Relationship Education? By Yas Necati
We have a bit of a ridiculous problem. Sex and Relationships Education in the UK is appalling. I remember lesson after lesson focusing on the biology of sexual intercourse, telling us girls not to get pregnant and warning us about the horrors of STIs. The stuff about STIs was perhaps the most important part, the bit about intercourse basically failed to acknowledge any relationship that wasn’t heterosexual, and the bit about getting pregnant… I mean, of course young people should know about how babies are made and forms of contraception, but shouldn’t the focus be on how to avoid getting pregnant if you don’t want to, not telling people they shouldn’t get pregnant until they’re married?
I’m not saying that our current curriculum is completely useless, or that we should stop teaching about biology, STIs and pregnancy. I’m just concerned that we call it Sex and Relationships Education. SRE. But we seem to be forgetting the R.
I’ve been campaigning since I left school for better SRE. I feel that it’s vital that we talk about relationships and the social side of sex, because, after all, it isn’t just biology. When it comes to real life, there are emotions involved, interactions that mean something beyond simply science. Sex is a human experience, and our current curriculum seems to forget that. In January last year, thanks to a campaign I ran alongside Telegraph WonderWoman, new guidelines were written to include the dangers of Internet ponography and sexting, and information about violence against women and girls. I am proud that I was a part of that campaign, but now it’s time to take the next steps.
So, what would an improved SRE curriculum look like? If I could make 5 changes to the current curriculum, they would look something like this:
1. Consent. In England and Wales one in five women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime and over 85 000 women are raped every year. Moreover, young people are the group at the highest risk of partner violence. This isn’t to say that sexual assault toward men doesn’t happen, but that assault is overwhelmingly gender-based. From FGM to forced marriage to groping to rape, women are at the highest risk. Walking down the corridors at school, I would hear 3 rape jokes a day. Girls would be groped in classrooms. Boys would be under immense pressure to have sex. The gender roles in our society – that are reinforced more than ever through Internet porn and new, overly-sexualised and unhealthy media such as Blurred Lines and 50 Shades of Grey – play a huge part in forcing the idea that men should be dominant and women submissive. This has a negative effect for all genders, particularly women and minority genders, who often become the victims of dominant relationships. We need to start basic – just by teaching the concept of consent. This can start from primary school level with lessons as simple as “If someone touches you and makes you feel uncomfortable that isn’t okay.” If we instill this from a young age, hopefully we can create a society where people stop blaming women for being assaulted, and start realising that it is never okay to touch anyone without their enthusiastic permission.
2. Gender Identity. From early on, we’re told that boys wear blue and girls wear pink. That boys have short hair, girls have long hair. That boys play with guns and girls play with dolls. That boys should never cry. That girls should want to look pretty. We are fed messages about what each gender should be, and it’s unhealthy, not only for reasons stated above about gender roles causing harm to others, but also because the emphasis on fitting into a box with a label can really damage our own lives also. I know, for example, that young kids always, always assume that I’m male because I have short hair, wear baggy clothes and read comic books. Even when I explain to them that I identify as female, they find it hard to grasp.
We are teaching our children that gender is something rigid, when actually it’s very flexible. For gender non-conforming and trans youth, there is nothing for them in education.
Teaching about relationships should include our relationships with our own bodies and minds. That starts with moving away from binary gender ideals and teaching that your gender is whatever you feel it is. Similarly, someone else’s gender is not defined by their haircut, but is whatever they tell you it is.
3. Sexual Orientation. Here I have a flashback to watching a heterosexual couple having sexual intercourse on an old video whilst everyone in the class tried not to snigger. If you go by SRE lessons taught in schools at the moment, you’d be under the impression that gay relationships don’t exist. You’d find it near impossible to grasp the concept of pansexuality. And you’d think that asexuality wasn’t a real thing. Queer youth are being treated like second-class citizens, like anomalies. We drastically need a shift towards a curriculum that is inclusive of all types of sexual relationships, regardless of gender. This is important for queer people and for anyone who is non-queer, because until we start accepting all relationships as valid (and real), we will live in a bullying, exclusionary and unequal society.
4. Sexuality. This is the part where we talk about feelings. Sexual orientation (who a person is attracted to) is just one part of sexuality. It is all about what an individual does and doesn’t enjoy sexually. This includes pleasure, masturbation, sexual activity and relationships over time. A common theme amongst young people is a fear to be in sexual relationships and fear to have sex. This isn’t uncommon and in order to tackle it, schools need to out this fear, and openly discuss it. Relationships can be both terrifying and beautiful. Contrary to what schools currently teach, they are not about boy meets girl, gets married and they have kids. Relationships should be whatever the individuals involved feel comfortable with.
We need to empower young people to explore their own sexualities, know what they do and don’t want, and therefore feel safe and ready for their own relationships with others and themselves, sexual or non-sexual.
5. Statutory. All of this is vital, but none of it will have an effect if SRE isn’t statutory. In order to really benefit young people, we need to make sure that every young person, everywhere receives the same, good quality, Sex and Relationships Education. That way, we give all young people the tools they need to navigate sex and relationships and the information they need to feel confident about their futures. Everyone should receive an equal and fair education. This is our right.
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