Relationships and sex education: 'What I wish I had learned about sex'


From September 2019 relationships and sex education (RSE) will be a statutory requirement for all schools in England. Young people and adults share their experiences and hopes for a new curriculum.

Council View: Why we need to update relationships and sex education

By Alice Cruttwell, Public Health Curriculum Adviser, children and young people's team, Shropshire Council

It may seem old-fashioned and from another era, yet ignorance, confusion and embarrassment surrounding relationships and sex is still with us.

I have worked in health education for the last 35 years, as a youth worker, local authority adviser and regional and national strategic lead. Most recently I have been involved in developing the Shropshire Public Health PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) programme, which includes the award-winning relationship and sex education curriculum for years 1 to 11.

While piloting and supporting implementation of the programme I have delivered hundreds of lessons, worked with teachers from 150 schools, discussed issues with thousands of parents and consulted young people on their experiences and views. 

I have heard everything from the head teacher who recalled being terrified and alone, sobbing behind the locked toilet door when her periods started, thinking she was dying. The female teachers who thought they urinated from the vagina until they were at college. The male teachers worried they would be accused of inappropriate language or worse if they used proper words for sexual and reproductive body parts.

Parents shared a wide variety of names and terms used for body parts and functions, recognising how this had created ignorance, embarrassment and secrecy that remained with them to this day. Some admitted that they thought they would be criticised by other parents if they used the "dirty" words penis and vagina and explained how a baby was made and born.

One parent described the session as a "Santa Claus moment", saying she now understood the role RSE had in keeping children safe and building their self-confidence and that good RSE did not "take away or destroy innocence". By the end of the session, she, along with other parents, wanted her children and grandchildren to have factually accurate and biologically correct words and explanations.
 
We laughed as we shared the "found under a gooseberry bush" and "the stork brought you" mythologies of our own past but soon realised that this has been updated to  "I found you on Ebay" or "brought you from the shop'. One child had been told "your mother sicked you up" and another "she pooed you out".

The "Heads or Tails?" survey published in 2016 by the Sex Education Forum showed the majority of parents and professionals are in favour of relationships and sex education. The parents I spoke to were concerned it was age appropriate and "not too much too soon" or about "teaching the Karma Sutra to five-year-olds" but based on questions children asked and national and local evidence on how to keep their children safe. They welcomed the Shropshire approach, which supports a whole-school approach and partnership with parents.

The young people consulted as part of developing the Shropshire RSE programme shared their experiences of "the puberty talk", delivered at the end of year 6 or in year 7. For some it was a one-off talk delivered by an outside "expert" speaker while others had received peer-led lessons. One pupil described an off timetable day as "crammed with all sorts that the teachers didn't want to talk about".

Most vivid and common were the recollections of excruciating lessons delivered by a well meaning, but red-faced teacher stumbled through a toe curling condom demonstration with a carrot or banana.

These practices should be a thing of the past, but there is still a long way to go until all schools have skilled, confident, trained teachers and sufficient preparation and delivery time is allocated to the RSE as part of a planned PSHE curriculum.
 
Support from parents' and children's organisations as well as teachers unions and health professionals informed the government decision to make RSE statutory from September 2019 for all schools in England. The Sex Education Forum has developed 12 key principles for good quality RSE, which echoes the good practice charter developed by young people in Shropshire and is a good place to start.

In Shropshire, as part of the PSHE Young Inspectors Scheme we have held a number of focus groups enabling sixth form students to reflect on their experiences and recommendations for improving RSE and PSHE in schools. In Shropshire we have a vision of entitlement for all children and young people to receive good quality RSE as part of the PSHE curriculum. All our work is evidence based and informed by young people.

  • Shropshire Council's Children and Young People's Team won the CYP Now PSHE Education Award 2017

 

MILLY, 18
My once yearly sex education at my girls' grammar school was - and still is - pretty terrible. A lack of funding, resources and a whole load of embarrassment from the school administration has contributed over the years to a huge amount of misinformation and often a total lack of anything RSE-related. Statements such as "I thought that you didn't get a vagina until you were five" and "men can't be raped" are rife in our sixth form as girls try to navigate the world of relationships and sex with their only sex educators being each other. With abortion being taught in religious studies classes, attempts to bring in homophobic speakers to teach about relationships, no condoms ever being put on bananas and people being bribed to have chlamydia tests in return for free sperm pens (even if they'd never had sex), it worries me that another 150 young women are about to head into the worlds of university and work without knowing about their bodies or where to go for help.

The new relationships and sex education curriculum is a chance to turn this around.

To me, it is absolutely crucial that the new curriculum is inclusive of every child and goes beyond simply saying "it's okay to be gay" or mentioning the existence of trans people. Young people deserve quality, comprehensive education which is right for every individual, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, culture, disability or any other part of what makes us unique. I want sex education to be sex positive and avoid the scaremongering that is (non-consensually) showing us gruesome pictures of diseased genitals. Timing is also critical; RSE should start young by teaching children about respect and consensual touching through things like asking for hugs and NSPCC's PANTS rule and we should be taught about periods long before we start them. Our health should be a priority, raising awareness of gynaecological and prostate cancers, regular sexual health screening and the effects relationships and sex can have on mental health.

Giving parents and carers the tools to continue conversations in the home is key to providing a holistic approach to sex education. I'm definitely one of the lucky ones. My parents have always reaffirmed my bodily autonomy and ability to say "no", making me able to make the right decisions for myself and support those around me. But, at the moment, for many young people RSE isn't happening at school or at home, leaving them to turn to the internet for answers. It is important that both students and teachers are made to feel comfortable when discussing sex and relationships. Outside educators are ideal, but there certainly aren't enough to go around and schools don't have the funding to bring them in. But should relationships and sex education be the job of the brilliant charities who are already stretched beyond capacity?
Sex education is genuinely a life saving and life changing part of education and we've finally been given the opportunity to make it something brilliant - so we'll see what happens in 2019.

 

RICHARD, 32
When I was at school they taught me the basics in sex education. Things like how not to get someone pregnant and safe sex. But that was it. There wasn't enough detail about it and things that are important to learn, like how to build relationships and different types of relationship were left out.

I didn't learn what same sex relationships were until I was older. Before then, I thought they must be wrong, because I'd only been told about male and female relationships and couples at school.

I learned about same sex relationships after watching EastEnders, I learned what porn was through my friends and I found out about consent after watching the news. That is not the right way for people to learn about such big things. As someone with a learning disability, it takes me time to process and understand things. I need to ask questions and talk about it; you can't do that by watching TV.

Not giving people this information is not right. If you don't talk about it and give people all the information when they are at school, then you don't know how they will find out. These are things that are too big to risk people not understanding.

Sometimes people can be too careful about talking about sex and relationships around people with a learning disability. When I was at school I felt like people were trying to not make things too graphic and hiding things from me.

But people with a learning disability will have relationships like anyone else. We'll have sex and want to find love, like everybody does. By not giving us this information and skills, you're putting those relationships at risk.

I hope schools start to make sure that all pupils get full sex education. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and understand. Sex education needs to explains types of relationship and sexuality and be open and accessible to everyone.

  • Richard Lawrence is a campaigner for learning disability charity Mencap www.mencap.org.uk

 

DAVID EVANS, 61
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex...But Were Afraid to Ask - that was the name of the book I bought secretly, in a plain brown paper bag, from a second-hand book store, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I learned more from that book, not just about sex and relationships, but about me, too, and why the boys kept calling me a "queer" - than anything we ever learned from the teachers in "sex ed" at school.

That might have been a long time ago, but it's as fresh in my mind today as though it happened quite recently. The reason why I remember it so well is that I now teach hundreds of young people each year - on sex, sexualities and sexual health - at university.  Many, but not all, of the students are around 18 when I first get to meet them and recently out of school.

I usually start off my sessions, whether to small groups of students or 150 to 200 at a time, by asking them about their knowledge and experience of sex and relationship education (or relationship and sex education, as it is now being called).  My heart sinks as the majority of them tell me things are very little different in many schools today, as when I was in school myself.

Recently, I was teaching a class of around 200 18- to 19-year-olds on HIV matters. I started off by exploring what they knew on HIV. They hardly knew anything at all, and all said that the silence in school implied HIV had gone away.  They were shocked to learn the UK has its highest ever numbers of people living with the virus.  Equally, they didn't have a clue about all the new treatments and therapies and that condoms can prevent more than unwanted pregnancies.

I started asking for famous people associated with HIV, to see if that would jog their memories. I listed a few myself, such as Freddie Mercury, Liberace and finally asked: "What about Princess Diana?" thinking of all the amazing work she did to reduce stigma around HIV. That's when I over-heard one young person in the front row exclaim: "Princess Diana?  She didn't die of AIDS, did she?"

Relationships and Sex Education for the 21st century? It's got a lot of catching up to do!

DEMI, 16
We started to have sex education in year 6 at primary school. It focused on puberty and how the body develops rather than relationships. We didn't talk about actual sex. At this age I was learning about sex from TV shows.

At secondary school I don't think we were taught about RSE soon enough. We were shown a power point in our tutor groups, mostly about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and safe sex, and we had an assembly about contraception. I remember one class where they had lots of cups filled with different coloured liquids. They mixed them up to show how different people meeting at a party and having sex or kissing led to getting an STI. That was clever. It's stuck with me and will influence my actions when I'm older.

We weren't taught much about healthy relationships or sexual exploitation. A drama group did come into school in year 8 and perform a play about sexual exploitation once. It was good but that was it. Workshops on the topic would have been good to have backed this up and given us chance to talk about the issues raised.

The emotions involved in a relationship weren't covered, it was more about the biology. A lot of teachers said "I have to go through the power point now" and seemed embarrassed. The boys would mess around and were rowdy. The boys learned about parts of their body and the girls were taught about their reproductive organs. It would have been useful to have been taught about each other's bodies. I didn't mind asking questions but I know a lot of kids were embarrassed and wouldn't. I got most of my information about sex from talking to friends, from TV and the internet.

In year 10, we had something called Pride (Perseverance, Respect, Initiative, Direction, Expression) lessons where some teachers covered bits about sex. It was only ever about heterosexual relationships though, nothing on same sex.

We did hardly anything on consent. We watched "the tea video" once and that was it. It causes a lot of confusion. I don't think there was enough work done on that topic.

I think organisations like Barnardo's are best placed to talk to kids about RSE. They aren't afraid to tell the truth and have the time to listen to you.

Overall, the sex education we had was too little too late. Teachers need to realise kids are having sex and it needs addressing sooner so they're safe and responsible.

 

ELISE, 15
When I was in year 5 the boys went into a separate classroom from us girls and we were all told about the special parts of our bodies and the changes that would take place. Amid the giggles I learned a substantial amount about what was supposed to grow and where and what I was destined to experience in a few years. But sadly that was all.

When I was around 13 I remember having one hour learning about different types of contraception how it would protect me against diseases (which they ever so kindly showed us pictures of) but I was never once told anything positive. I was left questioning sex and everything surrounding it.

The thing that scared me a lot was that everything revolved around heterosexual sex and as a young girl who knew they liked girls too it confused me even more. Was it wrong to like the same sex? My experience of RSE left me with more questions than I went in with so I turned to the internet. Numerous nights were spent googling things, desperately looking for information on whether I was normal.

For me, RSE needs to be 100 per cent inclusive of everyone and cover key topics like how to protect yourself but also how to enjoy it. More than this it needs to cover topics revolving around relationships, like how to know whether a relationship is healthy or how to communicate with one another.

With education - and regular lessons - on RSE at least we can be more certain teenagers know how to stay safe, feel confident within themselves, protect others, be happy in relationships or whilst having sexual relations with someone else and themselves - masturbation does exist and for everyone, how wild!

HARRIET GILL, 47
School in the early 80s was very different to now; teaching about relationships, friendships, puberty, body image and consent was almost non-existent in my secondary school. Let alone in primary school where it was seen as strange, even disturbing. Culturally there was no expectation of any meaningful time or discussion around RSE. On a policy level no one was considering the life benefits of learning such things, or the connection between healthy friendships/relationships and our ability to learn and enjoy school.

I had a lovely biology teacher but in hindsight she was clearly deeply uncomfortable at being given the topic of reproduction to teach to us all. I wouldn't say we were a feral school but it was a well-known school for all the wrong reasons, and learning anything was a bonus. I think we learned about erections and conception, and there was a poster on the wall with a "pregnant" man. I now see that was quite radical in pointing out the inequalities of the day. My friend and I just laughed uncontrollably throughout the lesson - we clearly couldn't cope with the sudden change of topic from plant osmosis to something so up close and personal. A while later when the biology teacher left our school, our class put in for a surprise policeman stripper at her leaving party. Clearly we had learnt nothing about healthy relationships!

My secondary school peers and I established an unhealthy "norm" for relationships that weren't that respectful or nice. This set a precedent for how we approached relationships into our adulthood, and it was only with time that I began to identify and act on unhappy feelings and relationship experiences. On the other hand, I formed strong and lasting friendships that remained so, and in some ways that mattered more than anything else I took from school.

Ideally, and this is what I would want for my younger self and for young people now, the learning environment for primary and secondary RSE would be safe and respectful so as to encourage honest and open discussion. Teachers would be trained and confident to discuss healthy friendships and relationships, body ownership and self-image, reproduction and staying safe. Outside agencies have that confidence and can hold discussions like that well, which is what Coram Life Education does so well in primary school, supporting both teachers and children to address this complex topic. I think we need to normalise RSE across school subjects and the school year - about what it means to be our unique selves, our personal values and beliefs, identifying healthy and unhealthy relationships, developing social and emotional skills.

The whole community - parents, teachers and our peers have a role to play in this. At school, at any time, a teacher, head teacher, lunchtime supervisor, or caretaker will witness behaviour that needs explaining or challenging. Good RSE means that the whole school recognises that relationships form and change fleetingly and over time. They are part of life so why wouldn't we educate young people from as early an age as possible in how to have them? It is a great thing to connect with others, and even better when we feel strong and confident to do so well.   

 

LUCY EMMERSON, 38
The only sex education I had at primary school was a talk on periods. It was girls-only and the boys went outside for a game of football. It was urgent because we were going on a residential trip. I guess teachers wanted to make sure we'd know what was happening if we started our periods during the trip. Fortunately the information was not a shock because my mum had already told me about periods in some detail.

At secondary school there was another girls-only lesson, this time on contraception. I can remember what the room felt like - it was a cold mobile classroom with smelly electric radiators. One girl was playing up - she came across as more knowledgeable than the rest of us. It was the sports teacher who took the lesson with us. Predictably, we giggled a lot to cover up our embarrassment.

With only the basics on periods, pills and pregnancy prevention I was left with complete silence on relationships. That had to be decoded from observing my peers and chatting with female friends. There was no internet! I remember thinking that there must be some rules that I needed to find out about. What a pity that boys were excluded from the limited sex education I had. I would have loved to have known what they thought.

Education is something that I value very highly - I learned this from home - and I jumped at the chance to train as a peer educator so that I could teach other young people life skills and specifically about HIV and AIDS. For the past 16 years I've been working in relationships and sex education, with the campaign for statutory RSE as a focus. I've learned the most by listening to young people. I'm hopeful for the future because I think adults are finally starting to take responsibility for educating the next generation.

OJ, mid-20s

The most I was taught about sex itself in school was in the form of a weird textbook diagram in science class, which my poor teacher was too embarrassed to elaborate on. At home, the best I got were the occasions when an unexpected sex scene came on TV and my mum's instinctive channel changing reflexes failed her.

I taught myself about sex, mainly through books, the internet and experience. The information I found was always focused solely on the risks of STIs and pregnancy, rather than the complexities of relationships or the simple idea that sex can be fun. The incessant heteronormativity went without saying, of course. I learned about the "fun" part through terrible pornography and a burlesque obsession. My friends' disasters, the media's portrayal of love and the occasional rant from my mother about men and their inevitable infidelity served as my relationship education.

I think charities that specialise in sex education are best placed to provide RSE or at least train the teachers that do. I also think RSE should be tailored to the type of audience it's given to. For example, a school with a high proportion of African and Asian students could approach topics like FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and LGBT stigma with extra consideration. A boys' school could tackle topics like consent, masculinity and male rape with particular care too. Consent is important for boys and girls of all backgrounds to learn about but nuance and relatability is also important. Young people should have access to balanced RSE that isn't just about risks and statistics. Thoughtful, sex-positive RSE in schools is a starting point for reducing stigma and shame. I wish I had that.

 

PAM, 34

I had some sex education at primary school but a lot of my friends at that time didn't. We watched a cartoon in assembly that showed an erection. I remember the teachers were laughing.

The girls were taken off and talked to about periods and the changes that happen to your body as you grow up. I had no idea at that time that periods linked to having a baby.

In secondary school they focused on the biology of sex, the reproductive system. The PE teacher gave us a lesson on how to put on a condom - the joker of the class had a go and everyone laughed. In PHSE we did a lot about drugs. My tutor was lovely and I remember him bringing into class some things that looked like recreational drugs to show us what we could be exposed to at parties. He talked about how harmful they are - but he did say we weren't to tell the other teachers he'd done this. He just wanted us to be aware and it was really useful.

I can't remember being taught about STIs in school, we just learned about this from our friends. I wish we'd had more information about actual relationships. We learned from programmes like Dawson's Creek and read articles like "How to please your man" in magazines like Sugar. Nothing was ever discussed about healthy relationships in lessons at school and all that we were taught had a heterosexual focus. There was no information around consent. I knew what rape was from TV but our perception was that it was always violent.

I used to be a teacher and I when I did supply I was very often asked to deliver the sex education slides to year 9s and give them a work sheet to complete. I sensed that many of the teachers were embarrassed. Some either hadn't had sex education themselves or it was of a poor standard. Teachers work so hard to cover their topic so to be expected to teach young people about RSE as well is a lot of pressure. I think there should be one person in a school who has the skills to deliver RSE work to children and young people. There needs to be an opportunity for young people to talk about what's raised and be listened to.

RSE could be improved in schools by exploring the emotional side of relationships. It was all focused on not wanting young people to have sex when I was at school. There should be more of a focus on consent. These are some of the topics we focus on in our group work with young people and they tell us it's invaluable. But generally as a society, we're still not having that conversation with young people about why some start having sex at a young age.

We live in a different world to the younger generation today. We need to listen to them, listen to what they're doing, how they're communicating with each other and talk to them about on-line safety, what makes a healthy relationship as well as friendships.

 

SOPHIE MANNING, 30

Sex education at my school meant lining up in the auditorium to hear the school nurse list methods of contraception and their failure rates in forbidding tones. There were no questions (unless you were on a social suicide mission) and definitely no group discussions. Luckily, my friends were there in the lunch queue to fill in the gaps. Our take-home message: steer clear of condoms (97 per cent successful) and that if we had sex 100 times, then by the time we left home we would be mums-of-three.

One time in the chemistry lab we watched a sex education video from the 80s. This suited everyone: it allowed the teachers to say nothing at all while the girls fixated on hairstyles and bad dialogue. After this we collected identical, nine-inch smooth cream dildos on stands. I came away with absolutely nothing but the life-critical importance of pinching the end, and a sense of galactic doom about condoms splitting. We all knew on the quiet that the morning after pill cost £26 from Boots and might well send you into labour.

And relationship education? Be serious. With a curriculum jam packed with eighteenth century crop yields, how could they find the time? The issue of sexual consent was taught through the medium of a catchy jingle: "My body's nobody's body but mine/You've got your own body, let me have mine". It was impressively obscure and did nothing for my ability to say "no".

That's what I wish I'd been taught. Still today, for many girls, it's just easier to have sex than to say no - and that's not any single 15-year-old boy's fault. We need to equip young people with assertiveness training alongside easy-to-use tools like Brook's sexual behaviours "traffic light" concept.

For others, initiatives like the Good Sex Project would have been useful. Lying to children about the link between sex and pleasure seems like a weird and unhelpful thing to do. There were others still whose whole secondary education would have been transformed if their peers had known "gay" wasn't just a swear word.

I can't think of anything more important to teach children than respect in sex and relationships. But please, for now, let's not ask teachers to deliver it alongside eliminating illiteracy, preventing terrorism and detecting abuse. With a bit of help, we can count on charities, peers and parents to share the load.

 

TOBY, 17

When asked to write about my RSE experience I didn't know where to begin as it has been quite a jumbled experience.

At the end of year six I had a few RSE lessons, but all it really amounted to was "Get ready for a decade of hormonal fun!" I was told about changes in boys generally by my male teacher, but then a female member of staff came in to talk more in depth about periods, pads, and pregnancy. Looking back I realise it was quite good that there was a female member of staff to talk about the female reproductive system as female friends have told me it made them feel more comfortable.

Additionally, I think it important the entire class was taught about this rather than just the girls as this hopefully helped to normalise it. It's definitely important that boys know about menstruation too.

I also vaguely remember at the end of our three sessions there was "question time" where questions were asked anonymously and discussed as a class, which is good as it encouraged discussion and conversation about topics, again helping normalise sex and relationships.

I think my first RSE lessons should have been the most important. However, we were only told what to expect body-wise which scared most of us. I don't think that's necessarily school's fault, for 10- or 11-year-olds, puberty is scary regardless. But had teachers had sufficient training the overall outcome would have been better. Of course, sex education has to be age appropriate but looking back I feel it was lacking.

Skip to secondary school, where most of the "hormonal fun" takes place. I had the classic "how to put a condom on" lesson which I feel is pretty standard and should definitely remain on the curriculum. But I also remember we had someone from outside school come and talk to us about sexting and revenge porn.  This was good as these are important issues facing teenagers today but I feel like one session wasn't really enough as it sort of happened in response to several incidences of revenge porn in my school and in my area. Although it is good it was addressed, RSE should inform by providing consistent information rather than to try and plug any holes and deal with issues as they occur.

In my opinion, the two main things we need as a generation is RSE which is delivered by trained staff. Teachers need to be trained, not necessarily to teach RSE as this can be done by an external organisation, but, to be able to talk openly with students and tackle issues which may arise in the classroom. Finally, 50 years on from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, it is about time LGBT inclusive-RSE was made a reality in 2019.

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