There’s lots of debate at the moment around how young people are taught about sex. My own sex education was fairly decent, if a little patchy, but focused pretty much entirely on the basics. Trains in tunnels, how to avoid a tiny baby train coming out of the tunnel, that kind of thing.
This week’s guest blog is a fantastic overview of why the more emotional aspects of sex education are so vital, and is a call to arms for those who work with younger children, to make sure that they are given a good emotional grounding rather than just a quick, embarrassed talk about the birds and the bees. Tasha is a primary school teacher who is keen to get better age-appropriate sex education on the curriculum. When she emailed me, with the example she uses in the piece below, I thought it was such a perfect example of the odd views society has on things like consent, and why it’s important to help children understand issues like this early on.
Primary school sex education
My sex education at primary school boiled down to one video; a video starring a naked couple, coolly walking around their flat allowing us to check out some of the physical changes that our bodies, on the cusp of puberty, would soon experience. I was then given a special copy of Mizz magazine that came with a couple of pads and instructions on how to get along with my mum. No follow up lesson was planned for, no opportunity to ask questions or explore any of the revelations that the video had given us a snapshot of. This picture remained the same through secondary school, where, while I was taught about the mechanics of sex, important emotional and sexual health details remained untouched.
Begrudged by the memory of my own scrappy sex ed, I knew I wanted to deliver some kick-ass lessons of my own when I started teaching upper primary a few years back. By giving children access to honest information, I hoped the sessions would enable them to feel confident and knowledgeable about both the physical and emotional aspects of sex and relationships. The importance of the latter became clear a few weeks ago during a chat with the girls in my class on puberty.
After these girls had cooed over some bras (it took three attempts to explain the difference between the number and the letter on the bra’s label), we checked out some hypothetical problem scenarios together. One of the scenarios told the story of how a girl, in year 6 (10-11 years), felt unready to kiss her boyfriend, but was scared not to do so in case he dumped her. Almost all of the girls in the group deemed this to not be a ‘real problem’ and unanimously agreed that she should just suck it up and kiss him, lest she become a laughing stock and, heaven forbid, become single at the age of 10.
These girls, aged between 9-10, believe that being a girlfriend equates to existing as somebody who will indulge a man’s desires regardless of their own insecurities and needs. Will this same group of girls in a few years time think that a girl should suck it up and have sex due to fear of being dumped? To suck it up on the street when cat called? When groped in a bar? By no means is this exclusive to females, boys at a young age are subject to very similar pressures. Interestingly, when the boys in my class were posed with the same scenario, they responded much more compassionately, suggesting that they should both ‘have a bit of a chat’. Supposedly, a mix of peer pressure, the endless objectification of women in our media and personal insecurities help to cultivate these dangerous ideas at such a young age.
Recently it has been revealed that Cambridge University is considering sexual consent classes in a bid to educate students on sexual violence. While it’s great to see that universities are becoming proactive in educating their students on consent, it is evident that legislative steps need to be made to ensure that all children receive quality sex and relationships education at an early, albeit appropriate stage of their school careers.
Unquestionably, all personal, social and health education must be age appropriate and delivered in an environment that is safe and inclusive. Children are curious about sex, therefore as a practitioner it is important that you teach accurate, honest information to avoid misconceptions and mystery around the subject, so that they are equipped with the knowledge to make informed choices as they grow. The more confused a child becomes due to lack of information, the more likely they may be to seek information from unsuitable sources that may misguide them.
The conversation that took place in my classroom that day shows that children in primary school need to be taught skills that will enable them to nurture safe, positive relationships. While it can be necessary to separate boys and girls for some aspects of sex and relationships education, it is valuable to run mixed lessons that encourage discussions between males and females. Take the example above, for instance, where girls and boys separately discussed their thoughts on the girl in the story who was unready to kiss her boyfriend. On reflection, I would now teach this as a mixed session, where both sexes can critically analyse a range of views on relationships and sex in society. Exercises like these will teach children how, through negotiation and discussion with one another, positive solutions can be reached. Hopefully, providing they receive quality sex education that promotes this mutual respect between the sexes throughout their school careers, they will begin to recognise gender inequality within relationships, fully equipped to make their own, informed decisions that will keep them safe.
Sex and relationships education is currently only compulsory to those aged 11+. There is an argument against teaching sex education in primary schools, since there is the unfounded belief that it encourages the early sexualisation of children. This bullshit stems from ministers in our own fragmented government, who are neglecting children by failing to ensure that they are educated on happy, healthy, sexual relationships. Without question accurate, factual information provided through sex and relationships education will prevent uncertainty about sex and encourage children to respect themselves and one another. In a society that struggles itself to clarify the blurred lines surrounding sexual violence, can we really afford to keep sex and relationships as a non-compulsory part of our primary curriculum?