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At the end of last month, the House of Lords rejected a bill to introduce compulsory sex education within UK state schools with a convincing victory of 209 votes to 142. Despite teenage pregnancies dropping in recent years, we still have one of the highest rates in Western Europe; in some of the most deprived areas in the country levels have stayed the same and in some cases even increased. The lack of compulsory sex education or an effective non-legislative alternative means that the information many teenagers receive is at best insubstantial. At worst, it is non-existent.
In the sex-saturated 21st century, this is not merely a result of a lack of understanding of sex. Instead, it’s a more dangerous situation – for many young people, pornography is the main source of sex education. With pornography having become increasingly more violent and explicit over the last few decades, many teens are left with a warped perspective of the realities of sex, what is expected of them and how to treat one another with respect. With the increase of sexual violence and sexploitation in Britain, it’s time to come out of the dark ages and arrive at the twenty first century; it’s time to go Dutch, to put aside our prudish ways and to tell teens what they need to know.
There are three main problems with teenage sex education in Britain – accuracy, utility and, above all, availability. As no formal sex education is required within British schools, most young people (dependent upon their school environment) receive a very basic overview of the technical aspects of sex in Personal Social Health Education (PSHE). Many of those attending faith schools often receive none at all. Whilst helpful in raising awareness of contraception and STIs, the information provided is danger-centric. Whilst it is useful and undoubtedly provides clarity on certain risks associated with consent and contraception, it is severely limited in terms of addressing the emotional and relationship based aspects of sex.
Whereas the “Long Live Love” programme in the Netherlands seems to successfully merge the two aspects of sex education, many British schoolchildren are left with more questions than they had to begin with. Many questions regarding gender identity, sexuality and the reality of what sex really consists of are left unaddressed due to the lack of training given to teachers and the lack of coherence regarding what should be taught within schools and what should be left to the discretion of parents. As a result of this, the information given is often outdated or insufficient. The Long Live Love model is one we should aspire to follow as a country. With a more matter of fact and expansive approach to sex education, the Dutch have achieved teen pregnancy rates a fifth of the size of Britain’s, a higher average age when people lose their virginity and a society in which sex is not the taboo subject it remains in the UK.
In the Netherlands’s well-established and acclaimed education scheme, teens are given in-depth education alongside a safe environment, both at home and at school, in which to discuss sex openly and without fear of judgement, receiving answers that are honest and accurate. A lot of this comes down to our attitudes towards sex. Whilst those who seemingly want to protect children from exposure to sex may well be well-intentioned, the effect of this is immeasurable. Without clear guidance, young people are instead influenced by potentially damaging materials, hearsay and peer pressure. Avoiding the topic of sex has itself led to a continued perception of sex as being somehow dirty or abnormal rather than a normal part of normal relationships between consenting adults.
Indeed, from the viewpoint of a random seventeen year old boy who feels he has learnt all he knows about sex (asides from how to put a condom on a cucumber) from pornography and his peers, sex probably does look like a very deviant act. I dread to think what a female of the same age would expect from sex with the same low-level of education given. Educating the youth would really help to eliminate the problem by introducing some normalcy into the realm of teenage sexuality and allowing them to make informed choices. This would then enable them to have safe and enjoyable experiences of sex without the stigma that is far too often attached to it and continues to undermine sex education in Britain.