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In a recent survey by the National Union of Students (NUS), 60% of participants admitted that they used porn as a source of education about sex. That’s despite the fact that 75% of them also said porn does not provide an accurate picture of what sex is actually like. It’s obvious that porn does not offer a realistic view of anything to do with sex. In fact, it is often associated with the degradation and objectification of women. And with kids accessing these sorts of videos from younger ages, questions are raised about the effect this could be having on their perceptions of what is “normal” in a relationships.
So, if the students interviewed knew that porn isn’t a reliable source of information, why were they accessing it in the first place? Because 75% of them also agreed that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) isn’t practical or informative. Most students wouldn’t rate it above ‘fair’, and plenty said it was poor or terrible. The main reason for this is the content of the sessions: schools focus mainly on the biological aspects of sex. Contraception, anatomy, puberty, and sexual health are all covered, but there is no mention of consent or relationships which aren’t heterosexual. It doesn’t help that sex education isn’t mandatory, and many Catholic schools are reluctant to put it on their syllabus at all.
With such a lack of helpful sex education, many of the students involved in the survey also listed their friends and sexual partners as sources of information. This is pretty worrying; no one is saying that you shouldn’t talk to your friends about this intimate stuff, but with so little in place to provide a proper knowledge of all things sex related, young people are just propagating the same word-of-mouth ideas that may not be true at all.
The danger is that porn creates an unrealistic expectation of what sex should be like, and young people have nothing else to compare it to. This means that issues of consent and sexuality are all grey areas, with people being left to decide for themselves what’s appropriate or ‘normal’.
We can see in this country that consent, healthy relationships, and equality can sometimes be problematic. Is it okay to sleep with someone who’s too drunk to say yes? What’s a homophobic comment? These are the sorts of questions that should be addressed in school so people are aware that no means no and sexuality isn’t something to be mocked or insulted.
Colum McGuire, Vice President of NUS, believes that political parties should “commit to a statutory SRE in their general election manifestos” because the current system just isn’t cutting it. Two thirds of students say that consent has never even been raised at school, and LGBT relationships are barely touched on. Biological facts seem to be the main focus, which is leaving huge gaps in kids’ education.
If SRE was made a compulsory subject, schools would have to provide proper training for staff and timetable slots for specific lessons. This could only be a good thing, with a more extensive coverage of the issues surrounding sex and relationships, giving students the information that they need to make appropriate choices when this stuff comes up in their own lives.
Sex education is a vital part of a school curriculum. It has practical uses for teenagers who are just starting to experience new emotions and urges, as well as being a possible source of comfort for those who are confused about their sexuality. That’s why straight biology isn’t enough. Students don’t just need the facts; they need emotional support and advice for situations that they may face in the future. They need to know what consent means, what a healthy relationship is, and how to deal with the confusing flurry of all these new feelings. That’s why we need to introduce a more effective SRE programme, to give young people the knowledge they need to make choices that are good for the wellbeing of themselves and of the people closest to them.